About the Poet
A multitalented writer, polemist, and literary theorist, Adrienne Cecile Rich was an exponent of a poetry of witness and dissent, a poetry that voices the discontent of those generally silenced and ignored. Prophetic of the bitterness that emerged from 1960s feminism, antiwar protests of the 1970s, and the 1990s gay rights movement, her mature poems breached caution to strike at resentment against sexism and human victimization. In token of shifts in her generation’s consciousness, her own awakening extolled the personal epiphanies that free the underclass. Radical in content, consciously power-wielding in style, her works embraced language as a liberating, democratizing force.
Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929. Against the intellectual battleground of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, in childhood, she produced two respectable dramas: Ariadne: A Play in Three Acts and Poems (1939) and Not I, But Death (1941). After her father introduced her to poetry, she focused on Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and William Butler Yeats. A Phi Beta Kappan, she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe the year she won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for A Change of World (1951). The book contained W. H. Auden’s introduction, a literary coup for a beginning poet.
In 1953, Rich broke with her father because she married Harvard economist Alfred Haskell Conrad. Ostensibly domesticated, she served as faculty wife and mother to sons David, Paul, and Jacob, all born in a span of four years. As family demands shaped and defined her, she limited literary activity to The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955), a muted, asexual effort that imitates the themes and forms of Yeats and Auden. She broke away from imitation with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963), a dramatic pre-feminist drubbing of motherhood, sexual dominance, and suppressed anger. These hard-handed themes echoed her discontent, which had smoldered for a decade as she mastered the techniques of sexual politics. In a darker mood, she followed with Necessities of Life (1966), the introduction to a series of poems on alienation and despair.
When her husband took a post at City College of New York in 1966, Rich instructed poor nonwhite students for SEEK, a remedial English program geared to open admissions. She echoed the idiom and dynamism of protests against patriarchy and the Vietnam War by publishing Selected Poems (1967), Leaflet: Poems 1965-1968 (1969), and The Will to Change: Poems 1969-1970 (1971), published a year after her marriage ended and her husband committed suicide. Freed from tight metrics, she produced Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973), which revisits the mythic parameters of the male-female relationship.
Speaking as an omniscient presence, in subsequent works, Rich championed marginalized groups in scenes that challenge the white male overlord. She began teaching English at City College and composed When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (1972), a frank autobiographical essay and challenge to literary politics, and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), a prose expose of the inequalities that undermine modern marriage. A bolder statement fueled Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980), a terse monograph that disclosed her lesbianism.
Rich’s powerful, evocative work suited late-twentieth-century poetry texts and anthologies and energized feminist coursework in women’s studies departments in American colleges and universities. She reprised titles from Twenty-One Love Poems (1976) in an expanded volume, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (1978). Feminism and an independence mark two prose collections, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (1979) and Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1987 (1986); and verse in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981 (1981); Sources (1984), an exploration of Jewish roots; and The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (1984), a backward glance at the territory she had explored.
After three years at Douglass College, Rich left teaching to settle in western Massachusetts with her mate, poet Michelle Cliff. She produced reflective verse on lesbian feminism, anti-Semitism, and gender violence in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988 (1989), An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (1991), and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). Filled with a jubilant self-discovery, the urgent later works compel young students still innocent of the greed and coercion around them.
Rich died on March 27, 2012, at age 82.
In her first leap from male-dominated metrics and themes, Rich produced “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law” (1963), a visually charged odyssey. Ironically akin to the dense verse of T. S. Eliot, the text moves through ten measured glimpses, each challenging the truth of preconceptions about the female individualist. The focus, a Shreveport belle, enters stanza 1 with studied grace. Well-schooled in womanliness, she performs a musicale, one of Chopin’s piano confections. By the end of the poem, the persona has achieved a transformation “long about her coming.” No longer the precious, static model of femininity, she accepts the challenge to “be more merciless to herself than history.”
The poem’s inner structure is a self-willed passage over a treacherous mindscape. From a psyche “moldering like wedding-cake,” the daughter-in-law departs from self-abuse and from becoming masculinized, like “the beak that grips her.” Jettisoning the trappings of fashion and custom, she battles “ma semblable, ma soeur!” — “my double, my sister!” The doppelganger motif places the speaker in merged roles — challenger and challenged — as she sheds constraint and uselessness, typified as “the whatnot every day of life.”
Crucial to Rich’s re-creation of woman is the rejecion of stereotypes — the sweetly laughing girl of Horace’s odes, the externally programmed lute player of Thomas Campion’s ditty. At the climax, the point beyond which life can never return to its old structures, Rich questions whether sorrow itself is a revitalizing force. Stanza 7 answers the question. For the first time, the poet cites a bold woman writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneer who suffered multiple criticisms for declaring that each must find “some stay,” the unshakeable anchor that steadies the rebel against convention. Unwilling to be a mere oddity, the one woman gifted with rare talents, the poet epitomizes change. Like the helicopter freighted with goods, she exults in a cargo
Her selection of a vertical delivery suggests that, for the motivated feminist, a satisfying arrival is a straight shot to earth, guided by gravity.
Rich has forged a reputation for powerful examinations of human politics. The most urgent of her explorations, “Diving into the Wreck” (1973), is less compressed than the previous poem, but no less urgent. She edges cautiously into the past through a controlling metaphor, the calculated moves of the deep-sea diver. The poet cloaks the first-person speaker in so much equipment that the identity is obscure. Armed with the myths of the past, the camera of the present, and a knife for unknown menace, the speaker departs a “sun-flooded schooner” by way of the mundane ladder. Again, like the helicopter drop that concludes “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” the motion is downward, a free fall to reality.
The stanzas, like cells in a movie, separate actions into the individual elements of a dive-climbing down, anticipating the ocean underfoot, drawing on containerized oxygen to power the body for peril. In line 36, the speaker warns of twin dangers: anoxia (a lack of oxygen), then the euphoria that threatens to overwhelm purpose. As is true of most of Rich’s canon, purpose controls the persona. With straightforward optimism, the speaker acknowledges, “I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” In strict parallelism in lines 62-63, the purpose surmounts the myth, establishing a mature, open mind-set. The pointed exposure of a female figurehead establishes that the wreckage is woman herself.
The discovery of lines 71-77 is the merger of sexual selves, male with female. The androgynous view strips analysis of a need to identify the speaker. The he/she persona immediately segues into another self, the victim, “whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes.” Rich’s explicit picture establishes that the harm done to the downed vessel has further corroded instruments that might have guided the way. In the final stanza, Rich reminds the reader of a crucial fact: that “We are, I am, you are” the seekers who carry past, present, and weapon against the unknown. For Rich, the future remains unrecorded.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Compare Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Joy Harjo, Wendy Rose, James A. Wright, and June Jordan as witnesses of wrongs done to women. Determine which poets best characterize Rich’s belief that “Poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.”
2. Discuss Rich’s views of female individualism in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law.”
3. How does the speaker in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law” achieve a personal transformation? What is this transformation?
4. What does the wreck symbolize in “Diving into the Wreck”?
5. Discuss the downward motion in “Diving into the Wreck” in terms of the speaker’s personal growth. How does this downward motion compare to that found in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law”?
6. Explain Rich’s belief that women themselves must reshape the pattern of female existence to excise old expectations of “the Victorian Lady of Leisure, the Angel in the House, and also of the Victorian cook, scullery maid, laundress, governess, and nurse,” which she characterized in Of Woman Born.