Adrienne Rich Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Adrienne Rich’s successive volumes of poetry chronicle a contemporary female artist’s odyssey. Her earliest work is a notable contribution to modern poetry. Her later work has broken new ground as she redefines and reimagines women’s lives to create a female myth of self-discovery. In her life and work, she has been struggling to break out of patriarchal social and literary conventions, to redefine herself and to create new traditions. W. H. Auden praised her first volume for its stylistic control, its skillful use of traditional themes such as isolation, and its assimilation of influences such as the work of Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. He wrote: “The poems . . . in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”
Since then, however, Rich has been reshaping poetic conventions to develop her own themes and to create her own voice, often a radical (and sometimes a jarring) one. Reviewer Helen Vendler termed Diving into the Wreck “dispatches from the battlefield.” Central concerns of Rich’s poetry include the uses of history and language, the relationship of the individual to society, and the individual’s quest for identity and meaning. The home is often a site for the working out of these themes.
A Change of World
Auden chose Rich’s first volume of poetry, A Change of World, for the Yale Younger Poets Award. Despite the title, the poems have to do with resisting change. Rich’s early training at her father’s hands reinforced her allegiance to a literary tradition of meticulous craft, of “beauty” and “perfection.” Accordingly, these poems are objective, carefully crafted, and rhymed, with echoes of W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. A recurring image is that of the home as a refuge that is threatened by social instability (“The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room”) or natural forces (“Storm Warnings”). The women in these poems remain at home, occupied with women’s tasks such as embroidering (“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”), weaving (“Mathilde in Normandy”), and caring for their families (“Eastport to Block Island”). A central theme of these poems is the use of art as a technique for ordering experience (“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and “At a Bach Concert”). “At a Bach Concert” is written in a musically complex form, a variant of the intricate terza rima stanza used by Dante. Rich’s poem weaves together many strands of poetic technique (assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, off-rhyme, alliteration) and rhetorical devices (oxymoron and parallelism) into a rich textural harmony to develop the theme that formal structure is the poet’s gift of love: “Form is the ultimate gift that love can offer—/ The vital union of necessity/ With all that we desire, all that we suffer.”
The Diamond Cutters
The theme of artistic control and craft is repeated in Rich’s second book, The Diamond Cutters . Written when Rich was traveling in Europe as the recipient of a Guggenheim Traveling Fellowship, this volume is a tourist’s poetic diary. Landscape and scenery are prominent. The book blends two moods, nostalgia for a more beautiful past and ironic disillusionment with a present that falls short of perfection (as in “The Ideal Landscape,” “Lucifer in the Train,” or “The Strayed Village.” In a profound way, all the characters in this book are exiles, aliens, uneasy in the places they inhabit. The heroines of poems such as “Autumn Equinox,” “The Prospect,” and “The Perennial Answer” are dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. They hold on to history and to the social structures it has produced, refusing to question present conditions. Suppressed anger and unacknowledged tensions lie just beneath the surface of all the poems; the book’s tone is passive, flat. Eight years passed before Rich’s next book appeared. Its stylistic and thematic...
(The entire section is 4,596 words.)