Adrienne Rich Power Essays

The Feminist Movement and Adrienne Rich's Power

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The Feminist Movement and Adrienne Rich's Power


"Power," which was written in 1978 by Adrienne Rich, parallels the Feminist Movement that went into full swing roughly ten years earlier. The poem asks that we revise the traditions regarding the roles of women and relates it to Marie Curie, a famous scientist who preceded the Feminist Movement by about 100 years.

The bottle and earth described in the first six lines parallel the struggle for women's rights and those who were refusing to accept change. The poem begins describing an excavation: "a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth" a bottle of "tonic/ for living on this earth in the winters of this climate" (lines2-5). The fact that this specific tool used to uncover the bottle indicates that much of the earth around it had already been taken away, and the remaining soil had to be removed bit by bit as to preserve the tonic and free it wholly. This, too, can be said for the Feminist Movement of the 60s; the final success of the movement was a result of the distinction of what particularly had to be changed. The larger pieces of earth removed are the successes of women before them, such as the recognition of women's rights. The final bits of earth are the individual rights of women, such as abortion rights and equal rights. The earth stands for those who are not willing to forego tradition and accept change.

What specifically does the tonic describe? "Tonic" means "an invigorating, refreshing, or restorative agent" ("tonic"). It makes sense that this "restorative" agent be rediscovered because its very meaning implies that something be brought back. This again makes sense in comparison to the Feminist Movement of the 60s because the predecessor's work for women's rights reemerged as they campaigned for individual rights. When Marie Curie is described later, the connection can be made between her and the excavation because she represents those who had freed up much of the barriers women faced, especially because Marie Curie's career as a physicist was unprecedented&emdash;she was the only woman at the 1911 Berlin Conference, and not even a man had won two Nobel Peace Prizes at that time (Gioia and Kennedy, 1247).

Marie Curie's determination to work with the dangerous elements that destroyed her body can be likened again to the Feminist Movement. She strove to attain understanding of elements until it killed her.

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Feminist Movement         Adrienne Rich         Roles Of Women         Individual Rights         Marie Curie         Equal Rights         Bottle        




She endured cataracts and skin problems for her cause and, denying "her wounds," she continued working toward her goal. So, too, did women of the Feminist Movement of the 1960s. They continued struggling for their cause, not backing down from their cause to accept anything less than what they believed to be right and fair. In both the Feminist Movement and Marie Curie's life, "denying wounds" is representative of the struggle for women's rights; the price paid for women's rights has been enormous but endured because the pay off for women has been so great.

Essentially, this poem parallels the Feminist Movement of the later 1960s, which was influenced by the successes of its predecessors. Without such women as Marie Curie, the battle for women's rights would not be where it is today.


"Divulged." Webster's 2 New Riverside University Dictionary. 2nd ed.

Gioia, Dana and X. J. Kennedy. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Longman Publishers, 2002.

"Tonic." Webster's 2 New Riverside University Dictionary. 2nd ed.



In answer to the question “Does poetry play a role in social change?,” Adrienne Rich once answered:

Yes, where poetry is liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves, replenishing our desire. . . . In poetry words can say more than they mean and mean more than they say. In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.

There are many great poets, but not all of them alter the ways in which we understand the world we live in; not all of them suggest that words can be held responsible. Remarkably, Adrienne Rich did this, and continues to do this, for generations of readers.

Rich’s desire for a transformative writing that would invent new ways to be, to see, and to speak drew me to her work in the early nineteen-eighties, while I was a student at Williams College. Midway through a cold and snowy semester in the Berkshires, I read for the first time James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” from 1962, and two collections by Rich, her 1969 “Leaflets” and her 1971–1972 “Diving into the Wreck.” In Baldwin’s text I underlined the following:

Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself.

Rich’s interrogation of the “guarding” of systems was the subject of everything she wrote in the years leading up to my introduction to her work. “Leaflets,” “Diving into the Wreck,” and “The Dream of a Common Language,” from 1978_,_ were all examples of this, as were her other works, all the way to her final poems, in 2012. And though I did not have the critic Helen Vendler’s experience upon encountering Rich—“Four years after she published her first book, I read it in almost disbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life. . . . Here was a poet who seemed, by a miracle, a twin: I had not known till then how much I had wanted a contemporary and a woman as a speaking voice of life”—I was immediately drawn to Rich’s interest in what echoes past the silences in a life that wasn’t necessarily my life.

In my copy of Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken,” the faded yellow highlighter still remains recognizable on pages after more than thirty years: “Both the victimization and the anger experienced by women are real, and have real sources, everywhere in the environment, built into society, language, the structures of thought.” As a nineteen-year-old, I read in Rich and Baldwin a twinned dissatisfaction with systems invested in a single, dominant, oppressive narrative. My initial understanding of feminism and racism came from these two writers in the same weeks and months.

