“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 entire section is 614 words.)