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 é would be
very useful to read along with Rich. Also, it might be useful to teach
poets like Allen Ginsberg
and 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 Williams
and Allen Ginsberg to discuss the evolution of the free verse that Rich
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.