Being both a poet and an essayist can be a tricky double act. A poet is encouraged to exercise their creative muscles and ignore conventional technique in favor of expression while an essayist is expected to adhere to academic form and professional language to covey well-refined ideas. American writer Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) could do both, all while maintaining a style that was as loyal to treasured objects as the Imagists, as sensitive to nature and human emotions as the Romantics, and as unapologetically feminist as Simone de Beauvoir.
Culture and literature scholars C. L. Cole and Shannon L. C. Cate teamed to pen an inquiry into Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heteroesexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she called for the “denaturalization” of heterosexuality. Rich argued that in a patriarchal society, regardless of a woman’s sexual preference, the power of men would force her into the role of a heterosexual woman while denying her the right to govern her own sexuality, her reproductive system, and her creative agency.
Cole and Shannon wonder how Rich’s argument, which rests on a female-male binary, would work in a more trans-inclusive society. They note that where Rich
would have heterosexual feminists in the 1980s strategically claim a place on the “lesbian continuum,” today, we might use her logic and her calls to challenge prescriptive sexuality to imagine a trans-gender continuum on which so-called male-born men and female-born women can find themselves building political connections with those whose gender is more obviously outside society’s narrow frame of the “normal,” ultimately challenging heteronormative and homonormative investments in binary genders altogether.
However, Rich’s exclusion of transgender people and the use of her work in anti-trans arguments remains controversial, and from a current perspective, her writings should be marked as reflective of a period in which the foundations of LGBT+ theory were only beginning to be laid. Imperfect, somewhat gatekeeping, and not yet refined.
Writing for American Poetry Review in 1979, poet Alicia Ostriker was, naturally, more interested in analyzing Rich’s literary output. Calling Rich “a poet of ideas,” Ostriker considers several of Rich’s poems, including “Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law No. 3,” in which the poet vents her frustration at being locked in a heterosexual marriage that corrodes and commodifies her identity. Rich wasn’t just vexed that she was a queer woman trapped in a life with a man. Rather, writes Ostriker, Rich struggled with “the conflict between the subversive demands of the poetic imagination and the demands placed by society and by herself on a woman trying to live ‘in the old way.’”
Rich was struggling to find space as an individual and a “women of intellect,” writes Ostriker. As Rich discovered, “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters. The beak that grips her, she becomes.” She would always be defined by—and aware of her place in—patriarchal society.
“The culture of the past is a predator to a woman,” Ostriker explains, and
an intellectual woman who absorbs it becomes her own enemy. Thus for the first time in this poem, Rich challenges the language of the past, quoting Cicero, Horace, Campion, Diderot, Johnson, Shakespeare—as the flattering, insulting, condescending enemies of women’s intellect.
Rich’s poetry challenged patriarchal norms, but more, it revealed the pain of being trapped in a socio-cultural system of which she was aware but seemed powerless to change. Her work, though imperfect, continues to ask questions about the societal norms that shape our identities.