In 1974, Adrienne Rich received the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck. In a statement written with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who also were nominated, she rejected the award as an individual but accepted it on behalf of women, dedicating the occasion “to the struggle for self-determination of all women.” This vision of herself as writing for and in the presence of women has guided her work. Feminism provides Rich with the framework for her vision of transformation for herself and for other women.
Her seventh book of poetry, the collection is, in part, a clarification of her identity as a member of the women’s movement of the previous decade. Receiving critical acclaim from the onset of her career, including being chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first collection, A Change of World (1951), Rich has sought a position in the male-dominated literary world. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s she became politically active in antiwar protests and the feminist movement. Rich saw her poetic power and political ideology merge, creating a powerful poetic vision that informs Diving into the Wreck. Rich, one of America’s foremost poets, has explored, analyzed, and depicted her own physical, psychic, and intellectual rebirth in her prose and poetry. Although her later works, including her prose text Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and her poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language (1978), dramatize the theme of rebirth in detail, the initial exploration of this theme takes place in the collection Diving into the Wreck. In this work, the poet embraces an individual and a collective consciousness that provides for her transformation.
Rich identifies the world of the fathers as an oppressive patriarchal one that restricts a woman’s existence in every way, psychologically and physically, individually and collectively. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, she asserts that “the kingdom of the fathers” denies women their power, permeating every institution and experience, determining and defining women and their roles politically and socially. Further, she concedes that patriarchal assumptions have shaped both women’s moral and intellectual history. For women to move from being powerless to powerful, they must confront their past and redefine themselves in the present and for the future. The central theme of a woman’s coming to consciousness synthesizes the collection. Divided into four sections, the work follows the process of awakening. First, there is the discovery, then the anger, then the courage to survive, and then to seek change. Rich finds her poetic voice in this book, and with that voice the power to define a collective consciousness for all women. As Rich explains in On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (1979), the poet must speak for those who “are less conscious of what they are living through.” The poetry depicts the struggle of awakening. Poems such as “When We Dead Awaken” (1971) and “Waking in the Dark” (1971) indicate this theme. In each poem, the speaker describes the effort of trying to make sense of a world that, upon waking, appears so different:
working like me to pick apartworking with me to remakethis trailing knitted thing, this cloth of darknessthis woman’s garment, trying to save the skein.
The poet describes the struggle to survive in a...
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