The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Adrienne Rich’s “Trying to Talk with a Man” is a compact and powerful poem consisting of thirty-nine lines arranged in nine stanzas that vary in length from one to seven lines. The poem describes a conversation between a man and a woman who have gone out into the desert where bombs are being tested. As the title indicates, this conversation is difficult: The speaker is “trying” to talk and perhaps not succeeding. Each of the two people in the poem, a man and a woman, sees the other as dangerously threatening; communication has broken down.

Almost all the poems in Diving into the Wreck are cast in the form of dialogue. This poem is the first in the volume, and it sets the book’s tone. As its title indicates, conversation is a central metaphor. Whereas several of Rich’s earliest poems speak about women who are silent and defer to men (such as “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and “An Unsaid Word” in A Change of World, published in 1951), the woman here is the active initiator of the discussion. “Trying to Talk with a Man” is about the dangers of an accelerating arms race, but its deeper subject is the creation of a real dialogue between men and women. The poet becomes Woman trying to talk with Man, as she calls upon her counterpart to join her in the task of questioning and redefining the habitual thinking about issues of gender and power.

The poem’s conversation takes place in a barren desert where bombs...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is written in unrhymed free verse, with approximately half of the lines end-stopped, the other half run-on. The rhythmic base is iambic pentameter with a moderate amount of variation. Iambic pentameter is close to the natural speech rhythms of English and thus complements the poem’s formal structure as a conversation. The voice is third-person plural, “we,” and the speaker addresses another person, the man in the title, as “you.”

Rich’s earliest poems (for example, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room,” and “An Unsaid Word”) were statements rather than conversations. They were often more tightly structured, with greater regularity of stanzas and more frequent rhyme. She wrote that her early poetry was “an arrangement of ideas and feelings,and it said what I had already decided it should say.” In 1964 she asserted that “instead of poems about experiences I am getting [writing] poems that are experiences.” That is, she was more willing to follow, work with, and learn from ideas, emotions, and images that arose during the writing process. The looser form of the later poems reflects that loosening of the composing process.

Rich has a strong sense of place, and many of her poems start by placing a speaker in a particular locale, often an urban location. This poem establishes a dramatic setting immediately, for the first line stands alone in its own stanza and proclaims: “Out in this desert we are testing bombs.” To call attention to place, the word “here” is repeated four times (two of them in the emphatic position at the end of lines) in the space of the poem’s thirty-nine lines. Similarly, “this desert” occurs twice, the word “place” appears once, and “locus” once.

Diving into the Wreck is Rich’s seventh collection of poems, and, strikingly, it is the first of her titles to use a verb form. Similarly, “Trying to Talk with a Man” makes use of the same verb form, the present progressive tense, thirteen times to emphasize activity that is continuing in the present time. Most of these present participles (“talking,” “moving,” “playing,” “driving,” “walking”) are at the start of the lines, giving them added prominence. Through its use of devices such as conversation, the inclusive “we,” and the present progressive tense, the poem gathers urgency and immediacy, drawing the reader into its social and political critique.


(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.