Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Living in Sin” is an early poem by one of America’s leading poets of the second half of the twentieth century. It foreshadows several of the themes and techniques of the more than twenty books of poetry that followed. Its concern with male/female relationships and the societal judgment suggested by the title are a major aspect of her many books of poetry, as well as her collections of essays and talks. The poem represents just one sketch in a large portfolio of works concerned with the proper role of both men and women in a society that seldom questions the status quo or the confining limits that it unthinkingly imposes on both sexes, especially women.

Contrary to what readers may expect, the sin mentioned in the title refers not so much to social condemnation of living together out of wedlock—even though the word “tramp” is rich with suggestions of social disapproval—as it does to a way of life: the young woman’s sordid living conditions, her strained relationship with her man, and her unrealistic expectations. A less proficient writer may have held up the woman as a victim of antiquated social mores and prejudice. However, “Living in Sin” is a richer, more powerful poem because it refuses to engage in facile criticism of social attitudes. Rather, the poet keeps attention focused on the disillusionment of a single individual, one who is more a victim of her own illusions than of social prejudice. Society is at fault only inasmuch as...

(The entire section is 443 words.)