Adrienne Rich Analysis

The Poetry of Adrienne Rich

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Adrienne Rich’s poetry traces the growth of a conscious woman in the second half of the twentieth century. Her first two books, A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters (1955), contain verses of finely crafted, imitative forms, strongly influenced by the modernist poets. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law is a transitional work in which Rich begins to express a woman’s concerns. Her form loosens as well; she begins to experiment with free verse.

The collections Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971) openly reject patriarchal culture and language. Experiments with form continue as she juxtaposes poetry and prose and uses multiple voices. With Diving into the Wreck Rich’s poetry becomes clearly identified with radical feminism and lesbian separatism. A theme of the title poem is the need for women to define themselves in their own terms and create an alternative female language. The Dream of a Common Language was published after Rich came out as a lesbian and includes the explicitly sexual “Twenty-one Love Poems.”

By the time of the publication of A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), the influence of Rich’s poetry extended beyond art and into politics. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Rich expresses a fundamental conflict between poetry and politics, which occupies her poetic voice. The collections Your Native Land,...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Adrienne Rich’s work has been at the vanguard of the women’s movement in the United States. Her poems and essays explore her own experience and seek to develop a “common language” for women to communicate their values and perceptions. She has received numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry (1960), the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America (1971), and the National Book Award (1974) for Diving into the Wreck. Other recognitions include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), the Northern California Book Award in poetry (1989), the Bill Whitehead Award (1990), Lambda Literary Awards (1991, 1995, 2001), the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1992), the Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1992), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1992), the Frost Medal (1992), a MacArthur Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize (1993), the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement (1994), the Wallace Stevens Award (1996), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation (1999), the Bollingen Prize (2003), and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2006). In 2004, The School Among the Ruins earned Rich the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, and the Poetry Center Book Award. She served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2001.

Other Literary Forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Adrienne Rich is known primarily for her poetry, but she has produced essays on writing and politics as well: Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) is an analysis of the changing meanings of childbirth and motherhood in Anglo-American culture, in which Rich draws on personal experience as well as sources in mythology, sociology, economics, the history of medicine, and literature to develop her analysis. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979) is a collection of essays on women writers (including Anne Bradstreet, Anne Sexton, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Dickinson) and feminism. Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (1986) followed with further essays on women writers and feminist criticism. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) delivers just what the title promises. For several years Rich also coedited, with Michelle Cliff, the lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Compare the more formal style of writing present in Adrienne Rich’s early poetry, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” for example, to the experimental stylistic elements that mark her later works. Does the lack of uniformity in her later works encourage meaning or distract the reader?

Rich’s poetry is said to mimic themes of Emily Dickinson and, at times, her somber tone. What could Rich, as a twentieth century American woman, have in common with a woman born more than one hundred years before her?

One theme that permeates much of Rich’s poetry is where and how one’s private life intersects with one’s public life. Where does this theme emerge in her poetry? Why might Rich be so focused on this relationship?

Rich incorporates the limitations of language into much of her poetry, showing that while words are necessary, they almost always fall short of reflecting emotions accurately. Analyze this theme in the light of her role as a poet. What is to be gained by a writer calling attention to the restrictions of language?

Rich is the mother of three sons. Where in her poetry are images of motherhood? What are Rich’s opinions of motherhood in the light of her feminist rhetoric?


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Altieri, Charles. “Self-Reflection as Action: The Recent Work of Adrienne Rich.” In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. This essay treats The Dream of a Common Language and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. Altieri examines the way in which Rich’s poetry emphasizes “the connection between composition and constructing a responsible self.”

Cooper, Jane Roberta, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich: Review and Re-Visions, 1951-1981. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. A useful collection of reviews and critical studies of Rich’s poetry and prose. It includes Auden’s foreword to A Change of World and other significant essays. The aim is for breadth and balance.

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Examination of the poets Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rich, with three of the book’s nine chapters devoted to Rich. Bibliography, index.

Estrin, Barbara L. The American Love Lyric After Auschwitz and Hiroshima. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Estrin finds a connection between the language of the love lyric and hate speech. Using the specific examples of Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Adrienne...

(The entire section is 540 words.)