Adrienne Rich, Adrienne Rich's Poetry

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A Change of World, Rich’s debut volume, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1951, the year she graduated from Radcliffe College. In the Foreword to her Collected Early Poems, Rich explains that at the age of 21 she “implicitly dissociated poetry from politics” and was far from desiring to change the world: “‘Change’ [in these poems] means unpredictability, unrest, menace—not something ‘we’ might desire and even help bring to pass” (CEP, 1993, xx). The speaker of “Storm Warnings”, the leadoff poem in the volume, is bracing for inclement weather but her “sole defense against the season” is to draw the curtains, close the shutters, and ride out the storm (CW, 1951, 13; CEP, 3). Rich’s attitude toward ‘change’ would change, but the poems in this volume show us what would stay the same: a Wordsworthian commitment to subjects from common life and to “the real language of men”; a predilection for poetic occasions that are vividly particularized yet allegorically resonant; a stance that is self-consciously—if at this point cautiously—prophetic. These early poems are in couplets, quatrains, and/or blank verse: “formalism”, she would later explain, “like asbestos gloves”, enabled her “to handle materials [she] couldn’t pick up bare-handed” (Rich, 1971, OLSS, 40-41). Not yet visible is the subtle palette of sound that in the poetry of her later middle age, from Time’s Power (1989) onward, invests the most ordinary language with a deeply expressive plangency.

In his Foreword to A Change of World W. H. Auden congratulates “Miss Rich” on having written poems that are “neatly and modestly dressed, . . . respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs” (Auden, 1951, 11; Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose, 278-79). The avuncular feminization of Rich’s poetic stance is ironic, because Rich had worked hard in these early poems to keep her gender out of play. Wherever they have a humanly representative protagonist or speaker, “his” gender is given as male: Rich would later restore female gender to the protagonists of a few of these poems, claiming that this was how she had originally envisioned them (FD 1984, 329). Also pervasive in CW and in her second published volume, The Diamond Cutters, is a transpersonal “we” that implicates both poet and reader in a humanly generic dilemma or predicament. In her third volume, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), Rich was beginning, as she says in the CEP Foreword, “to face the hard questions of poetry and experience” (1993, xix). In “When We Dead Awaken”, an essay first published in 1978 that includes a memoir of her own poetic development, she identifies this third volume’s title poem as the first in which she was “able to write . . . directly about experiencing myself as a woman” (OLSS, 44).

And yet Rich avoided the confessional mode of contemporary poets Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, even though she welcomed their poetry’s rootedness in everyday domestic life. She kept her distance from confessional poetry because she was unwilling either to violate the privacy of significant others (in a blistering review she accused Lowell of “one of the most . . . mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry” for quoting private letters from his estranged wife in one of his poem sequences) or to perform what Sylvia Plath famously called “the big strip-tease” for a “peanut-crunching crowd” (Rich, September-October 1973; Plath, “Lady Lazarus”, Collected Poems, 245). Whenever Rich has written about her personal life she has done so in the service of a larger political purpose; thus, for example, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” uses personal vignettes to expose the generic predicament of a middle-class housewife unhappily confined to the domestic realm. Over the next ten years her poems would begin to engage more directly with political events and themes.

In “When We Dead Awaken” Rich explains that “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” was written discontinuously, in fragments, while she was caring for three small children, and it was “in a longer, looser mode than I’d ever trusted myself with before” (1971, OLSS, 44). This poem still aspired toward what Robert von Hallberg calls “the tone of the center” (von Hallberg, 1985, 30-35): its speaker is in dialogue with a host of canonical voices, from Diderot to Simone de Beauvoir. The new woman its final section prophetically envisions is one who will, however, be “more merciless to herself than history”, willing to risk social ostracism in order to re-claim herself (Rich, FD 2002, 21). In “The Roofwalker”, another poem in this volume, the poet speaker discloses that her “tools are the wrong ones for what I have to do” (FD 2002, 23). From this point on she would begin to use free verse in widely varying line-lengths, more and more sparsely punctuated, incorporating gaps within the line to slow its pace and let it breathe. In Leaflets (1969) and in The Will to Change (1971) she also experimented with the Arabic ghazal (traditionally a love poem) to create enigmatic collages of political and personal reflections.

Diving into the Wreck, which won the National Book Award in 1974, is a volume whose individual poem titles—“For a Sister”, “Rape”, “The Phenomenology of Anger”, “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message”—are the harbingers of a feminist stance whose stridency has intensified. The title poem charts an allegorical journey into a psychic underworld that is collective as well as personal, to find what can be salvaged (“the thing itself and not the myth”) from a civilization whose “fouled compass” has taken it so far off course that its political and social institutions are no longer viable (Rich, FD 2002, 102-103). The poem’s speaker-protagonist is androgynous (“I am she: I am he . . .”), and her expedition has the broadest possible human mandate: “We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way / back to this scene . . .” (FD 2002, 103). But several other poems in this volume broach a “we” that is for women only; in others, “Trying to Talk with a Man” (the title of the volume’s leadoff poem) is depicted as a frustrating and fruitless endeavor. Early in the 1970s Rich began to speak out on women’s issues in the polemical talks that would later be collected in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966 – 1978, and in 1976 she published Of Woman Born, a study of motherhood that attempts to separate “the thing itself” from the myths kept in play by the ideological apparatus of what she had begun to call “patriarchy”: “the cross-cultural, global domination of women by men” (OWB, 39).

