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More about Adrienne Rich

2009 February 25
by Melinda C.

I realized that I never posted much of a bio on the person I represented in the panel on Monday, Adrienne Rich. Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 (making her the oldest person present at the panel at about 80), but she has published poetry as recently as a few years ago. Her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, was published the same year she graduated from Radcliffe College, and some of her most well-known works were published during the 60’s and 70’s (Dream of a Common Language, Diving into the Wreck, Twenty-One Love Poems, etc.). Much of her work deals with issues of feminism, and I am always personally moved by how she uses such simple, accessible language to communicate ideas that are often so very complex. Don’t get me wrong – Rich’s poetry is not necessarily easy to grasp at first – but it has a different, intricate style that, for me at least, evokes feeling and emotion even if I do not understand all of it at first.

Anyway… as I said in class, Adrienne Rich married in her early 20’s and had three kids before she turned 30, and struggled a great deal to reconcile being a mother and a woman poet who was once full of energy and desire, but was now tied down by the “traditional” path she had taken. It was in the late 50’s that she really began writing from her experience as a woman (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” was written over the course of two years, during her children’s naps, etc.), and that was the start of a transformation in her poetry. Her work became less formal and more experimental and personal, but in a way that still tied her experience to the larger social and cultural events and structures of the time. She believes that language has a great transformative quality, and that poetry is “an art of translation, a connective strand between unlike individuals, times, and cultures” (Arts of the Possible, pg. 135). It is this viewpoint that makes me draw parallels between her work and other types of technology: her kind of poetry connects, transforms, and (ideally) has an impact on both those who write it and those who read it.

I think I am just going to stop here and type up some of the quotes from/about her views of poetry that struck me as relating to our discussions of technology:

From “When We Dead Awaken” in Arts of the Possible:

“For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed-freedom to pass on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment.”

From “Poetry and the Public Sphere” in Arts of the Possible:

“I don’t believe any single poem can speak to all of us, nor is that necessary; but I believe poems can reach many for whom they were not consciously written, sometimes in ways the poet never expected. I want to read, and make, poems that are out there on the edge of meaning yet can mean something to the collective. I don’t believe it’s only the isolated visionary who goes to the edge of meaning; I think the collective needs to go there too, because in fact that edge is where we can see what it would really be like to live without meaning, dissociated… This poetry is worth our most sacred and profane passion, because it embodies our desire, what we might create, in the difficult world around the poem.”

From the preface to When We Dead Awaken:

“I knew-had long known-how poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”

(note: Rich seems quite fond of the notion of poetry revealing and recharging our desire… perhaps, in this way, poetry is a kind of technology that allows us to connect with our own humanity? this idea is why I related Alex’s definition of technology as “any advancement of humanity” to Rich’s work… for women, at least, this kind of technology, this manipulation and re-shaping of language, allows for a greater range of self-expression than the standard, formal (and perhaps she would say “masculine”) types of poetry do…)

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which addresses a kind of social technology in which we are all engaged (if you agree with her point of view, anyway). Just to pull a quick summary off of Wikipedia: “Rich argues that heterosexuality is a violent political institution making way for the ‘male right of physical, economical, and emotional access’ to women. She urges women to direct their energies towards other women rather than men, and portrays lesbianism as an extension of feminism. Rich challenges the notion of women’s dependence on men as social and economic supports, as well as for adult sexuality and psychological completion.” (

Finally, if you want to read some of Rich’s poetry, you can find a selection of it here: Two of my personal favorites are “Diving into the Wreck” and “Cartographies of Silence,” and I think that “Power” is also particularly relevant to our class! I also think that her “Twenty-One Love Poems” is one of the most beautiful poem sequences I have ever read:

So, now that I have rambled for probably way too long, I am wondering what you all think about the idea of language, and specifically poetry, as technology? There is more that I could say myself, but I am curious to hear what others think!

2 Responses
  1. March 22, 2009

    I enjoyed your introduction to Adrienne Rich. She is an extraordinary poet with an incredible grasp on language and tone. I am analyzing many different poems by her for an assignment in an English class and found your information and parallels interesting and useful. Rich’s past and culture truly helped form her as a poet and person. You can feel her life experiences bleeding through her poems and that makes her work more enjoyable to the reader.

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