Rich claimed, in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet,” from 1984, that Baldwin was the “first writer I read who suggested that racism was poisonous to white as well as destructive to Black people.” It was Rich who suggested to me that silence, too, was poisonous and destructive to our social interactions and self-knowledge. Her understanding that the ethicacy of our personal relationships was dependent on the ethics of our political and cultural systems was demonstrated not only in her poetry but also in her essays, her interviews, and in conversations like the extended one she conducted with the poet and essayist Audre Lorde.

Despite the vital friendship between Lorde and Rich, or perhaps because of it, both poets were able to question their own everyday practices of collusion with the very systems that oppressed them. As self-identified lesbian feminists, they openly negotiated the difficulties of their very different racial and economic realities. Stunningly, they showed us that, if you listen closely enough, language “is no longer personal,” as Rich writes in “Meditations for a Savage Child,” but stains and is stained by the political.

In the poem “Hunger” (1974–1975), which is dedicated to Audre Lorde, Rich writes, “I’m wondering / whether we even have what we think we have / . . . even our intimacies are rigged with terror. / Quantify suffering? My guilt at least is open, / I stand convicted by all my convictions—you, too . . .” And as if in the form of an answer Lorde wrote, in “The Uses Of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” an essay published in 1981, “I cannot hide my anger to spare your guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action.”

By my late twenties, in the early nineteen-nineties, I was in graduate school at Columbia University and came across Rich’s recently published “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” I approached the volume thinking I knew what it would hold, but found myself transported by Rich’s profound exploration of ethical loneliness. Rich called forward voices created in a precarious world. And though the term “ethical loneliness” would come to me years later, from the work of the critic Jill Stauffer, I understood Rich to be drawing into her stanzas the voices of those who have been, in the words of Stauffer, “abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard.”

Perhaps because of its pithy, if riddling, directness, the opening stanza of “Final Notations_,_” the last poem in “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” willed its way into my memory like a popular song. This shadow sonnet, with its intricate and entangled complexity, seemed to have come a far distance from the tidiness of the often anthologized “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” a poem that appeared in her first collection. The open-ended pronoun “it” seemed as likely to land in “change” as in “poetry” or “life” or “childbirth”:

It will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

As readers, when we are lucky, we can experience a poet’s changes through language over a lifetime. For me, these lines enacted Rich’s statement, in “Images for Godard” (1970), that “the moment of change is the only poem.” Rich’s own transformations brought her closer to the ethical lives of her readers even as she wrote poems that at times lost patience with our culture’s inability to change alongside her.

Arriving at Radcliffe, the daughter of a Southern Protestant pianist mother and a Jewish doctor father, Rich initially excelled at being exceptional in accepted ways. Often working in traditional form in her early writing, she, even in these nascent poems, was already addressing the frustration of being constrained by forces that traditionally were not inclusive. Consequently, Rich was never primarily invested in traditional meter and form, though she employed them early on. Some of her earliest poems suggest she was already grasping toward what could not yet be described as “liberative language.” Her poems often found ways to critique existing expectations for one’s femininity and sexuality, and a decorum that did not include speaking her truth to power.

Rich began her public poetic career as the 1951 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, which was awarded for her first collection, “A Change of World.” W. H. Auden selected Rich’s volume and brought to the world’s attention Rich’s first thorny questions, embedded in lyrics, addressing a culture’s disengagement with its embattled selves. A poem like “A Clock in the Square,” published in that volume, finds its inspiration in a “handless clock” that refuses, rather than is unable, “to acknowledge the hour”:

This handless clock stares blindly from its tower,
Refusing to acknowledge any hour,
But what can one clock do to stop the game
When others go on striking just the same?
Whatever mite of truth the gesture held,
Time may be silenced but will not be stilled,
Nor we absolved by any one’s withdrawing
From all the restless ways we must be going
And all the rings in which we’re spun and swirled,
Whether around a clockface or a world.

The clock appears initially to be broken, but its handlessness proves an ineffective strategy against the “game.” Silence as a form of rebellion proves inadequate to the moment.

Auden praised “A Change of World” for, among other things, its “detachment from the self and its emotions,” as is demonstrated in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” a poem that has always been coupled in my mind with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther.” “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” projects freedom onto the image of the tigers that the poem’s protagonist stitches into her needlework. This is in contrast to Rilke’s portrayal of the panther as imprisoned and behind bars. Rilke depicts the panther’s very will as having been paralyzed:

The padding gait of flexibly strong strides,
that in the very smallest circle turns,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which stupefied a great will stands.

