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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375

Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium" is a feminist poem whose structure is very much reflective of its content and message. Writing in free verse, Rich uses the form of the poem on the page to support her ideas. Beginning with a very traditional author's note in italics, indicating that the poem was inspired by the astronomer Caroline Hersch, nothing about the rest of the poem is regular. It is a poem which is a "monster" in the world of poetry: it does not reflect what we imagine a poem to be any more than a woman "among the Clocks and instruments" reflects what society expects a woman to be.

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The chiastic structure in the opening two lines forces the reader to recognize that, in Rich's view, "monster" and "woman" are equivalent concepts in our society, particularly where "impetuousness" exists.

A semantic field of stars and astronomy lends cohesion to the poem: "moon," "galaxies," and radio waves. The poem breaks apart in terms of its form in a way that echoes women "encountering the / NOVA" that is society. Like a nova, this kind of collision causes an explosion, pushing the "life...out of" women even as they strive not to have "lived in vain." After the encounter with the nova, the poem returns to something that almost resembles a regular poetic format: groups of two lines reflecting the vain attempts of women to conform. Ultimately, however, women are "bombarded yet"—note the shift in form on the page, the woman attempting to "stand" against this onslaught.

The final section of the poem is a visual representation of this stand, a solid block which does not conform to accepted grammatical structures, rejecting punctuation and including spaces where they would not be expected. Here, rejection of the norm makes the speaker strong: she is standing in the path of a "battery of signals" directed at her by the world around her, turning her into an "instrument" which must decipher these "untranslatable" ideas. As the poem suggests, the signals are sometimes so multitudinous and so confusing that it is all a woman can do to stand up to them and let them ebb through her, questing all the time for a "relief" which the world does not want her to feel.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

“Planetarium” is a forty-five-line poem in free verse that was prompted by a visit to a planetarium during which Adrienne Rich read about the work of astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). Herschel had worked with her brother William, the discoverer of Uranus, and later worked on her own. The poem is in “free” verse only in that its groupings of lines and phrases are irregular; they are actually carefully arranged to emphasize the progression of observations and thoughts that make up the poem.

The opening lines refer to the constellations, their shapes identified since ancient times with mythological beings; among them is “a monster in the shape of a woman.” Then Rich moves to a real woman, Caroline Herschel, and quotes from a description of her working with scientific instruments; Herschel, she notes, discovered eight comets. In seven words, Rich deftly points out a kinship among Herschel, herself, and all women: “She whom the moon ruled/ like us.” In a description that sounds like a metaphor but is based on the fact that astronomers often observed from cages that were raised high in the air within the observatory to allow them to see through the telescope, Herschel is seen “levitating into the night sky” and “riding” the lenses.

Rich links the mythological women in the heavens with all women; all are serving “penance,” and it is implied that the penance is being demanded by the men who created the myths and named the constellations. Another quotation appears, this one of astronomer Tycho Brahe...

(The entire section contains 1460 words.)

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