Review-Essay: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes

November 15, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Alec Marsh

Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes by Ed Pavlić (University of Minnesota Press, 2021).

Ed Pavlić’s Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes is the first critical book to take the poet’s Marxism seriously. It is also the first to appear after Rich’s Collected Poems (2016), thus covering all of Rich’s poetry. Hitherto, Rich’s radical feminism has served to define her politics, but Pavlić goes further, recognizing Rich’s turn to Marxism in the latter half of her career, much of it (though Pavlić doesn’t say so directly) due to Rich’s reading of News & Letters and her collaboration with Raya Dunayevskaya.


Rich’s poetry through the 1970s and her “second wave feminist” period is well-known and has been read acutely by feminist scholars. But after her trip to revolutionary Nicaragua in 1983, when Rich’s politics became openly and unfashionably Marxist, academic scholars who once saw her as the voice of their own experience failed to follow her. Pavlić is the first critic to follow Rich all the way as she probed into the mysteries of selves (not always her own, and not only of women) immersed in, suffused by, and even drowning in the great flood called Capitalism.

Of course, the “60s” is part of it. I had not realized that “Spring Thunder” in Necessities of Life (1966) was a response to “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the 1965 bombing campaign that massively escalated the war in Vietnam. Pavlić shows how Rich connects the “private life to warfare and to the image of the United States as a global empire.” She “identifies with the drafted soldier in ‘Spring Thunder’: ‘No criminal, no hero; merely a shadow/ cast by the conflagration.’” Pavlić concludes that “Spring Thunder” is “the first of Rich’s poems to turn its lyric lens toward overtly political subject matter” (Pavlić 26-7).

Pavlić takes up a specifically Marxian approach to Rich from the 1990s on, as Rich herself embarks on a full Marx-inspired critique of social relations under capitalism, especially the commodification of language, imagination and selves. “Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography…In the interests of marketing, distinctions fade and subtleties vanish” she complained in “Arts of the Possible” (1997), the title piece of her important book of essays, its title a nod to Gramsci, from which Pavlić quotes (154).

The key term of Pavlić’s analysis is “solitude.” Through solitude and its dialectical opposite, “relation,” Pavlić aims to focus “an adequate vision of how the structures in Rich’s poems shifted over the final three decades of her career” (Pavlić 9). “Solitude” seems counter-intuitive at first, for Pavlić invents a paradoxical plurality of “solitudes” to account for Rich’s many changes. In his account, Rich moves outward from lyrical introspection to social responsibility, to an evasive, even “fugitive” position as she attempts to occupy interstitial free spaces in an increasingly totalizing, globalizing hegemonic capitalism.

Rich is said to begin with a Romantic lyrical position of “transcendental solitude” that lasts until 1970. Her best known feminist period (c. 1970-1981) is characterized by “relational solitude,” which doesn’t seem very solitary at all. The next ten years—through An Atlas of the Difficult World—is informed by “social solitude,” which is “fully realized” in the title poem: “As Rich moved beyond her strict focus on women’s experience from the 1970s, her vision of social solitude culminated in the broadly diverse and particularized American vistas of ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World,’” Pavlić concludes (Pavlić 153).

Writing “Atlas” helped Rich see more deeply into the apparently inescapable problematic of capitalism, especially as it impinges on the supposedly autonomous self, from which Pavlić’s “solitude” apparently derives, even as the specifically Marxist term, “alienation,” might seem more apt. However, Pavlić justifies his choice by arguing that “fugitives in the early poems of An Atlas of the Difficult World,” like “Marghanita,” the friend in “For a Friend in Travail” and, very surprisingly, “Olivia”—a poem about the notorious double agent Olivia Forsyth, who worked for the South African security services as well as the African National Congress in the 1980s—“are not alienated from people. Instead they are often in flight from people’s alienation.” Freedom is “measured in connections”; it’s all about freedom to be with others, not freedom from social interactions and responsibilities (Pavlić 137).

