Exploring the Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1929 – 2012)

 Adrienne Rich (1)

THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF ADRIENNE RICH. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN RICH’S POETRY:

  • Storm Warnings,
  • The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room,
  • Living in Sin,
  • The Roofwalker,
  • Trying to Talk to a Man,
  • Diving into the Wreck,
  • From a Survivor.

YEATS SAID OF HIS POETRY THAT IT WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF IN RELATION TO ADRIENNE RICH!  

YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES (THREE OR FOUR) FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

 

 

Adrienne Rich (2)

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MAJOR THEMES IN RICH’S POETRY

 

Relationships

Rich is best known as a feminist writer and many of her poems deal with the oppression of women by men.  Marriage, in particular, is seen as a tool by which women are kept under the thumb of men.  ‘From a Survivor’ emphasises how women can be mastered or controlled by their husbands.  The speaker suggests that her husband’s body was ‘the body of a God’ and that it had ‘power’ over her life.

Similarly, in ‘Trying to Talk to a Man’, the speaker again suggests that her husband might have dominated her life: ‘Your dry heat feels like power / your eyes are stars of a different magnitude’.  ‘Living in Sin’, too, touches on this topic although here the couple are simply living together.  Here it is the woman in the relationship who does all the work (What’s new?), who makes the bed and tidies the apartment: she ‘pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found / a towel to dust the tabletop’.  The man with whom she’s living, meanwhile, seems to contribute little to the upkeep of the household.  This can be taken as yet another instance, therefore, of a woman being dominated or controlled by man.  It is another poem in which Rich emphasises the fundamental inequality of marriage and of relationships between men and women.

‘The Roofwalker’ is another poem that presents marriage in a negative light.  In this poem the speaker realises that her marriage has been a terrible mistake, that she has wasted a great deal of time and energy creating a life that is not suited to her: ‘Was it worthwhile to lay / with infinite exertion / a roof I can’t live under?’  The life she has made for herself, this seemingly comfortable existence that centres on a happy marriage and healthy children, is a life she was pressured into: ‘A life I didn’t choose / chose me’.  Now she is prepared to leave this life behind, to abandon the comfortable structure of her marriage and brave the world beyond this comfortable shell.  She will become, she says, ‘like naked man fleeing / across the roofs’.

It is important to note, however, that Rich can also be positive about marriage and relationships.  There is also room in her poetry for straightforward romance and love.  In ‘From a Survivor’, for instance, she emphasises that her husband’s body is ‘as vivid to me / as it ever was’ suggesting the deep love she felt for this man who is now tragically dead.  ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’ also stresses the deep emotional bond that existed between Rich and her husband with its deeply moving litany of memories and intimate moments that the couple shared; ‘whole LP collections, films we starred in / playing in the neighbourhoods, bakery windows / full of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies/ the language of love-letters……’

The Personal and the Political

One of the best-known aspects of Rich’s poetry is the way it blends political and personal concerns.  Again and again she finds unexpected parallels between her personal traumas and political events that take place in the wider world.  This technique is used in an especially moving way in ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  The disintegration of the couple’s relationships is depicted against the backdrop of the violence and fury of a nuclear test in the Nevada desert: ‘Out here in the desert we are testing bombs / that’s why we came here’.  As we read the poem we realise that external violence of the nuclear test is a metaphor for the internal or emotional violence of the couple’s break-up: ‘talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else’.