Rich’s dialectical use of the tigers to contrast with the paralysis intrinsic to Aunt Jennifer’s domestic life speaks gently to her early “absolutist approach to the universe,” as she herself observed in a 1964 essay. She would come to understand society’s limits as touching all our lives. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” ends with a quatrain:

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Those “terrified hands,” “ringed” and “mastered,” also could imagine and create a fantastical reflection of life, those tigers, which remain “proud and unafraid.”

Rich came of age in a postwar America where civil rights and antiwar movements were either getting started or were on the horizon. Poets like Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, and LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), among others, were abandoning the illusionary position of objectivity and finding their way to the use of the first person, gaining access to their emotional as well as political lives on the page. Rich’s reach for objectivity would be similarly short-lived.

She joined poets engaged in political-poetic resistance to the Vietnam War, as can be seen in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” (1968), which includes lines like “Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton’s.” She began to elide traditions in order to speak from a more integrated history. “Even before I called myself a feminist or a lesbian,” Rich wrote in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry,” “I felt driven—for my own sanity—to bring together in my poems the political world ‘out there’—the world of children dynamited or napalmed, of the urban ghetto and militarist violence—and the supposedly private, lyrical world of sex and of male/female relationships.”

With Rich came the formulation of an alternate poetic tradition that distrusted and questioned paternalistic, heteronormative, and hierarchical notions of what it meant to have a voice, especially for female writers. All of culture found its way into Rich’s poems, and as her work evolved she made it almost impossible for any writers mentored by her poetry and essays to experience their own work as “sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own,” to quote from her foreword to her 1979 book “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.”

A dozen years after “A Change of World” was published, Rich would look back on her earlier work—which includes her second volume, “The Diamond Cutters,” and its metrical and imagistic tidiness—and admit that “in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order.” This understanding that disruption seen and negotiated inside the poem might be closer to her actual experience of the world changed the content, form, and voice of her poetics. In her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” (1963), a restlessness settles into the poems that explore marriage and child rearing. It’s here the exasperation of a “thinking woman” begins the fight “with what she partly understood. / Few men about her would or could do more, / hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore,” as Rich writes in the title poem.

The nineteen-seventies saw the publication of some of Rich’s most memorable and powerful poems. She developed in her writing the appearance of the unadorned simplicity of a mind in rigorous thought. In a 1971 conversation with the poet Stanley Plumly, Rich said she was “interested in the possibilities of the ‘plainest statement’ at times, the kind of things that people say to each other at moments of stress.” In poems like the groundbreaking “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich clearly chooses reality over myth in order to create room within the poems to confront what was broken in our common lives:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster

When “Diving into the Wreck” won the National Book Award, in 1974, Rich accepted the prize in solidarity with fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde:

The statement I am going to read was prepared by three of the women nominated for the National Book Award for poetry, with the agreement that it would be read by whichever of us, if any, was chosen.

We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain. We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry—if it is poetry—exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison. We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women. We appreciate the good faith of the judges for this award, but none of us could accept this money for herself, nor could she let go unquestioned the terms on which poets are given or denied honor and livelihood in this world, especially when they are women. We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teen-ager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.

Over twenty years later, in 1997, Rich declined the National Medal for the Arts, this country’s highest artistic honor, because she believed that “the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” In her July 3rd letter to the Clinton Administration and Jane Alexander, the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, she wrote,

I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal. Anyone familiar with my work from the early sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.

Positioned as a teacher, as I often am now, at the front of a classroom, I was struck by reading a line in “Draft #2006,” from “Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth.” The line—“Maybe I couldn’t write fast enough.         Maybe it was too soon.”—reminded me that this urgency, apprehension, and questioning has characterized all of Rich’s poems. Still, it seems she responds in time, as she will always be once and future, and her work always relevant.

They asked me, is this time worse than another.

I said for whom?

Wanted to show them something.                  While I wrote on the
chalkboard they drifted out. I turned back to an empty room.

Maybe I couldn’t write fast enough.               Maybe it was too soon.

In her “Collected Poems 1950_–_2012” we have a chronicle of over a half century of what it means to risk the self in order to give the self, to refer back to Baldwin. As the poet Marilyn Hacker as written,

Rich’s body of work establishes, among other things, an intellectual autobiography, which is interesting not as the narrative of one life (which it’s not) and still less as intimate divulgence, but as the evolution and revolutions of an exceptional mind, with all its curiosity, outreaching, exasperation and even its errors.

One of our best minds writes her way through the changes that have brought us here, in all the places that continue to entangle our liberties in the twenty-first century. And here is not “somewhere else but here,” Rich writes. We remain in “our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, / its own way of making people disappear.”

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but
don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

_This essay was drawn from the introduction to “Collected Poems 1950–2012,” by Adrienne Rich, which is out June 21st from W. W. Norton & Company. _

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