Adrienne Rich

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Adrienne Rich American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4,395 words.)