In her 1978 volume The Dream of a Common Language, a poem entitled “Natural Resources” declares that humanism and androgyny are “words I cannot choose again” (FD 2002, 166). By the time she published this volume Rich had begun to identify herself as an American woman poet and to test the implications of this “location” as it pertained to her use of language. She had been dating her poems since the mid-fifties, both to chart her own evolution as a poet and to make each poem accountable to the time and place in which it was written. (Her 1983 poem “North American Time” cites as an intolerable burden the “verbal privilege” that by giving a poet’s words the presumptive power “of standing outside history” is actually giving others the power to cite them out of context [FD 2002, 198, 197].) Critics have tended to assume that “the dream of a common language” equates to a hunger for successful communication and a declaration of faith that, as Alicia Ostriker puts it, “we can connect, not as privileged persons or under special circumstances, but in ordinary dailiness” (Ostriker, 1983, 120)—but we would do well to take this volume’s linguistic commitments more literally than that. In her 1977 introduction to the Common Woman poems of Judy Grahn, Rich asserted that “for many women the commonest words are having to be sifted through, rejected, laid aside . . . or turned to the light for new colors and flashes of meaning . . .”— “repossessed”, in short, to do the work of radical feminism (OLSS, 247). In this volume ordinary words like love and power recur in poem after poem so that their ordinary meanings can be interrogated and re-purposed. Thus, for example, the protagonist of “Power”, the poem that opens the collection, is Marie Curie, the first woman scientist to win the Nobel prize: paradoxically and paradigmatically, Curie is said to have died “denying / her wounds came from the same source / as her power” (DCL, 1978, 3). The very next poem, “Phantasia for Elvira Shateyev”, channels the posthumous collective voice of a women’s mountain-climbing team whose “dream” is paradigmatic of a different kind of power, that of the yes they have said to each other. By the time we reach “Natural Resources”, in the volume’s third section, the poet is ready to “cast [her] lot” with all of the ordinary, nameless women who “age after age, . . . // with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world” (FD 2002, 167; emphasis added). Rich’s “dream of a common language” is dialogic, in a Bakhtinian sense: recognizing that our words are “already overpopulated with the intentions of others” (Bakhtin, 1981, 294), she asserts a poet’s prerogative to elicit “new colors and flashes of meaning” from within each poem’s carefully orchestrated context of use. At the center of the volume are “Twenty One Love Poems”, a sequence that offers to give the language of love new meaning by changing the terms in which an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship is understood and lived: “two women together is a work / nothing in civilization has made simple”, one of these poems declares (FD 2002, 153). “Transcendental Étude” ends the volume with a bid to re-possess the tradition of Anglo-American poetry, as such: this poem’s language has been deliberately chosen to reinforce the “American”-ness of its northern Vermont setting. Its culminating image is of a pioneer woman sitting in her kitchen, unobtrusively re-weaving the fabric of everyday life: “pulling the tenets of a life together, / with no mere will to mastery, / only care for the many-lived unending / forms in which she finds herself . . .” (DCL, 1978, 77).

During the 1980s, Rich’s commitment to radical feminism and to the forging of a common language for women to speak with each other was superseded by a “politics of location” that took the differences among and between women more fully into account. Arguing in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in 1980 that “the lesbian continuum” includes all women by virtue of the daughter-mother bond that is the template for all subsequent relationships (BBP, 51-68), she had found both lesbian and heterosexual women pushing back, albeit for different reasons (BBP, 23-26; 68-75). In conversation with feminists of color she had come to realize that “most women in the world must fight for their lives on many fronts at once” (Rich, 1984, BBP 218). With an undiminished appetite for social justice but a chastened sense of limits, Rich introduced The Fact of a Doorframe, a selection of her poems from 1950 through 1984, as the work of “a woman growing up and living in the fatherland of the United States of North America” who had only gradually come to understand that she “was neither unique nor universal, but a person in history, a woman and not a man, a white and also Jewish inheritor of a particular Western consciousness. . . .” (FD 1984, xv). The book of poems she would publish next, in 1986, includes a long poem “Sources” that explores her own ethnic heritage as the daughter of an assimilated southern Jew, the inheritor of a Puritan New England outlook that premised a fierce attachment to the land upon an unjust sense of entitlement, and the wife of a Jew “from the shtetl”, now dead by suicide, who may have been badly served by a refusal to fully claim his own ethnic identity. The perspective this poem struggles to lay claim to is at once utopian and disillusioned, territorial and de-racinated, “without a faith . . . faithful” (Rich, 1981-82, Your Native Land, Your Life, 26).

