The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The groupings of lines in “Planetarium” are too irregular to be called stanzas; they are clusters of lines grouped according to separate thoughts, observations, and quotations. The fact that the words “An eye” have a line to themselves, for example, hints at the importance of vision (and re-vision) in the poem. The poem is dated 1968 (Rich regularly puts the year of composition at the end of her poems), and a number of poems dated 1968 in Leaflets (1969) and The Will to Change use structures similar to that of “Planetarium.” The poems also have spaces within the lines that add to the fragmentation of the thoughts being expressed. The reader senses hesitations, directions being pondered, options being weighed:

Galaxies of women, theredoing penance for impetuousnessribs chilledin those spaces of the mind.

The density of the poem’s closing group of eleven lines presents a rush of thoughts, with occasional pauses in midline that seem to be pauses for breath as well as momentary breaks in the sudden forward movement of connected ideas. The density also reflects the content, mirroring Rich’s depiction of herself as an “involuted” galactic cloud through which it has taken light fifteen years to travel.

In many of her poems of the late 1960’s, Rich...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “’Nothing Else Left to Read’: Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s ’An Atlas of the Difficult World.’” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-188.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea. From Motherhood and Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born.” New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Ostriker, Alice. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Spencer, Luke. “That Light of Outrage: The Historicism of Adrienne Rich.” English: Journal of the English Association 51, no. 200 (Summer, 2002): 145-160.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.