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Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970, by Adrienne Rich, traces her work’s development from formal and tightly structured poems to loose and very consciously feminist ones. Rich’s first book was A Change of World, published in 1951 in the Yale Younger Poets series. It appeared when she was only twenty-two, and W. H. Auden, who selected the book for the Yale award, described the poems as modest and “craftsmanlike.” The models for the style and form of the poems in this book were, according to Rich, all male. The book contains many imitations of such male poets as Auden, Robert Frost, and William Butler Yeats.

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The second book of poems by Rich was The Diamond Cutters (1955). Its subject matter and style vary slightly from the earlier works, although formalism is still dominant. Many of the poems deal with marriage or other relationships and are set in Europe, since Rich was traveling on a Guggenheim Fellowship during this period. There is also more irony and humor in the poems, especially in “Living in Sin.” Irony was one of the important poetic strategies in the male-dominated New Criticism.

The next book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was the breakthrough volume for Rich. It clearly shows the change in Rich’s poetry from formalism to feminism. Here her work is more direct in approach and very different in subject matter. The title poem announces the change in perspective as Rich deals forcefully with the problems of women in a male world. She portrays women as oppressed or unsatisfied and then suggests ways for women to come into their own. Her models are no longer male poets from the formalist tradition. Rich now chooses to write in the less structured style of free verse so that her themes can come through without being vitiated by the distancing that formalism invariably creates; she now writes poetry that comes out of her experience as a woman.

The books after Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law continue this boldness of expression and deal directly with feminist issues. There are, in addition, love poems written to a woman and simpler and more direct personal poems. The Necessities of Life, for example, contains a poem about Emily Dickinson and another poem, “Any Husband to Any Wife,” that attempts to rescue something out of the disturbed relations between men and women. Leaflets, published in 1969, expands the subject matter of Rich’s poetry into political and social areas, and it includes many translations from Russian and Yiddish. “Orion,” the most interesting poem in this collection, was described by Rich as a “poem of reconnection” with the imaginative principles she had been in danger of losing.

The last change in Rich’s development in Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970 can be seen in The Will to Change. In that book, Rich becomes more overtly political in didactic poems dealing with the social and racial issues of the 1960’s. Her feminist stance, which had been apparent since Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, is now expanded to address other forms of oppression. The change in Rich’s poetry from her first to her last book in this collection is obvious. Where she once spoke of “a change of world,” she later actively asked for “the will to change.”

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Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970 did not appear until 1993, but upon their original publication the individual books had announced a new voice in women’s literature. Rich’s books of poetry, especially Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and those that followed, showed other women writers how women could abandon male models and forms in order to write about their own situations and experiences. She also showed how one could use female writers of the past as models and subjects for poetry. There was no need to follow a male tradition that limited or excluded women.

Some of the issues that Rich dealt with in these early poems are the necessity of empowering women and the need to redefine relationships. The old patriarchal society and culture are called into question in a number of her poems, especially those in The Will to Change. Once the decayed patriarchy is overcome, women can, Rich states, “awaken” to a changed world.

Another area of change in these poems is personal relationships. Rich moves from conventional love poems in her first book to overt lesbian ones in The Will to Change. In addition, she is seeking to redefine those relationships so that both men and women can find a true and real role. “A Marriage in the Sixties,” for example, portrays a truer union of man and woman and looks forward to the abolition of gender that “Diving into the Wreck” announces.

The odyssey of Rich from a poet who accepted and embodied the prevailing tradition to one who created a new tradition based on women’s experience and feelings is embodied in Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970. It represents the first step toward, as the title of Rich’s important essay has it, “when we dead awaken.” In that essay, she used her own poems as an example of the change that she hoped would come about for all women.

Bibliography

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Booklist. LXXXIX, December 1, 1992, p.645. A review of the collection.

Cooper, Jane Roberta, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951-1981. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. The most important collection of essays on Rich’s poetry and feminist views.

Houston Post. April 25, 1993, p. C4. A review of the collection.

Juhasz, Suzanne. Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, a New Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. One chapter of this book on the emerging tradition of women’s poetry is devoted to Rich’s contribution.

Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. One chapter of this book is devoted to Rich’s life and poetry.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. A feminist analysis of Rich’s poetry that focuses on the concept of power in the later poems.

Library Journal. CXVII, December, 1992, p.144. A review of the collection.

The New Republic. CCIX, November 8, 1993, p.33. A review of the collection.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, November 7, 1993, p.7. A review of the collection.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.61. A review of the collection.

Rich, Adrienne. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. Edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. A Norton Critical Edition that contains selections of Rich’s poetry and prose supplemented by a number of excellent critical essays on her work.

San Francisco Chronicle. April 18, 1993, p. REV3. A review of the collection.

Vendler, Helen. Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. A book on recent American poetry that includes an excellent chapter on Rich’s early and later poetry.

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