Since 1990 Rich’s focus has shifted again, in the direction of a Marxist critique of global capitalism. The title poem in An Atlas of the Difficult World, dated 1990-91, brings her native country into focus from the perspective of the environmental degradations, social injustices and failures of community that flow from a ruthlessly unfettered capitalist economy. The poem’s thirteen sections traverse the North American continent back and forth from Vermont to California, weaving personal history together with multiple American histories shaped by immigration, domestic and foreign wars, industrial exploitation of the land and its inhabitants. (Re-publishing the poem in an updated edition of The Fact of a Doorframe in 2002, Rich left out a section that nostalgically re-visits the house in Vermont where she has set poems at intervals ever since “Storm Warnings” and one that pays homage to Michelle Cliff, her partner since the 1970s; as re-published, the poem is much less personally resonant than it was originally.) Its eleventh section is an extended meditation on “what it means to love my country”: after canvassing a variety ways in which patriotism has gone wrong in the U. S. (“some busy constructing . . . bunkers, . . . some trying to revive dead statues to lead us, . . . “some who aggrandize, some who diminish themselves in the face of half-grasped events . . .”) she announces that a patriot “is one who wrestles for the soul of her country / as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country . . . as he wrestles for his own being” (Atlas, 1992, 23). An important part of the wrestling that has to be done is with words themselves, in light of their histories of usage: “A patriot is not a weapon”, even though the word itself was used to christen a missile defense system that has been exported to many other countries from the United States. Another of the poem’s key words is solitude, soledad, loneliness: in a Whitmanian spirit of inclusiveness but without Whitman’s optimistic buoyancy, “An Atlas” counts the ways in which the inhabitants of a “suffering land” have been disabled from exercising full citizenship, cursed with the homesickness of “the internal emigrant”, rendered unable to feel for and with each other. The poem’s final section, entitled “(DEDICATIONS)”, is a catalogue of specific scenarios of alienation and desperation in parallel sentences that begin: “I know you are reading this poem . . .”. The poet’s stubborn persistence in reaching out to all the ordinary people who are “listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope” is consistent with her belief that poetry has the capacity to “break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” (Atlas, 25-26; What is Found There, 1993, 24).

The poems in her 2007 volume, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, are written from the perspective suggested by the title of the poem that opens the volume, “Voyage to the Denouement” (Rich turned seventy-eight in the year this volume was published). The voice that speaks in these poems is ghostly, attenuated, calling attention to its solitude and devising modes of address that also attenuate the “I-you” relation. Whether their speakers are in dialogue with a man or a woman, a lover or a stranger, an actual or a hypostasized reader, whether the interlocutory relation is one of mutuality or confrontation, intimacy or estrangement, directness or ‘refraction’, these poems are almost always interrogating, transgressing and/or troubling received conventions of poetic address. One of the volume’s epigraphs cites Michael S. Harper quoting Sterling A. Brown to affirm that “Poetry is not self-expression, the I is a dramatic I”; in her own voice, Rich adds that “so, unless otherwise indicated, is the You” (Telephone Ringing, 2007, 7). Rich’s “You” is capitalized, as if to remind us that her poems are always reaching out towards an interlocutor whose responsiveness is urgently desired but cannot be taken for granted.

It is Rich’s insistence on putting the “I-You” relation under pressure, in question, and at risk that has always given her poems a capacity to dispel readerly complacency. As Nick Halpern points out, she has achieved the difficult feat of speaking in an everyday voice that is also a voice of prophecy. “Because”, as Halpern points out, “success came to her early, she never imagines herself as someone who is not heard.” (Halpern, 2003, 220) And yet she insists on presupposing and envisioning a two-way conversation between poet and reader, or between the “I” and “you” inside the poem. Over a seventy-year career she has used both poems and essays to seek and envision the kinds of human encounters and conversations that might address the difficulties of a “difficult world” with clarity and compassion.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “Foreword.” A Change of World (1951); repr. in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd edition. Ed. Barbara Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 277-279.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981.Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
Ostriker, Alicia. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper & Row, 1992.
Rich, Adrienne. A Change of World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951.
- - -. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
- - -. “Caryatid: A Column”, American Poetry Review, 2 (September-October 1973); repr. as “On History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin” in The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Ed. Steven Gould Axelrod. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. 185-187.
- - -. Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
- - -. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980).” In Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. 23-75.
- - -. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-77. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.
- - -. Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
- - -. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.
- - -. The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
- - -. “Notes Toward a Politics of Location (1984).” In Blood, Bread, and Poetry: 210-231.
- - -. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976.
- - -. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
- - -. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman (1977).” In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: 247-258.
- - -. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962. New York: Harper and Row, 1963; New York: W. W. Norton, 1970; London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.
- - -. “Sources” [1981-82]. In Your Native Land, Your Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986: 2-27.
- - -. Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
- - -. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
- - -. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (1971).” In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: 33-49.
von Hallberg, Robert. American Poetry and Culture: 1945-1980. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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Citation: Hedley, Eleanor Jane. "Adrienne Rich's Poetry". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 February 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=32159, accessed 17 April 2024.]

32159 Adrienne Rich's Poetry 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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