After Atlas, Rich embarks on “fugitive solitude.” Quoting from the end of “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” (1983-5), Pavlić says, “Rather than the ‘edges that blur’ in social solitude, in fugitive solitude Rich locates the source by feeling for the edges that burn”; Pavlić observes that Rich links “the burning pain in industrial labor with that of her debilitating arthritis” (Pavlić’s emphasis 164); Rich’s body’s personal pain and the world of pain that is global capitalism can, in fact, be linked without egoism; the all too frequent scenes of torture and grim accounts of her own struggle with her arthritis are in dialectical relation.

At bottom, solitude means the writer alone at a desk with a pen and paper, like Rich “at this table in Vermont” watching the spider make connections in “Atlas,” communing with myriad voices, “hearing conversations that can’t be happening.” In What Is Found There (1993), Rich contrasts her solitary work to that of the muralist, “whose monumental works, planned out and executed with many others” are found throughout the world: “I, whose words come into permanence in slow solitude, whose poems begin on scraps of paper but whose images, like hers, are mined from dreams, snatches of conversation, street music, headlines, history, love, collective action” (WIFT 44).


Rich’s poetry evolves in response to changes in her personal and historical situation.

Thus, “fugitive solitude” becomes, by Midnight Salvage (1998), “dissident solitude” as Rich tries to come to terms with a “changed system of utterly broken and fraudulent social contracts with which no faith could be kept” under the 1990s regime of neoliberalism (Pavlić 177). Later, Rich overtly aligned herself with dissident poetry in her 2006 talk “Poetry and Commitment” (now retitled “Poetry and the Forgotten Future” in A Human Eye). Finally, Rich moved on to the truly paradoxical “radical solitude” of her stark, fitfully rhymed, otherwise all but atonal, very late poems, which seem preoccupied with anxiety about losing her audience. Was anybody listening?

Rich’s last work is very much in the discordant mode affected by age and ill-health that Edward Said called “late style”; that is, “artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction” (Said 7). Certainly, Rich’s last poetry is intransigent and unresolved, which puts the critic, even one as skillful and well-informed as Pavlić, into a difficult position, because he naturally wants to tell an uplifting, “outward” story.

Adrienne Rich

Rich drew a “serial structure of morphing solitudes,” he claims, “out of individuated lyrical ownership and into outward-radiating frames of social and historical human and natural relation. As a result, people drawn into conflict with cultural and political forces aiming to prevail over their lives have a massive and intricate scaffold of alternatives to suffuse themselves with on their ways outward” (Pavlić 195). The mixed images of “suffusion” and “scaffolding,” gesture to Rich’s essay on her own poetic imagination, “Permeable Membrane” (2006).

There, Rich speaks of the “interpenetration of subjectivity and social being,” how “poems become suffused, as the existence, the inner life of the maker must, with what’s going on, the breaks in the assumed fabric” that ideologically smooths over the “objective conditions” determining our actual lives. That “inner life” must be the solitude on which Pavlić relies. The objective conditions are the neoliberalism that has dominated American politics and policy for the last 50 years, with the attendant chronic social and political illness; ceaseless warfare abroad, shameless class warfare at home, and a relentless assault on nature itself, making our planet sick unto death, as in “From Sickbed Shores”: “From the shores of sickness you lie out on listless/ waters with no boundaries…this dull floodplain/ this body sheathed in indifference     sweat no longer letting the fever out/ but coating it in oil…” (2008). Or, in lines from “Contradictions: Tracking Poems,” Rich sees her “problem” as a writer is trying to understand her personal/historical situation, “to connect, without hysteria, the pain/ of anyone’s body with the pain of the body’s world / For it is the body’s world / they are trying to destroy forever” (1983-1985).

