Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry
This vibrant collection of prose pieces by the late poet Rich (1929–2012), edited by Gilbert (The Culinary Imagination
), spans much of Rich’s career, from 1964 to 2009, and encompasses her ideas on art, motherhood, and politics—and the relationship between them. Topics also include the literary: Rich writes eloquently, for example, about Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens. More political themes are sounded in 2001’s “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” and 1979’s “What Does a Woman Need to Know?” which exhorts Smith graduates not to lose their “outsider’s consciousness” in a patriarchal society. Throughout the collection, which traces Rich’s evolution as artist and activist, Rich never wavers from her view that art is political, even when ostensibly apolitical, and that the personal is political. Some especially prescient selections articulate, in the 1980s and ’90s, problems of racism, violence, and wealth inequality that have only recently more fully penetrated the national consciousness. Her strongest essays, such as 1997’s “Arts of the Possible,” pull together her critique of neoliberalism’s “drive to disenfranchise and dehumanize” countered by art’s capacity to embrace the fully human. Her essays, always provocative, clear, and packed with insights, are wise, refreshingly humane, and well worth reading. (Aug.)
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the title of a previous book edited by Sandra M. Gilbert.