Adrienne Rich is one of the most important poets and feminists of the middle to late twentieth century. Taken together, the twenty-five collections of poetry and numerous essays she published in her lifetime are a powerful literary expression of this period’s radical politics. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rich was encouraged to write poetry at an early age by her father, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School with a passion for English verse. She distinguished herself as a poet early in life, publishing her first book of poems, A Change of World, in 1951 while still a senior at Radcliffe College. The renowned poet W. H. Auden selected Rich’s work for publication in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series based on what he perceived as the delicacy and restraint of her style. In 1952, Rich won her first of two coveted Guggenheim Fellowships, which funded a year-long trip to England and Italy. In 1953, she married an economics professor from Harvard, giving birth to three children before the end of the decade. In this formative decade, Rich faced a dilemma still familiar to women today: how to maintain her career while shouldering full responsibility for her children and home. In the volumes of poetry she published in the early 1960s, Rich turns an increasingly critical eye on an American society that subordinates women to the will of men and that asks only women to choose between family and career. Rich’s delicate and restrained poetry became radicalized over the course of the 1960s as she realized that her personal situation was also political, an expression of social forces and institutions that the poet herself could change. From then on, as she writes in her 1968 poem “Implosions,” “I wanted to choose words that even you/ would have to be changed by.”
From the 1960s until she published her final collection in 2010, Rich used poetry to criticize war, sexism, and environmental destruction and to imagine a world free of gender divisions and male domination. Beginning in the 1970s, Rich became an outspoken advocate for lesbian rights in her poetry as well. As she describes in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), over the course of the 1960s Rich came to realize that she had been living as a “suppressed lesbian” her entire life. She separated from her husband in 1970 and entered into a relationship with the novelist Michelle Cliff in 1974, with whom she remained partners until her death 2012. Rich’s National Book Award winning collection of 1973, Diving into the Wreck, exemplifies her poetry of political conviction. Published during the second wave feminist movement, the poems in this volume describe women as a vast global sisterhood that has been written out of history. Rich optimistically imagines that this oppressive situation can change as society itself changes, in part through the force of the poet’s voice. The history of Western civilization, as Rich writes in in the closing lines of the titular poem presented here, “Diving into the Wreck,” is “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” The wreck in this poem is the wreck of western civilization itself, containing the ruins of both patriarchy and poetry. The poem’s narrator is a personunimaginable in traditional Western society: someone who identifies with both genders at once and who transforms the decline of one civilization into the art of its successor. This hybrid narrator takes the reader on a dramatic journey into this dangerous wreck so that the reader, too, can imagine the end of a divisive civilization in which men dominate women.
6.11.1 “Diving into The Wreck”
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6.11.2 Reading and Review Questions
- The book of myths is a metaphor for all the writings of Western civilization. Why does the poem’s narrator “first [have] to read the books of myths” before making this metaphoric dive into the wreck of Western civilization?
- In the final stanza, Rich contradictorily writes that the narrator finds her way “by cowardice or courage...back to this scene.” If cowardice, then what fear is she succumbing to? If courage, then what fear is she facing?
- Rich’s narrator worries in stanza five that “it is easy to forget / what I came for.” What does the narrator come to the wreck for? Why is it so easy to forget this goal?