Women in a Patriarchal Society

The poetry of Adrienne Rich (like the poetry of Boland and Plath) documents the struggles and difficulties that women endure in the modern world.  Many of these difficulties are the result of the nature of the society in which we live.  Rich suggests fairly forcefully that we live in a man’s world.  The consequence of this for women is that they are never given the opportunities to achieve and optimise their potential or even communicate their true feelings and desires.  In ‘Diving into the Wreck’, Rich uses the dive into the dark depths of the sea to symbolise her efforts to penetrate the murky waters of history in order to see what lies at the bottom.  She has read about what might be there in a ‘book of myths’ but she wants to find out for herself.  What she finds is a ‘wreck’, an old ship that is battered and broken, but ‘whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies / obscurely inside barrels’.  It seems that this ship is a symbol of the origins of who we are and how we understand ourselves.  Down here with the wreck the speaker of the poem seems to lose all solid notions of what it means to be a woman.  Her gender becomes ambiguous and gender definitions become fluid and vague.  (Could you tell if a diver in a wet suit is male or female from a distance under water?)  The suggestion seems to be that the roles of men and women in society have a history, they are not established in fact, are not absolutely intrinsic to who we are.  If we can get back to the origins, to the beginning, when these definitions were first established we might be able to re-define and re-determine roles.  Why, the poet asks, should we live our lives according to definitions that we had no role in creating, that were established way back before we were even born.  ‘Diving into the Wreck’ suggests that there may be possibilities of rediscovering and re-learning who we are, if we are willing to try:

                               We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear

Forces for Change

The idea of an outside force, something that is potentially dangerous and capable of affecting our lives, is present in a number of Rich’s poems.  In many of her earlier poems Rich gives the impression that she is at the mercy of elements that she can’t quite control.  In ‘Storm Warnings’, for example, Rich portrays the weather as a powerful force for change that threatens her fragile home.  All she can do is close the windows and lock the doors against the storm that is brewing outside.  As the poem points our, even with our fancy new-fangled technologies and our weather reports, we are unable to control the weather.  We might be able to predict what is going to happen, but we are powerless to prevent it happening.  Time and darkness are two other forces that we are unable to control.  She also seems to suggest that there are elements of our own lives that we are powerless to change also.  As Rich points out: ‘Weather abroad / And weather in the heart alike come on / Regardless of prediction’.  By this she seems to be talking about the depression and other moods that we suffer from throughout our lives.

The notion of an external force is also at play in ‘The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room’ which contains the speech of a rich man whose lifestyle is put under threat by the presence of an angry mob at his gate.  We are not aware of the mob’s grievance but its presence remains a potent and ominous force in the poem.  Again there is a suggestion that the world contains elements that are beyond our control, no matter how wealthy and powerful we might be.  As I have said on many occasions, change is a fact of life, and the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies.  The speaker in this poem, the uncle seems oblivious to the reality of the growing social unrest that is taking place around him.  One could say that he’s in denial – and as I often say the Nile is not just a river in Egypt!!!!!

Roofwalker - Adrienne Rich (3)

Sample Answer:

‘The poetry of Adrienne Rich shows us the relationship between men and women in all their glory and despair’.

With reference to the above statement say whether the poetry of Rich appealed to you.

 

Adrienne Rich was the poet on the Leaving Cert course whose work most appealed to me.  There were several reasons for this.  For me the most important aspect of Rich’s work was her depiction of relationships in a way that seemed very real.  Her poems take account of the fact that love so often goes wrong yet they also offer hope that the anguish of a failed relationship can be overcome.  I also enjoyed the feminist aspect of Rich’s work.  Her depiction of women being dominated by the men in their lives is as relevant today as it was when Rich first presented it.

In my opinion, too many poems and pop songs present an idealistic or overly romantic view of love.  Rich, however, is having none of this.  She is fully aware that all too often relationships don’t work out the way we want them to.  As she puts it in ‘From a Survivor’, every couple believes they are ‘special’: ‘Like everybody else we thought of ourselves as special’.  Yet no couple is immune to the ‘failure of the race’.  Every relationship will experience turbulence and difficulty.  In ‘The Roofwalker’ for instance, the speaker invests a great deal of time and energy in a relationship only to realise that she does not really belong with this man.  The life they have created together is not for her.  ‘Was it worth while’, she asks to ‘lay – / with infinite exertion – / a roof I can’t live under?’  This tragic waste of time and effort in the  cause of a failed relationship was something I could really relate to.

