By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked that poems are ‘like dreams’ because ‘in them you put what you don’t know you know’. Into her own poetry, Rich would put her own experiences, as well as the experiences of other women (when she won the 1974 National Book Award, she accepted the honour on behalf of all women).
And her poetry, which can be described as ‘feminist’ only if we also accept the insufficiency of this label to describe accurately what her poetry does, underwent an interesting evolution, from the rather traditional early poems written in received forms to the more experimental and innovative works of her maturity. As Rich herself put it, her poems stopped being about experiences and became experiences themselves.
For Adrienne Rich, ‘Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.’ Below, we select and introduce ten of her finest poems, spanning her long career, each one overcoming a silence that had to be broken.
1. ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’.
This was Rich’s first great poem, published in her first poetry collection, A Change of World, which appeared when the precocious Rich was still in her early twenties. In the poem, the speaker describes her aunt’s embroidery, which features tigers who prance proudly and unafraid, in contrast to the aunt’s own meek, oppressive life and marriage.
In an early collection of her essays, Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979), Adrienne Rich observed that throughout history, ‘women’s struggle for self-determination’ had been ‘muffled in silence’. This poem bears this out. However, although she is silent about her struggles, Aunt Jennifer’s embroidery is a quiet act of self-determination.
2. ‘Living in Sin’.
This 1955 poem is another early piece from Rich, when she was still largely using established forms; although here, the blank-verse ground plan of her poem is occasionally broken by shorter lines.
The poem explores the idea of an unmarried woman cohabiting with her male lover in the 1950s, when social disapproval would have been rife. The woman in the poem has second thoughts about her life of dusting and cleaning (is she, a kept woman, as good as married after all, but without the stamp of approval from society?), and the final image, of morning coming like a milkman up the stairs, is memorable.
3. ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’.
The title of this 1970 poem is the same as one by the metaphysical poet John Donne, inviting us to put the two poems into a dialogue across the centuries.
But Rich’s poem is somewhat different from Donne’s. For among the things she is bidding farewell to is the heterosexual love that Donne’s poem celebrated: Rich, a lesbian, needs to find a new language, a new grammar even, to talk about her experiences.
4. ‘A Mark of Resistance’.
This short poem from 1957 provides a nice ‘way in’ to Adrienne Rich’s work, for the newcomer to her poetry. In the poem, a speaker piles up stones for some unspecified purpose, although it appears to be some sort of flood-barrier.
Of course, the poem invites to be read as metaphorical: this speaker, probably female, is shoring up some defences against the troubles that life will bring. The pile of stones is itself an ‘assertion’, a ‘cairn of my intention’: as so often in Rich’s poetry, the concrete is rendered into the abstract.
Drawing on (pseudo)science and technology for its imagery and subject-matter, ‘Power’ is full of enigmatic imagery and statements. The poem concludes with Marie Curie ‘denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power’: Curie, who discovered several radioactive elements, died of radiation poisoning.
Adrienne Rich’s metaphors are often surprising, even illogical (at least at first). ‘Orion’ is a good example. In the poem, she addresses the constellation as her half-brother, although the poem is really a reflection of the poet’s own self. Once a ‘dead child born in the dark’, she is now able to face the starlight which Orion casts down at her, and meet his gaze.
7. ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’.
This is a late Adrienne Rich poem, from 2007, and included in the collection of the same name which appeared in 2011, gathering together new poems from 2007-10. Beginning with a romantic, even sensual encounter, the poem then turns – as ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ had done – to grammar, and the world of the abstract.
8. ‘What Kind of Times Are These’.
This 1991 poem explores the connection between the poetic and the political. It’s also playfully self-referential (‘this isn’t a Russian poem’, don’t worry, the speaker assures us), but the poem’s imagery – especially the dense mesh of woods into which the speaker ventures – is laden with political symbolism.
In one of her best-known poems, Rich salutes the achievements of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the astronomer who has been eclipsed by her brother William (who discovered the planet Uranus).
Rich is interested in exploring what it would have been like for a gifted woman like Caroline, working in what was very much a male-dominate sphere at the time. Rich deftly weaves together the astronomical world of Caroline’s scientific discoveries with her female biology: ‘the moon ruled’ her, as it does all women, Rich tells us. And indeed, with its talk of the ‘Heartbeat’ of pulsars, the poem views the night sky as a curious biological entity.
10. ‘Diving into the Wreck’.
Let’s conclude this list with one of Adrienne Rich’s best-known poems, from 1973. It’s another poem about a journey of discovery, although this time, rather than venturing into the ‘dread’ of the woods, we find ourselves going underwater to examine the ‘wreck’ which is both ‘treasure’ and ‘damage’.
Most critics regard the shipwreck as a symbol for women’s struggle for liberation, although the imagery of the poem is cryptic and ambiguous. But in leaving behind the book of ‘myths’ at the beginning of the poem and donning the various paraphernalia required to go down and examine the wreck herself, the speaker issues a rallying cry for self-determination and action.