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Reviewed by:
  • Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change
  • Helen Emmitt (bio)
Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change by Cheri Colby Langdell. Contributions in Women's Studies, No. 198. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004, 277 pp., $75.00 hardcover.

Cheri Colby Langdell has written an ambitious and thorough treatment of Adrienne Rich's poetry covering the half century from her first volume, A Change of World in 1951 to Fox, Poems 1999–2000. She begins her study with the bold assertion that "the one constant in Adrienne Rich's poetry has been change and successive self-transformation" (1). Hoping to "map out a more complex Rich than we have ever seen before," she discusses the poet's works chronologically, tracing the ways in which Rich has made and remade herself as a poet (3). Because she is "sworn to lucidity, honesty, and reformation of the social order," Rich is, for Langdell, a sort of Socratic gadfly, one whose readers are transformed by her prophetic vision (7). To trace both the evolution of Rich's poetry and the parallel, even intertwined development of her consciousness of gender, sexual identity, and social ills, Langdell attempts close reading of many of her poems, urging the reader to use her study in conjunction with a reading of the poetry. She clearly finds Rich's recent work more compelling than her early, more tradition-bound writing, and she persuasively argues that in the last ten years Rich has moved to a style using "concrete images" in order to achieve both clarity of idea and fidelity to women's lives (223).

Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change will perhaps be most useful to those studying Rich for the first time. The clear readings of many poems from each volume give the reader a sense of the poet's work as her oeuvre grows and changes. Readers at all levels will find much to use here. Those who are well-versed in twentieth-century American poetry, however, may be troubled that the author does not fully contextualize her readings either within the body of critical writing on Rich or within the body of recent poetry. Langdell's readings of individual poems are not particularly daring or challenging; they rely too heavily on paraphrase, and they use biographical material that seems unnecessary and is often repetitive.

Langdell is a champion of Rich's poetry and thinking, so she has a tendency to laud the poet at the expense of those with differing viewpoints. She caricatures Modernism as a movement that believed that "poetry was separate from life," (50) ignoring Ezra Pound's engagement with world events, for instance, even as she acknowledges Rich's praise of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. She casts William Logan's criticism of one volume as merely the thoughts of "a New York poet more interested in language than revolution," suggesting that he is limited by being a "heterosexual male critic" (210–1). John Ashberry's "incomprehension" of a different volume is put down to his being "a male of the New York [End Page 226] Establishment" (76). As an avowedly feminist critic, one who sees herself as revealing the authentic Adrienne Rich, surely Langdell is aware that such ad hominem attacks are unfair and unwarranted—especially when male critics who agree with her (such as Albert Gelpi and Raphael Campo) are not labeled either by their location or their sexual preferences. Helen Vendler's view that Rich's poetry has become less purely poetic as it has become more political for some reason comes up more than a dozen times. Yet the author uses her as a sort of "straw woman," never really defining what she or Rich means by poetry or politics (for Rich, clearly, both change in radical ways over the course of her career, while Vendler sees them as relatively stable). She too often falls into mere assertion (or its equivalent, rhetorical questions) rather than careful argumentation.

Langdell does not take up a theoretical viewpoint, and her prose is relatively free from jargon. Yet reading this book is impeded at times by problems that could have been solved by more rigorous editing. She sometimes repeats ideas and even whole sentences...


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