In the ghazal (a verse form borrowed from Middle Eastern poetry) “7/14/68: ii,” published in Leaflets, Rich rhetorically asks: “Did you think I was talking about my life?/ I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall.” This couplet summarizes her poetic career: Autobiography is used to examine universal issues in order to effect change. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law was the first volume in which this important aspect of Rich’s work was apparent. Starting with this collection, Rich began to write more personal and experimental poetry in which meaning was not subordinate to form. Rich assumed a more personal voice, addressing more directly the issues she faces as a woman and allowing herself more formal innovations. Although Rich did not yet allow herself to speak directly (the daughter-in-law of the snapshots, an important autobiographical sequence, is referred to as “she,” not “I”), these were her first feminist poems, and she drew inspiration from the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Rich’s mature work is intensely biographical, not merely for the sake of pure honesty and personal expression, but because by describing her own struggles, she wishes to stimulate what she calls “the will to change” and thereby bring about political transformation in others. The “will to change” is created by the rigorous examination of one’s own inner self as well as by “diving into the wreck” of past tradition. As Rich states in “Tear Gas” (in Poems: Selected and New), “the will to change begins in the body not in the mind,” thereby linking biography to larger issues. In pursuing this rigorous self-examination, one is carried by a kind of visionary anger best described as “a wild patience,” which provides the energy to create the dreamed-of community that speaks “a common language.” In this way, Rich is interested in the real world and is concerned with the way poetry can affect daily life. She is not a poet interested only in form, the purely abstract, or the self-referential aspects of writing; she strives to intermingle all of these within the current social context.
That the personal is political was a slogan of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and Rich’s poetry examines and exemplifies this connection. As she states in “The Blue Ghazals: 5/4/69” (in The Will to Change): “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political.” The feeling, the touch, could be caused by pain (the context of this poem suggests torture) or by love (as in “Twenty-one Love Poems”), but what matters to Rich is that such personal interactions are conditioned by larger, political structures. As Rich states in “The Phenomenology of Anger” (in Diving into the Wreck), “every act of becoming conscious// is an unnatural act.” Thus, for Rich, the lesbian theme in her poetry not only is a personal statement but also becomes a metaphor for all the “unnatural acts” of becoming conscious of oppression and making a choice to resist.
Rich finds the energy to personally evolve in anger, an important and powerful emotion in her work, although alienating to some readers. She explores this theme explicitly in “The Phenomenology of Anger,” in which she allows herself to explore her fantasies of murder, which result in “a changed man.” She describes anger as a kind of “wild patience” and, in “Natural Resources” (in The Dream of a Common Language), as “impatience—my own—/ the passion to make and make again! where such unmaking reigns/ the refusal to be a victim.” It is thanks to such fuel that she is able to sustain her poetic explorations, and she speaks positively of the potential of “visionary anger” as a force that others, too, can draw upon. In A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, she even describes her anger as an “angel,” a striking and suggestive image for the role it comes to assume in her work.
Rich found her insights increasingly hard to express, however, as she became aware of the ways in which language reflects the assumptions and values of dominant culture. In The Will to Change, she is aware of the limitations of what she calls “the oppressor’s language” and later allows herself to “dream of a common language,” the title of one of her most important collections. She explores, too, the visionary potential of poetry as she imagines a world in which women are not divided against one another but where their shared community is a source of transformative power. The idealism of this vision is tempered, however, by the recognition that, in the real world, language can be distorted and taken out of context (“North American Time”).
Having once defined her vision, Rich realizes that it requires continual effort to maintain it. This daily struggle incorporates the past, which is far more than a mere “husk” (as Rich suggests in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far), and leads her to the personal interrogations of her own past, best represented by Sources. The recognition that ideals such as freedom depend on the prosaic, everyday act of remembering also leads Rich to be more attentive to the ordinary routines of her daily life. Her descriptions of New England landscapes are the occasion for striking and beautiful imagery, such as the description of beet roots in “Culture and Anarchy” (from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far). This element of her work places her firmly in the tradition of poets she admired and was influenced by, such as Robert Frost.
