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Adrienne Rich: Poetry Response and Analysis Essay

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Updated: Nov 16th, 2021

If talking about poets who were consistent in their work and at the same time so changeable with their themes, there is no better example than Adrienne Rich. Although, many poets are concerned with transformation (“Biography of Adrienne Rich”), in the case of Adrienne Rich, one of the brightest and influential poetesses of the second half of the twentieth century, this transformation included many elements in her poems as well as in her personal life.

Adrienne Rich, born in May 1929, is an American poet and the prize-winner of “Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship” (“Adrienne Rich”)

In her article “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”, Rich stated that she was “taught that poetry should be “universal,” which meant, of course, non-female.” (Rich “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” 24) In that sense, Rich had tried not to identify herself as a female poet in her works until the late 1950s. This paper contrasts her work in terms of that statement, analyzing elements of difference between her early and latter works.

The term universality or androgyny could be used to describe that poetry should be stripped of any emotional experiences peculiar to a specific gender. The poet should be writing on generalities, rather than on his own feelings as a man or a woman. In that sense, for Rich, who declared herself as a lesbian in 1976, the issue of gender and women’s position was of specific importance.

Looking at several poems from the 1950s, many outlines regarding the similarity could be made. In “Living in Sin” (1955), Rich implemented the usage of a fragmented picture to show the image of a depressing life. The image that could be taken is the routine in the daily life of a couple, where there is no place left for love, only bodily motions.

Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,

sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,

declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,

rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;

while she, jeered by the minor demons,

pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found

a towel to dust the table-top (Rich “Living in Sin”)

In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” (1951), the picture s somewhat repeated, although in a slightly different way. The portrayal of the man could be seen similarly in the patriarchic world of that time.

They do not fear the men beneath the tree;

The pace in sleek chivalric certainty. (Rich “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”)

The expressions of Rich’s ideas are not direct, just as Aunt Jennifer’s tigers in the panels, which resemble the feel of freedom inside Aunt Jennifer, where it would be revealed only after she died. In both poems, it can be seen Rich operating as a narrator in the third person perspective. Her true position is revealed only through her imagery, where she is merely a narrator who delivers her position through observation. Rich does not comment nor critiques the situation which is apparently disturbing her.

Taking into consideration the second stage of Rich’s works, specifically stating from 1960, it can be seen a change in the tone of her poems. In “Diving into the Wreck” (1972), the first noticeable change is the use of the first-person perspective. The author is the heroine of her poem. The tone of the poem became harder. Regardless of the hidden meaning and the metaphors used, the toughness can be sensed in verses such as the following.

and checked the edge of the knife-blade,

I put on

the body-armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers


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. (Rich “Diving into the Wreck”)

The themes mainly remained the same, which frankly, if not for the background of Rich, cannot be immediately understood. The author explores her position as a woman in a world full of “myths”. It could be assumed that these are myths regarding sexuality and the genders’ superior position in the world. The author only finds halves of the truth, or wrecks, and myths, while she wants to know the truth- I, we, and you.

In another poem, “For the Dead” (1973), Rich is addressing the poem to a friend who apparently is close to her. The tone of the poem is soft, which implies the friend to be a woman, rather than a man, and as the title implies this friend is no longer with her. From the verses, it can be understood that Rich’s friend killed herself.

The waste of my love goes on this way

trying to save you from yourself (Rich “For the Dead”

The poems are no longer observational, in Rich’s works, it can be seen how she interacts with her thoughts and emotions directly, contrary to her early works. In “Integrity” (1978), Rich sets the tone of the poem by defining its title as if she wants the reader to understand it in that context. Rich is presenting her idea of how she is dealing with the world. Her answer is wild patience. Rich is forty-nine and she is reflecting on herself, where the daylight reminds her of the time passing by.

The length of daylight

this far north, in this

forty-ninth year of my life

is critical.

The light is critical (Rich “Integrity”)

Summarizing the paper, it could be said that although most of the themes explored by Adrienne Rich remained the same, the position toward them changed drastically. Before the 1950s, Rich pointed her position as a poet, while after that period she did it as a woman. Her poems became stronger and more confident, where through her verses it can be implied that she was on a journey to find herself and she finally found it. In the context of her words in her article, it can be only agreed with. Universality in poetry can be turned into journalism, and truth to be told, Adrienne Rich even being “universal”, succeeded in transferring part of her deep self into the poem for the reader to share.

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