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“Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich Essay

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Updated: Dec 6th, 2021

Modern poetry is highly confusing to many people because of its obscure nature and focuses on the sublime element. The reader is always suspicious that the writer intends something just beyond the reader’s understanding. In the case of poets such as Adrienne Rich, the reader is most likely correct. “The very making of a poem involves a transformation from perceived reality or experience into a verbal utterance shaped by the poet’s imagination and craft.

For Adrienne Rich, however, transformation goes beyond the act of writing; it extends to the culture at large through the poem’s ability to challenge given assumptions and offer new visions” (Pettit, 2001). As this suggests, one must always approach Rich’s poetry with the expectation that there will be layers of meaning beneath the surface, some of which one might only be able to guess at. This is certainly the case with her poem, “Diving Into the Wreck.” Spanning 94 lines, the poem can be read from a variety of viewpoints and whole volumes can be written about the way she presents any one of these. Read from a purely superficial point of view, the poem seems to be a strange collection of observations made by a woman diving into a mysterious shipwreck, perhaps one strongly associated with some kind of oceanic myth. In this, her use of imagery stands out as being particularly astute regarding the nature of water and the experience of being immersed within it. However, approached with a greater sense of the depth of the poet, it is possible to discern a number of deeper meanings. These include a personal application to the life of the poet herself as well as a feeling of intense connection to the greater experience of women everywhere. A brief analysis of this poem reveals how the mundane world of normal experience can reveal great truths about the inner woman on both the personal and the cultural levels.

On the surface of the poem, Rich presents a fascinating yet confusing story of an individual about to go on a dive. This is suggested in the title and reinforced as she describes her preparations, including the “body-armor of black rubber / the absurd flippers” (5-6). She emphasizes how alone she is before she describes her descent into the water as “first, the air is blue and then / it is bluer and then green and then / black” (34-36). Her descriptions are so different from the typical frogman suit and a splash of water that the reader almost feels as if they are there as well, preparing to slip clumsily and quietly into deep water. As she describes how different the experience is from being above the water, she is also describing what she’s doing – exploring a wreck and identifying with the creatures of the deep. “I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair/streams black, the merman in his armored body” (72-73). In this, she is exploratory, discovering first-hand and identifying with the element and the wreck, becoming something other than what she was. This almost joyful sense of freedom is almost immediately doused, though, as the diver describes the dire condition of the wreck, reminding of the disaster that once took place without releasing the identification in the final two stanzas. Thus, even in the surface reading of the poem, Rich is able to convey a sense of something deeper, more spiritual, or sublime that teases to be discovered.

It doesn’t take a great deal of biography to understand some of the personal connections of the poem to Rich’s experience. Rich’s marriage collapsed a few years before she wrote this poem. Sadly, her ex-husband also committed suicide not long after that. We’d be foolish to think that those events wouldn’t affect this poem” (“Diving Into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich,” 2009). The poem echoes these experiences as first Rich was forced to don “the grave and awkward mask” (7) as she enters the world alone. She even comments about how her “flippers cripple me” as she crawls her way deeper into her own independence. Although feeling as if she will perish with the pressure, she begins to learn the new rules, “to turn my body without force” (22) and begins to feel comfortable within this space. However, just as she is beginning to transform into this new world, she is reminded of the realities of the old. “I am he / whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes / whose breasts still bear the stress” (78-79). Although she is pulled back into tragedy and reminded of the tragedy the lies within herself as well, Rich offers comfort for the future in that she is not, after all, completely alone. “We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way/back to this scene” (87-90). Whether alone or not, Rich indicates that she understands she is linked with others who have shared her same experiences.

Just as she used the mundane to hint at something larger, so she allows the person to point to something bigger than herself. In her singular experience, she has found a connection with a shared experience of other women within her culture. “The poem begins with the loathsome culture ‘the book of myths’ with which a woman’s optics are controlled” (Kamra & Maiti, 2003). She has read the book and understood it and now she is about to embark on a dive to discover for herself just what it means to be a woman. She captures the female sense of being trapped when she comments that suddenly “there is no one / to tell me when the ocean / will begin” (31-32), realizing the ‘ladder’ or support of marriage, as easy as it seems to just float, does not lead to the exhilarating and life-affirming discovery of the self down below. In allowing the ladder to symbolize the ease of marriage, Rich is also illustrating just how difficult it is for the individual to let go of the familiar to discover what lies beneath. It is so difficult that not many women of her generation are capable of discovering it, “I must learn alone … The words are purposes / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done” (41; 53-55). These lines indicate not only that she feels alone in her search but also her realization that the book of myths has been a constraining influence, shaping who she is until she must make this dive to assess the internal damage.

Even as she mourns the “silver, copper, vermeil cargo [which] lies / obscurely inside barrels / half-wedged and left to rot” (80-82), she finds a sense of connection with other women everywhere who have discovered their own internal treasures left to rot under the weight of social oppression “carrying a knife, a camera / a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear” (91-94). Although it is a frightening, lonely, and heart-breaking journey, Rich finds togetherness with other women and comfort knowing that her name is no longer included in the list of women defined by external expectations.

Although this is a very short analysis of a very complex and deeply meaningful poem, one is able to gain a sense of how this poem works on several levels at once.

Using strong and highly sensual imagery, Rich is able to pull her reader into the story of the poem, catching their attention with the details and then teasing them with a sense of the poem’s deeper meaning. Knowing a little of the biography of the author illustrates her deep personal involvement with the events of the poem, tracing the progression of her psychological state as she herself discovered the independence and release found by her narrator. This understanding of her personal involvement is also able to hint toward the more broadly applicable messages of the poem, in which the poet finds identification with other women who have thrown off the shackles of an externally defined ideal in order to discover the realities and treasures of their internal realities.


“Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich.” Shmoop Poetry. 2009. Web.

Kamra, Madhoo & Maiti, Sumiparna. “Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’: The Validity and Efficacy of Language.” LitIndia. 2003. Web.

Pettit, Rhonda. “Biography of Adrienne Rich.” Encyclopedia of American Poetry. 2001. Web.

Rich, Adrienne. “Diving into the Wreck.”

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