The attempts to break with poetic tradition and forge something entirely new (yet that will incorporate the past) result in what Rich calls “a whole new poetry beginning here” (“Transcendental Ètude” in The Dream of a Common Language). It is this originality, which transforms the most intensely personal material into statements that reflect a wider truth, that has compelled respect and admiration for Rich’s work. Although Rich has been criticized for her anger, unremitting seriousness, and occasional self-righteousness, her work is favorably compared to that of major poets such as Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”
First published: 1951 (collected in A Change of World, 1951)
Type of work: Poem
Aunt Jennifer creates a work of art that lasts beyond her death.
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” which appeared in Rich’s first collection of poems, is typical of her early work, illustrating the modest poetic ambitions for which she was praised by Auden. Technically, the work displays flawless craftsmanship, with a carefully regulated meter and rhyming couplets. Only later did Rich recognize how formalism functioned as she writes, “asbestos gloves,” enabling her to grasp potentially dangerous materials without putting herself at risk, as in this poem.
The formalism of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” hides the more disturbing aspects of the poem and subordinates the theme of Aunt Jennifer’s “ordeals” in marriage to the more “poetic” theme of the transcendence of art. The first verse of the poem describes the fearless tigers Aunt Jennifer creates in needlepoint. Their freedom and dignity is contrasted in the second verse to the restrictions of marriage, symbolized by the wedding band that weighs down Aunt Jennifer’s fingers as she sews. The themes are resolved in the final, third, verse: Even death will not free Aunt Jennifer from her “ordeals,” but the tigers she has created will continue to appear “proud and unafraid.”
While the poem is technically brilliant, the themes that art endures beyond human life and that suffering may be redeemed through art are hardly original. Rich, however, uses an inventive image to recast these conventional themes in a new way and even hints, in the image of Aunt Jennifer weighed down by an oppressive marriage, at the feminism that would permeate her later work. Yet the poem remains quite impersonal; the reader sees Aunt Jennifer but is scarcely aware of the voice of the poem’s narrator. For the reader, it is as though the picture is framed by an invisible hand, in contrast to Rich’s later work, where the reader cannot help being aware of the poet’s personal presence.
“The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”
First published: 1971 (collected in The Will to Change, 1971)
Type of work: Poem
A comparison between the burning of books and physical human sufferings and an observation of the inadequacy of language to convey pain.
“The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” is a good example of Rich’s developing experimental style. Between 1968 and 1970, Rich confronted in her poetry the inability of the language that she had inherited to express the pain both of her own life and of society as it underwent turbulent social change. The results of this experimentation can be seen in Leaflets but are also evident in this collection, The Will to Change. Whereas in her early work, exemplified by “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Rich encapsulated a certain experience, in this experimental vein the poem itself is the experience. As Rich allows the unconscious to speak through her poetry, the poem contributes to the creation of new experiences for both poet and reader. The poem consists of five interrelated sections, which vary in form from fragmented free verse to prose poetry.
The starting point for the poem is autobiographical—a neighbor calls to complain about the poet’s son burning a textbook—and the poet does not hesitate to use the first-person voice, thus illustrating the role of personal memory as the key to political connections as well as Rich’s assumption of personal presence in her work. The poet juxtaposes this incident with a picture of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, a memory from her privileged childhood in which she had access to books and education though they failed to teach about the reality of suffering. This memory also serves as the occasion for Rich to explore the difficult relationship of “love and fear” she experienced with her father, a relationship she now begins to perceive as oppressive. The relationship with her father is another recurrent theme in Rich’s work, and some critics have gone so far as to suggest that it is the dominant theme.
In the second section, the poet records her frustration that language is necessary, yet inadequate, to communicate. The third section lists different...
(The entire section is 4395 words.)