The “radical imagination is suffused with its materials”—sensations, pain, perceptions, the ceaseless battering of bad news, flashes of beauty. “Suffused,” Pavlić says: “a condition antithetical to what the modern lyric (and modern subject) is all about” (Pavlić 190). The acquisitive modern self is a problem that both Rich and Marx hoped to overcome: “Marx’s perception that economic relationships—the relationships of production—will, unchecked, infiltrate all other social relationships at the public and the most private levels.” Marx was outraged by the reduction of “the entire web of existence to commodity…In place of all the physical and spiritual senses, [Marx] tells us, there is the sense of possession, which is the alienation of all these senses” (Rich’s stress, AP 156).

In the “Usonian Journals 2000” Rich comments, possibly with this same passage in mind: “Marx: capitalism deranges all the senses save the sense of property” (2000-2). Under capitalism the “I have” overwhelms the complacent “I am” of modern philosophy. Overcoming the ‘I have’ is what Pavlić’s “radical solitude” seems to be about. Radical means “root-tangled in the grit of human arrangements and relationships: how we are with each other” (Rich’s emphasis qtd. Pavlić 190, HE 96)—not what you or I have. “Ownership itself is part—maybe the foundation?—of the system of division” (Pavlić 140).


In “Waiting for Rain, for Music” (2007) Rich quotes “A struggle at the roots of the mind” from Raymond Williams. Pavlić tells us that “During our conversations and in our correspondence from 2000 to 2012, Rich revisited Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature many times, especially the last chapter, titled ‘Creative Practice.’” (Pavlić 98). Especially the penultimate paragraph of Williams’s book:

Creative practice is thus of many kinds. It is already, and actively, our practical consciousness. When it becomes struggle—the active struggle for new consciousness through new relationships that is the ineradicable emphasis of the Marxist sense of self-creation—it can take many forms. It can be the long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness: a process often described as development but in practice a struggle at the roots of the mind—not casting off an ideology, or learning phrases about it, but confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships (qtd. Pavlić 98, Williams 212).

This fascinating passage appears to be near the core of Rich’s late poetry: phrases from it appear again and again in Pavlić’s readings.

An accomplished, well-published poet, critic of African-American literature and Professor at University of Georgia, Pavlić also had the good fortune to correspond with Rich during the last 12 years of her life; in fact, one of her late poems “If/ As Though” (2006) is dedicated to him. Pavlić knows a lot, and he knows a lot the rest of us don’t, which gives his lively, closely argued book a peculiar authority. Outward is a very important step forward for Rich scholarship. It is addressed to the “kind of mind/ That would address/ Duress/ Outward in larger terms”—lines from “Fragments of an Opera” (2012) that Pavlić has chosen as an epigraph. The University of Minnesota Press is to be commended for producing this book at an affordable price. Let’s hope it finds many readers interested in Rich’s voyage out.

Work Cited

Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible. NY. W.W. Norton, Pub. 2001.

—-. Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich. NY. W.W. Norton, Pub. 2016.

—-. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008. NY. W.W. Norton, Pub. 2009.

—-. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. NY. W.W. Norton, Pub. 1993.

Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. NY. Vintage. 2006.

Adrienne Rich in the Marxist-Humanist Archives

*  “Living the Revolution.” A review-essay on four books by Raya Dunayevskaya, written by Adrienne Rich, and published in The Women’s Review of Books (Amherst, Mass.), Sept., 1986. Rich’s essay topic encompassed Dunayevskaya’s newly published Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution, as well as her three earlier books — Marxism and Freedom, Philosophy and Revolution, and Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. Also included are Dunayevskaya’s letters to Rich of Sept. 18, 1986, and Jan. 24 and Feb. 4, 1987, and Rich’s Feb. 1987 reply.

*  Notes by Dunayevskaya on Rich’s “Anti-Feminists” (“a very profound review of a very shallow book”), New York Review of Books, Nov. 30, 1972.

*  See also Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution by Raya Dunayevskaya, Foreword by Adrienne Rich.


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