Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970 Critical Essays

Adrienne Rich


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 996 words.)