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 are being tested. The location signifies the extremity Western civilization has reached. To be able to speak together, the man and woman have given up the shallow entertainments and trivial luxuries of society:
What we’ve had to give up to get here—whole LP collections, films we starred inplaying in the neighborhoods, bakery windowsfull of dry, chocolate-filled Jewish cookies,
The catalogue of civilization’s foregone delights contrasts with the desert’s stark urgency. The list itemizes the things—possessions, food, status—that tempt people with false promises of happiness, and thus prevent them from solving fundamental societal evils. Nevertheless, the poem’s two characters have arrived at the boundary of realization, the desert’s barren terrain. They face the likelihood of impending destruction, talking together in an attempt to repair the damaged communication.
Speaking together, they analyze dangers and itemize emergency precautions. However, their conversation evades the real issue, for bombs are a symptom of the problem. The society that produces bombs is the problem. The greatest danger lies in evasion, in the failure to exchange ideas and to admit responsibility for the danger.
Each speaker feels the other is dangerous. While the man regards the woman with suspicion, she believes his “dry heat feels like power.” In this poem the two speakers have not yet established a meaningful dialogue. Therefore, the uneasiness persists, and the problems are not resolved. Without dialogue, there is no way to halt the testing of bombs and to defuse civilization’s drive to destruction.
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 1,053 words.)