Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts, hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies and minds are inseparable in this life, and when we allow our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions – predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation. And this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others – parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children – that they respect our sense of purpose and integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this, more and more, and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it, and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community, and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.
excerpted from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich. W.W.Norton & Co., Inc., 1979.
For your consideration:
...I think I might just read this advice to my daughter as a bedtime story at frequent intervals. And if I have a son, I'll read it to him too.
Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and feminist. She was called "one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century", and was credited with bringing "the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse."
In 1955, she published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, of which Randall Jarrell wrote: "The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale."
But the image of the fairytale princess would not be long-lived. After having three sons before the age of thirty, Rich gradually changed both her life and her poetry. Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Leaflets (1969). The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam War. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse.
It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
Since then, Rich has published numerous collections, including Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010); Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006 (2006); The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 (2004), which won the Book Critics Circle Award; Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (2001), Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (1999); Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (1995); Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (1993); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (1991), a finalist for the National Book Award; Time's Power: Poems 1985-1988 (1989); The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (1984); and The Dream of a Common Language (1978).
Rich is also the author of several books of nonfiction prose, including Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (W. W. Norton, 2001), What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986).
About Rich's work, the poet W.S. Merwin has said, "All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been startlingly powerful."
Rich has received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship; she is also a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." She went on to say: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
The same year, Rich was awarded the Academy's Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82.
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