Adrienne Rich (b. 1929)
Contributing Editor: Wendy Marin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Rich's poetry is extremely accessible and readable. However, there are a few allusions that cannot be understood and, from time to time, there will be references to events or literary works that will not be immediately recognized by students. This material or these references are glossed in the text so the student can understand the historical or literary context.
Other problems occur when there is fundamental hostility to the poet over feminism. The instructor will have to explain that feminism simply means a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of women and men. Explain, also, that Rich is not a man-hater or in any way unwilling to consider men as human beings. Rather, her priority is to establish the fundamental concerns of her women readers.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important to read these poems out loud, to understand that Rich is simultaneously a political, polemical, and lyric poet. It is important also to establish for the poems of the '60s, the Vietnam War protests as background as well as the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s.
It is also important to emphasize that in many respects the '60s and '70s were reaction to the confinement of the '50s and the feminine mystique of that period. In addition, stress that the political background of the poems by Adrienne Rich connects the personal and the political.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Rich employs free verse, dialogue, and the interweaving of several voices. She evolves from a more tightly constructed traditional rhymed poetry to a more open, loose, and flexible poetic line. The instructor must stress again that poetic subjects are chosen often for their political value and importance. It is important once again to stress that politics and art are intertwined, that they cannot be separated. Aesthetic matters affect the conditions of everyday life.
Adrienne Rich has written her poetry for all time. While it grows out of the political conflicts and tensions of the feminist movement and the antiwar protests of the sixties and seventies, it speaks of universal issues of relationships between men and women and between women and women that will endure for generations to come.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The feminist activists poets like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Carolyn Forché would be very useful to read along with Rich. Also, it might be useful to teach poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, who were, after all, poets of the beat movement of the late '50s and early '60s. They were poets with a vision, as is Rich.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. It might be useful to discuss the evolution of the more free and more flexible line that begins with Walt Whitman and the greater flexibility of subject matter that also begins with Whitman and Emily Dickinson and to carry this discussion on through William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg to discuss the evolution of the free verse that Rich uses.
2. Any writing topic that would discuss either the evolution of flexible poetics or aesthetics--that is, a concern with people's actual lived experiences, for the way they actually talk and think.
In addition, in the case of Rich, any paper that would link her to other women writers of the twentieth century (and the nineteenth, for that matter) would be useful. Rich is often quoted as an important cultural critic who provides the context for feminist thought in general in the twentieth century. It might also be useful to assign parts of her prose, either in collected essays or in Of Woman Born.
I would highly recommend my own book: An American Triptych: The Lives and Work of Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich. I am recommending this book because it provides both a historical and an aesthetic context for the poetry of Rich. It links her to earlier traditions that have shaped her work and demonstrates effectively how American Puritanism and American feminism are intertwined. It gives a lot of biographical material as well as historical background and literary analysis.