Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of the influential feminist poets in the latter half of the 20th-century. “An American skeptic” and “doyenne” of neo-feminist literature, Rich’s poetry explores a number of important themes such as patriarchy, racism, and feminism. Her earlier verse followed the strict metric pattern. Radical in nature, her later poetry moved toward the free-verse form. In Credo of a Passionate Skeptic (2001), Rich critically chronicles her journey from being an optimist to a “passionate” skeptic:
I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. In both these cases, it was necessary to look hard truths in the face in order to change horrible realities. I believed, with many others, that my country’s historical aquifers were flowing in that direction of democratic change. I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.
That is why she kept continuing as a skeptic and a radical feminist or women’s liberator in verse until her death on March 27, 2012. In the six decades of her prolific literary career, Rich produced 25 collections of poetry and 8 books of essays. She received several prestigious awards for her works, including the 1950 Yale Younger Poets Award for A Change of World, the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry for Diving into the Wreck, and the National Medal of Arts in 1997, which she refused in protest of the policies of the Clinton Administration.
Let’s explore some of the best poems written by Adrienne Rich that feature her political views, feminist and queer sensibilities, and her enduring craft of versification.
Diving into the Wreck
The titular poem of Adrienne Rich’s radically political collection of angry protestations, Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973), which established her name in the American literary scene, explores the traumatizing effect of history on the modern generation. Human history, depicted through the extended metaphor of a wreck immersed in the bleak depths of the ocean, is what the poet-diver seeks out with a lamp:
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
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
She not only came for the wreck out of sympathy but also for an objective exploration of reality:
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
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
The collection Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974, which Rich accepted with her fellow poets Alice Walker and Audre Lorde showing a sense of solidarity with all suppressed women worldwide.
Listen to Rich reading the poem “Diving into the Wreck”:
What Kind of Times Are These
Really, what kind of times are these? To know the answer, you must read the memorable lines from Adrienne Rich’s best-known poem, “What Kind of Times Are These.” This poem was first published in Rich’s 1995 collection, Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995. The title of the poem is an allusion to the following lines from Bertolt Brecht’s poem “An die Nachgeborenen” (translated as “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake”):
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
Tapping in the same vein, Adrienne Rich says, we still listen or have to listen to the truth in times like these when confronting lies, treachery, and corruption is deemed a crime.
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 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.
Watch the poet reading two of her best poems, “What Kind of Times Are These” and “In Those Years”:
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law
The titular poem of Rich’s third collection of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963) is critically regarded as her first openly feminist piece. In this poem, Rich explores multiple facets of a woman’s life, from being a daughter to being a daughter-in-law. It marks a break from the style of her earlier linear poetry. Divided into ten sections without a set number of lines, this poem echoes the poet’s radically feminist vision:
A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes. And Nature,
that sprung-lidded, still commodious
steamer-trunk of tempora and mores
gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange-flowers,
the female pills, the terrible breasts
of Boadicea beneath flat foxes’ heads and orchids.
a woman, partly brave and partly good,
who fought with what she partly understood.
Few men about her would or could do more,
hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore.
Listen to the full poem read by the poet herself.
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
One of Rich’s best poems, this piece was published in the collection by the same title, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (2011). This political poem metaphorically speaks on the atrocities happening around a seemingly erotic, moonlit landscape:
Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon’s eyelid
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
On such a night, the poet-speaker proclaims:
Tonight I think
verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb disgraced goes on doing
Another well-known feminist poem by Adrienne Rich, “Power” is a tribute to Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her pioneering research on radioactivity. In this poem, the speaker describes how by turning the pages of history she finds the life of an unyielding and chiefly “feminine” figure, Marie Curie. She thinks the element that weakened Curie was the source of her power too:
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.
Listen to Rich reciting “Power” out loud.
Living in Sin
“Living in Sin,” is one of the earliest poems and perhaps, one of the best-known ones. It was first published in Adrienne Rich’s second book of poetry, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955). Regarded as one of her feminist works, this poem is mellowing in tone. It paints a mood of hopelessness on the backdrop of a deteriorating romantic relationship. Explore some of the important lines from the poem below:
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.
