Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry...includes many of her most audacious and significant attempts to reimagine the world through women’s eyes ... one is struck by the breadth of Rich’s research, the force of her arguments, the elegance and honesty of her personal writing. Though she didn’t fetishize academic expertise—she once wrote that what women need 'is not experts on our lives, but the opportunity and the validation to name and describe the truths of our lives'—she took pains to synthesize work by historians, psychologists, and legal scholars. And though she was not interested in confession and abjured 'therapeutic' genres that failed to engage with the social world, she understood that personal experience shapes one’s politics and one’s prejudices ... Rich applied her convictions about re- imagining the past to her own writing. She revisited old topics, changed her mind, revised or re-visioned her earlier work ... she reflected critically on the women’s liberation movement and tried to understand how and why it had been co-opted by capitalism. She did this not to assign blame, but rather to better understand how present organizers could avoid the mistakes of the past. In this, Rich was obeying one of her own edicts, the title of an essay in her first prose collection: to expand, constantly, the meaning of her love for women.
Most of the pieces here are canonical ... The book reveals how private reckonings bloomed into public stances ... Although she writes powerfully of her Jewishness and her experience of motherhood, this aspect of her identity — of being the exceptional woman, of being establishment-approved — provokes her most fluent and furious prose ... This is the usual charge levied at Rich — that she was more polemicist than poet. These essays tell a different story. We see how frequently, and powerfully, she wrote from her divisions, the areas of her life where she felt vulnerable, conflicted and ashamed ... I once read that a blue whale’s arteries are so large that an adult human could swim through them. That’s what entering these essays feels like — to flow along with the pulses of Rich’s intelligence, to be enveloped by her capacious heart and mind.
With essays ranging from motherhood and daughterhood to her interfaith background to her reasons for declining a National Medal for the Arts from the White House (famously saying: 'Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power that holds it hostage')—this volume shows us a woman in full command of her intellect and art. Rich, who died at 82 in Santa Cruz in 2012, is a voice that is more relevant than ever. In nearly every chapter, she’s saying something directly applicable to the #MeToo movement and the forthcoming Supreme Court fight over women’s bodies ... While layering the personal and political, Rich often pauses on the power of poetry to help us along the journey. She writes eloquently about the process of letting herself be surprised by her work later in life, and how poems are like dreams: 'in them you put what you don’t know you know.' Rich is deeply interested in poetic lineage, tracing, reimagining and defending female authors who have been watered down or misrepresented ... This book reminds us of the privilege and charge of being haunted by such women, especially by Adrienne Rich herself. Her work and life demonstrate the magnitude of human potential and will, and how a woman can understand the restrictions that hold her captive, while setting herself and others free.