I could also identify somewhat with the situation depicted in ‘Living in Sin’.  This poem also shows us a woman whose relationship has not worked out as she expected.  This young woman believed she would have a perfect life with her lover in their studio apartment.  She imagined there would be ‘no dust upon the furniture of love’.  However, life in the studio has turned out to be quite miserable.  The apartment is dirty and unpleasant; ‘Half-heresy, to wish the taps less vocal, / the panes relieved of grime’.  Her lover appears distant and uncaring, and hardly speaks to her each morning before going ‘out for cigarettes’.  It is hardly unsurprising, therefore, that this young woman is filled with mental anguish, is haunted by the ‘minor demons’ of sorrow and disappointment.

Yet Rich’s most moving account of a relationship in crisis is surely ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  What impresses me most about this poem is the way it captures just how difficult it can be to communicate at the end of a relationship, with Rich brilliantly describing the lovers ‘surrounded by a silence … that came with us /and is familiar’.  This silence expands like a cancer at the heart of the couple’s relationship, forcing them to ‘give up’ the things they shared, such as  ‘the language of love-letters’ and ‘afternoons on the riverbank / pretending to be children’.

A strong belief in women’s liberation is also central to Rich’s poetry as she developed as a writer.  Many of her poems, including ‘Living in Sin’, focus on the inequality between women and men that exists at the heart of so many relationships.  The young woman in this poem seems to do all the housework while her boyfriend lounges about the place uselessly.  Though he is allegedly an artist of some kind he appears to do little artistic work, only sounding a ‘dozen notes upon the keyboard’ before heading ‘out for cigarettes’

However, Rich’s poetry also offers a lot of hope.  In both ‘The Roofwalker’ and ‘From a Survivor’ she shows that it is possible for a woman to reverse bad decisions and escape a relationship or way of life that is unsuitable to her.  In ‘From a Survivor’ the speaker has ‘made the leap’ and escaped her failing marriage.  Now her husband is no longer like a god to her and her new life is like a ‘succession of brief, amazing moments’.  ‘The Roofwalker’ also deals with this possibility of escape and shows the speaker desiring to leave behind a life she ‘didn’t choose’.  Yet this poem stresses how unnerving and intimidating it can be to leave a stable relationship behind.  To do so is to be exposed and vulnerable as ‘a naked man /fleeing across the roofs’.  I thought this was one of Rich’s finest images, brilliantly capturing feelings of vulnerability and isolation in an image that is both moving and amusing.

While Rich’s philosophy is important, it is her use of images, in my opinion, that makes her truly great as a poet.  Her use of metaphors is very eye-catching and there is a lovely example of this in ‘Living in Sin’ where a beetle is described as ‘an envoy from the moldings’.  There is also another excellent metaphor in this poem where the morning is compared to a ‘relentless milkman coming up the stairs’.  I found both of these images amusing but they also filled me with a certain unease and discomfort.  There is also a startling set of metaphors in ‘The Roofwalker’ that really appealed to me, where builders on a roof are described as sailors on a deck; the sky is depicted as ‘a torn sail’, and the night as a black wave about to descend.

To sum up, then, my admiration for Rich’s poems stems from the fact that she is not afraid to confront unpleasant realities such as the heartbreak that accompanies the failure of a relationship and the oppression of women.  Yet she is not a poet who is content to simply dwell on the negative.  Her work also offers hope, hope that the anguish of failed love can be overcome, that women can escape the traps in life they set for themselves and that they can gain power all of their own.

image

Sample Answer:

‘Adrienne Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its themes and its language’.  Discuss.

 I am in complete agreement with this statement.  Rich is one of the most important and provocative voices in modern day literature.  Her themes are always relevant and she often challenges us with her ideas on, for example,  male-female relationships and the role of women in society.  While her feminist perspective means that her work has an obvious attraction for a female audience, her appeal is not confined to one gender.  Her language is generally clear and direct and her images striking and memorable.