Composed in a set meter and rhyme scheme, “Rural Reflections” is one of the earliest poems written by Adrienne Rich. In this best-loved poem, Rich paints a rural scene with a tinge of irony. She uses the ABCB rhyme scheme along with the regular iambic pentameter in order to create a sense of rhythm consonant with the pictorial depiction. This poem was published in Rich’s first poetry collection, A Change of World (1951), which was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.
Explore how Rich paints the landscape in her poem “Rural Reflections”:
This is the grass your feet are planted on.
You paint it orange or you sing it green,
But you have never found
A way to make the grass mean what you mean.
A cloud can be whatever you intend:
Ostrich or leaning tower or staring eye.
But you have never found
A cloud sufficient to express the sky.
Get out there with your splendid expertise;
Raymond who cuts the meadow does not less.
Inhuman nature says:
Inhuman patience is the true success.
Human impatience trips you as you run;
Stand still and you must lie.
It is the grass that cuts the mower down;
It is the cloud that swallows up the sky.
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
Here’s another memorable poem with an implicit feminist undertone from Rich’s debut volume, A Change of World. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” along with “Living in Sin” is regarded as the poet’s “covert” (not openly displayed) feminist poem. In this piece, Rich describes aunt Jennifer’s needlework and how her “tigers” in the woolen panel will endure even after her death. The poem’s sing-song-like structure and the use of iambic pentameter make it an interesting read even though it deals with a number of serious themes.
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
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.
Listen to Adrienne Rich reading “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.”
Twenty-One Love Poems (The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)
Twenty-One Love Poems was first published independently as a pamphlet in 1977 and later included in her 1978 collection, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977. “The Floating Poem” appears between poems XIV and XV in the sequence. In this sensual poem, Rich openly talks about lesbian love and sexuality with vivid tactile imagery and metaphors.
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine—tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come—
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there—
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth—
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I had been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is.
First published in A Change of World, “Stepping Backward” is one of the best-loved poems of Rich. In this long personal piece, Rich tries to deal with the pain of separation. Read some of the memorable lines from the poem:
Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I’m fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
If you were dead or gone to live in China
The event might draw your stature in my mind.
I should be forced to look upon you whole
The way we look upon the things we lose.
We see each other daily and in segments;
Parting might make us meet anew, entire.
So I come back to saying this good-by,
A sort of ceremony of my own,
This stepping backward for another glance.
Perhaps you’ll say we need no ceremony,
Because we know each other, crack and flaw,
Like two irregular stones that fit together.
Yet still good-by, because we live by inches
And only sometimes see the full dimension.
Your stature’s one I want to memorize–
Your whole level of being, to impose
On any other comers, man or woman.
I’d ask them that they carry what they are
With your particular bearing, as you wear
The flaws that make you both yourself and human.
Listen to a recording of “Stepping Backward” in Rich’s own voice.
“Diving into the Wreck” is regarded as the most famous poem of Adrienne Rich. It’s the titular poem of her National Book Award-winning collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973). “What Kind of Times Are These” and “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” are also considered Rich’s best-known poems.
Adrienne Rich’s poems dive into radically feminist themes and explicitly explore lesbian sexuality. She also wrote political poems infuriated by the policies of the administration.
Some of the popular poems written by Adrienne Rich include “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” “Living in Sin,” “Power,” “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” “What Kind of Times Are These,” and “Diving into the Wreck.” At the beginning of her career, Rich wrote metered and regularly rhymed verses. She deviated from the traditional form and started writing radically feminist free-verse poetry in the 1970s.
Adrienne Rich is a radical feminist and an openly lesbian poet who celebrated women’s struggle, queer love, and sexuality through her poetry.
Adrienne Rich is best known for her feminist and queer poetry, and the influential collection of essays on feminism, such as Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986).
- Check Out The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography — This is the first comprehensive biography of 20th-century feminist and queer poet Adrienne Rich.
- Check Out Collected Poems: 1950–2012 — This volume traces the evolution of Rich’s poetry, from her earliest formal verse to her radically feminist and political free-verse poetry.
- Recordings of Adrienne Rich — Explore a wealth of Adrienne Rich’s poetry recordings.
- Meet the Poet — Watch this 1973 interview with the poet in which she reads and discusses her poetry.
- Chronology of Rich’s Life — Learn more about the poet through a detailed chronology of her life events.
- About Adrienne Rich — Read more about the poet’s life, poetry, and essays.