Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970

by Adrienne Rich
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

The poems in A Change of World are formally structured and often speak of the limitations that are inherent in a fallen world. For example, “Storm Warnings” deals with a force of nature that cannot be resisted no matter how much one prepares for it. It will find a way through the “unsealed keyhole” and touch those “who live in troubled regions.” In a similar fashion, “Afterward” describes a person who was above it all, has now fallen, and must accept limits and “grow to fit her doom.” The most interesting poem in this first book is “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” On the surface, it seems to be a feminist piece, since it celebrates the tapestry creations of Aunt Jennifer. The tigers she creates are clearly superior to the inactive men, but in her life she is dominated by a male in marriage. The last stanza, however, states that her creation will continue despite her being “mastered” by the ordeals that marriage brings upon a woman. At the time, Rich has said, she tried to make Aunt Jennifer “as distinct from myself as possible”; the effect of the poem, she continued, is “distanced by the formalism.” So the poem touches on the central feminist problem but fails to deal fully and forcefully with it.

In The Diamond Cutters, Rich’s next book of poems, the formalism and the theme of limitations persist; however, other poetic strategies appear as well. For example, “Living in Sin” humorously contrasts the ideal of a romantic liaison with the reality. All the expectations are set against opposite images, so the formal aspects remain, but the ironic tone adds a new perspective. The title poem is also worth noting, since it uses the work of diamond cutters as a metaphor for the creation of poetry. A diamond cutter, and the poet, must deal with the material as an adversary and not be too familiar with it. Similarly, the creator must remain distant from the creation lest the work becomes too filled with “desire,” a key idea in formalist criticism. The last line ironically speaks of the fact that the work is never-ending; there will be “more for you to do.” In a note at the end of the collection, Rich comments on her later uneasiness with a metaphor that drew on the exploitation of South African miners.

“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” uses a very different style and form from those of earlier poems. It is written in free verse and abandons traditional stanzas for looser groupings in its ten sections. The subject matter is also different; it portrays both the mother and the daughter-in-law as trapped in an unfair world. The mother’s mind is “crumbling,” but there is some hope since “her daughter grows another way.” Rich includes sections on Emily Dickinson and Mary Wollstonecraft to provide a historical context for her feminist view; these women of great talent were thwarted or threatened by a male society that could not accept the change their vision necessitated. In the last section of the poem, however, there is an image of women coming into success. Women are described in the metaphor of a helicopter that brings them, finally, into their “own.” So the poem moves from an indictment of oppression to an assertion of triumph.

One other poem in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, “Roofwalker,” is important. The poem metaphorically connects the speaker to builders working on a roof. She is “exposed” and building “a roof I can’t live under.” The poem shows Rich’s uneasiness and her inability to continue using the stifling traditions on which her earlier poems depended. The poem ends as the speaker portrays herself as “a naked man fleeing/ across the roofs.” The speaker (and Rich) now accepts the risks inherent in her feminist project, even if it means stripping herself “naked” to the world in her new poetic style, form, and theme.

The Necessities of Life continues the freer style, structure, and subject matter of the previous volume. There is, for example, a poem on Emily Dickinson, “I Am in Danger, Sir!” The poem shows how Dickinson is seen by others. To critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she is “half cracked.” She is discovered later, but “in garbled versions.” Finally, she is someone, like Rich, who “chose to have it out at last/ on your own premises.” She will confront what she must in order to create her self in her poetry.

Leaflets is a transitional book that includes poems on women and uses a new form for Rich—one very distinct from the Anglo-American tradition, the shazal. These poems are written in groups of five couplets on the model of Mirz Asadullh Khn Ghalib’s Urdu poems. “Orion” is, perhaps, the most important poem in this book. It metaphorically compares the speaker to the constellation Orion. Rich has commented on the “egotism” the poem offers as a false alternative that she accepted at the time but later realized needed to be revised and redefined.

The last book in the collection, The Will to Change, is the most directly political. “Planetarium” describes the achievements of astronomer Caroline Herschel and shows how she was ignored during her time. Rich then uses the metaphors of astronomy to announce her own poetic program. “I am an instrument in the shape/ of a woman trying to translate pulsations/ into images for the relief of the body/ and the reconstruction of the mind.” Rich describes her role now as that of a prophet and healer; the radical change from the formalism of her first books could not be greater. “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” is a poem in five sections that contrasts the burning of a book to the burning of Joan of Arc. Even though Rich sees the burning of a book as a lesser evil, she needs to “talk to you” in the “oppressor’s language.” For Rich, the abuse of language is at the root of all oppression.

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