An idea that she often explores is the complex reality of male-female relationships.  ‘Living in Sin’ is interesting primarily because of its realistic depiction of male-female relationships.  Most people could relate to the experience of the woman who finds that the reality of living with her partner in a small studio apartment falls short of the romantic dream.  In her naivety, the woman had given no thought to the mundane realities of day-to-day life with her partner.  This idea is expressed in everyday language, ‘She had thought the studio would keep itself’.  Inevitably, harsh reality reveals the unglamorous truth: noisy dripping taps, grimy windows, scraps of leftover food and empty bottles.  Worst of all, she encounters a beetle among the saucers – the beetle is described in a memorably humorous image as an ‘Envoy from a village in the moldings’.  Aside from the grim physical environment, the woman has to cope with her partner’s lethargy and general indifference.  He seems to be a musician or composer, but lacks the motivation to practice his music, ‘sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard, / declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, /rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes’.  The shrugging image perfectly captures her partner’s apathetic attitude.  This poem provides us with an insight into sexual stereotyping – the man makes no attempt to tackle any domestic tasks and it is the woman who cleans the apartment.  Despite her disillusionment, the woman does not leave her indifferent boyfriend and the depressing apartment, ‘By evening she was back in love again’.  However, the next phrase (‘though not as wholly’) qualifies this statement, reminding us that her initial optimism about the relationship is beginning to fade away gradually.

Anyone of us who have found ourselves in a relationship, which is falling apart, will easily relate to ‘Trying to Talk with a Man’.  In this poem the speaker and her partner have gone into the desert ostensibly to witness (and protest about) the detonation of a nuclear bomb – however, we get the impression that the underlying purpose of this journey is to take stock of their relationship.  An excellent visual image suggests how the woman is growing in insight, ‘Sometimes I feel an underground river / forcing its way between deformed cliffs / an acute angle of understanding’.

This poem also highlights Rich’s effective use of metaphor and imagery to convey her themes.  The images of a ghost town and the desert effectively suggest the silent, barren nature of the couple’s relationship.  While the troubled lovers are ‘surrounded by a silence’ that sounds like the silence of the deserted town, the poet realises that the silence has come with them – it is ‘a familiar’ silence. The speaker acknowledges the extent of their problems in language that is admirably simple and direct, ‘Out here I feel more helpless / with you than without you’.    What I found interesting about this poem was the man’s unwillingness to discuss the problems at the heart of the relationship.  He talks only of external events such as the danger of nuclear testing, making no attempt to address the danger surrounding the relationship, ‘Talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves’.  This poem stands out in my mind because it underlines an almost universal truth – women are more emotionally aware and more emotionally honest than men.

‘From a Survivor’ is a deeply personal poem describing the poet’s failed marriage.  What I found interesting – and indeed uplifting – about this poem was the affectionate nature of the poet’s reflection on her late husband and the fact that her brave ‘leap’ away from her marriage enabled her to find true joy.  The conversational language employed by Rich gives this poem a wonderful sense of immediacy, ‘I don’t know who we thought we were / that our personalities / could resist the failures of our race’.  The poet reminds us of the optimism that attends the early stages of romantic relationships, ‘Like everybody else, we thought of ourselves as special’.  She never anticipated that their marriage, like so many others, would not stand the test of time.  Despite the tensions of their marriage, the poet’s affection for her late husband endures, ‘Your body is as vivid to me / as it ever was’.  It was also encouraging to learn that, having come through a difficult period, the poet retains the capacity to find joy in life – she speaks of having experienced ‘a succession of brief amazing moments’.  Another aspect of this poem that I found interesting was the insight it provided into the changing nature of male-female relationships.  Social and cultural changes brought about largely by the active feminist movement mean that the poet now has a clearer perspective on her marriage.  When she married, marriage was an intrinsically unequal institution (and who wants to live in an institution….!), with the woman expected to be obedient to her husband.  In the past the poet had seen her husband as ‘a god / …with power over my life’.  As Rich grew as a person and as a poet, she ‘no longer’ viewed her husband as god-like.

In conclusion, Rich’s poetry is interesting both for its ideas and the way in which these ideas are expressed.  She explores issues that are relevant to the modern reader in language that is generally clear and accessible, making very effective use of imagery to express her themes.

 

 adrienne-rich-(4)

 

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