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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation Adrienne Rich (b. 1929)

[4312] Anonymous, Adrienne Rich (c. 1975), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103575].

Born in Baltimore, Adrienne Rich describes her mother and grandmother as “frustrated artists,” whose talents were denied expression by culture and circumstance. Perhaps their example, along with her father’s encouragement, sparked her desire to become a writer at a time when women were still trying to prove themselves in a male-dominated arena. After graduating from Radcliffe in 1951, Rich was recognized for her poetry in the same year by W. H. Auden, who selected her first book, A Change of World, for the coveted Yale Younger Poets series. Rich’s early poetry was influenced primarily by male writers, including Frost, Thomas, Donne, Auden, Stevens, and Yeats. For many young women, these men were the poets studied in high school and university classes, talked about in magazines and journals, and invited to speak at universities. Young women were exposed to relatively little poetry written by other women, and as such were taught implicitly that to write well meant to write as well as a male poet. For writers like Rich, Plath, and Sexton the struggle to find female role models and express female experience was beginning with their own work. Of course, there were examples of women poets mentoring one another, most notably the mentorship of Elizabeth Bishop by Marianne Moore, but this proved to be the exception rather than the rule. By the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, however, Rich’s poetry had changed markedly as she began exploring women’s issues and moving away from formal poetry toward a free verse that she saw as less patriarchal and more in tune with her true voice.

In the late 1960s, Rich, along with her husband, became active in radical politics, especially protests against the Vietnam War. In addition, she taught minority students in urban New York City, an experience that began her lifelong commitment to education, a subject that would return in her essays. Not surprisingly, her poetry reflected this intense interest in politics. This later verse features fragmented language, raw images, and looser form. At this time, Rich also began identifying herself and her work with the growing feminist movement; she also identified as a lesbian. This lesbian consciousness led to the development of poems such as “Transcendental Etude” and “The Floating Poem” that dealt explicitly with lesbian love and sex. In the 1970s, Rich began exploring feminism through essay writing. Her most famous collection of prose, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, combines personal accounts, research, and theory to reveal her thoughts on feminism. In the 1980s, Rich wrote a number of dialogue poems, the best-known of which is her “Twenty-One Love Poems.” This series modernizes the Elizabethan sonnet sequences written by men to idealized women by directing the poems to an unnamed female lover. Other poems, penned to women like Willa Cather, Ethel Rosenberg, and the poet’s grandmothers, explore further aspects of Rich’s identity, including her experience as a Jewish woman.

Rich’s work is known for its political radicalism and candid exploration of motherhood, feminism, lesbianism, and Jewish identity. Her role as poet, essayist, and critic has earned her an important place in contemporary feminism.

Teaching Tips

  • Adrienne Rich’s use of free verse can seem deceptively simple to students. Type out one of the poems in paragraph form and ask students to break the lines where they feel they should be broken. Emphasize that there is not a right answer “here,” but rather that you are curious about what their rationale will be for where lines should be broken. Have students compare their versions of the poem to the original, and have them hypothesize about why Rich broke the lines where she did.
  • In “Diving into the Wreck” Rich uses the underwater exploration of a shipwreck as a metaphor for the exploration of the self or unconscious. Like many of her poems, this work seems to be about the struggle to form an identity. Ask students to paraphrase the poem, thinking particularly about Rich’s use of the first person and the symbol of the diver. What are the main points about identity in this poem? Is Rich making an argument here? Then, ask students to consider the speaker in some of Rich’s other poems, like “Transcendental Etude” and “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” How do the speakers in these poems differ? What is Rich saying about identity here? This activity should help students discover that women are not neatly packaged, unified selves, as often imagined by patriarchal society; Rich’s poetry gives voice to an often-fractured sense of self.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” is filled with allusions, but one of the most telling is the quotation in section 7 from Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist who fought for equality and suffrage at the turn of the eighteenth century. What is the significance of this allusion? Why does Rich refer to this early feminist?
  2. Comprehension: Postmodern poets often pay particular attention to the way the poem looks on the page. Look at Rich’s “Power.” Why does she choose to space the words as she does? What is the effect on the reader? How do her formal choices shape our reading of the content?
  3. Comprehension: Rich appropriates lines from Emily Dickinson and John Donne in her poems “I Am in Danger–Sir–” and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Why does she invoke these poets? Is she claiming to be similar to or different from these authors? How do the titles affect our expectations as readers? What significance do these literary allusions hold?
  4. Context: The transcendental poets were interested in connections between spirituality and nature. How does Rich’s “Transcendental Etude” fit into this context? How does her poem differ from Snyder’s “The Blue Sky”?
  5. Context: As an active feminist, Rich was interested in raising consciousness about all kinds of women’s issues, from sexual freedom to emancipation from the domestic sphere. How might “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” be viewed as a feminist, consciousness-raising poem? What symbols are characteristic of feminist poetry? How does Rich represent the female body in this work?
  6. Context: Compare the form of “Storm Warnings” with that of “Power.” How has Rich’s work changed from the early poem, written in 1951, to the later 1974 poem?
  7. Exploration: During the first and second waves of feminism, female poets mined the resources of Greek and non-Western mythologies for ways to rewrite cultural history. What mythological figures do poets like H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) use to tell their stories? Which mythological figures do Rich and her cohort (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Audre Lorde) choose? What power does using these figures add to Rich’s work?
  8. Exploration: The women’s movement brought myriad issues to the forefront and gave women the vocabulary and forum to discuss their experiences honestly. For instance, the difficult and frustrating sides of mothering and marriage became topics of conversation. Many of the female poets in this unit reflect this liberated atmosphere as they explore the experience of motherhood and childbearing with candor and objectivity. Compare some of the poems about motherhood written by Sexton (“Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman”), Lorde (“The Woman Thing,” “Black Mother Woman”), and Plath (“Morning Song”). How do they represent mothering? What is new about this poetry? What seems surprising?
  9. Exploration: Adrienne Rich has said that poetry must “consciously situate itself amid political conditions.” How does her poetry reflect this idea? How might this statement be seen as descriptive of this period of poetry more generally? How does Rich’s stance on poetry and politics compare to that of other writers in this unit, particularly Baraka and the Beats?

Selected Archive Items

[1617] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.), 
courtesy of Amherst College Library. 
Portrait of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) sitting at table. Until recently, this was the only known image of Dickinson, a recluse who rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson influenced many twentieth-century poets, including Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich.

[4312] Anonymous, Adrienne Rich (c. 1975), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103575]. 
A feminist poet and activist, Rich challenges assumptions of gender and sexuality in her work and questions the nature of power. In “Planetarium,” she writes, “I am an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

[6932] Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in S.E. Asia, Pull Him Out Now: Join with the Hundreds and Thousands of Students, GI’s, Women, Unionists, Puerto Ricans, Gay People . . . (c. 1970), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. Political poster protesting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. 
The antiwar movement linked and encouraged a number of other movements, including the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the farm workers’ movement. Many American poets protested the war, including Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg.

[7361] Anonymous, Vietnam War Protesters (1967), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NRE-21-KANSWICHCR-CR928- WICH1895]. 
Wichita, Kansas, protest against the Vietnam War. Antiwar protests were major cultural events in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many writers and artists participated, including Adrienne Rich, whose work became more explicitly political during this time.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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