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THE SELF-CATEGORIZATION, SELF-CANONIZATION, AND SELF-PERIODIZATION OF ADRIENNE RICH Sylvia Henneberg Since 1951, when her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, appeared, Adrienne Rich has been a constant and influentialpresence in the literary world. Only twice has she taken more than three years to publish a major collection of poetry or prose; more often than not, a new book has appeared within two or three years,and sometimes, as in 1976 and in 1986, two works came out in a single year. Rich has sustained this pace for almostfiftyyears. Critics unanimously agree that Richs style and subject matter have undergone significant changes since 1951, when, in his foreword to A Change of World, W. H. Auden was charmed by poems that "speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs/'] Granting that these by now notorious comments may apply to Rich s very early work, critics who deal with her later writings claim to discover new and everchanging tendencies and, giving their studies such titles as "From Patriarchy to Female Principle/' "The Radicalization of Adrienne Rich," "The Moment of Change," and "Beginning Again," they repeatedly focus on the evolution of Richs career.2 In his book chapter "Poetry and Process: The Shape ofAdrienne Rich s Career," Craig Werner describes Rich s oeuvre as a "multileveled process since the mid-1950s" and assures us that few critics disagree with his assessment.' Rich is well aware of the evolving nature of her career. The word "change" emerges again and again in her writing, and she always emphasizes that her work is "a process still going on," "a continuing exploration," "a struggle to keep moving."4 In her volume of essaysBlood, Bread, and Poetry, she lets her readers know that by 1956, she had begun dating her poems because "I was finished with the idea of a poem as a single, encapsulated event, a work of art complete in itself; I knew my life was changing, my work was changing, and I needed to indicate to readers my sense of being engaged in a long, continuing process."5 268 : SYLVIA HENNEBERG The ever-shifting nature of this process seems to thwart all possibilityof determining the canonization, categorization, and periodization of Rich swork. As Gary Nelson suggests, we tend to read any of Rich s writingsas a commentary on her previous writings,which can "blunt the impact ofher work,since we are implicitly urged to delay coming to terms with any given poem/'6 Such consciousness of Rich s propensity for change has, however, hardly kept her from being canonized, categorized, and periodized. Assessing the quantity and examining the quality of response she has received over time reveals that critics' and other canon-shapers' recognition of Rich as a major poet began in the 19705 and 19805. Her prominence coincides with and may in large part be attributed to the appearance of her radical lesbian-feminist prose in those two decades. Since the publication of such essays as "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" (1971), "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), and, above all, such volumes of highly politicized prose as Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), and Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986) the quantity and qualityof response to her poetry have established her as one of the leading poetic figures of the twentieth century in the United States. Emphasizing the importance of the connection between poetry and politics, calling for "the affirmation of an organic relation between poetry and social transformation,"7 Richs political essays have provided helpful and convenient shortcuts toward understanding her poetry. They have led to an increased response to all of her work and, more important, they have seduced critics into approaching Rich s poetry on the poets rather than our own terms. Channeling most of our comments on her poetry through her prose, we have tended to focus our attention on the poets radical prose voice of the 19705 and 19805, generating a one-sided image of her poetry which, despite all efforts, ultimately fails to reflect the complexity and changeability ofher poetry and also fails to giveRich, in Willard Spiegelmans words, "the literary criticism she most deserves."8 Through the publication of her radical political prose works, Rich has thus significantly influenced and, to some extent, limited the periodization, canonization , and categorization of her poetry. Before 1970, Rich was not at...


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