Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich


Adrienne Rich had a brilliant and stellar career in poetry and essay writing that spanned over seven decades. She delved to issues of sexuality, identity and politics attracting both praise and criticism alike. She was thick skinned and put her point across regardless of the condemnation of her work from some quarters especially when she delved on issues of homosexuality. This research paper will limit its scope to two of her poems, “The Will to Change (1971)” and the masterstroke “Diving into the Wreck (1973)” to analyze her literary work and the meaning of the poems.

Bio and Work

Adrienne Rich was a poet and essayist who dazzled and provoked people with her poems and essays during her writing career that spanned seven decades. She was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929 to an assimilated Jewish father, Arnold Rice Rich and a Christian mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich. Her father encouraged her write poetry as a child and would regularly use her father’s library to study poetry. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1951 and chose to publish her first collection “A Change of World” in the Yale Younger Poet series signifying her introduction in the world of poetry at the commercial and public level. Rich got married to a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad in 1953 and they together bore three sons. However, Rich’s erotic love for women strained her relationship with her husband who committed suicide in 1970 and six years later she come out as a lesbian in 1976 through her publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems”. In the succeeding years, Rich’s work would be inclined to the struggles she encountered as a woman, Jew, and lesbian. She died on March 27, 2012 aged 82 years (Fox para 12-15).

After her debut poem in 1951, Rich published another collection in 1963 titled “Snapshots of a Daughter-in Law: Poems 1954-1962” which largely explored on the themes of identity, sexuality and politics. She won the National Book Award for her 1973 collection “Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972” which many people consider to be her masterwork. She went ahead to write two dozen volumes of poetry and more than half dozen of prose. She won various awards and honors however refused the highest award bestowed by the US government upon artists i.e. National Medal of Arts to protest government’s ‘racial and economic injustice” (Fox para 2).

Diving into the Wreck (1973)

The poem was written when Adrienne Rich was having several moments of “shipwreck” in her life. Her husband had committed suicide, she had identified that she sexual feelings for fellow women, the Vietnam War which she was against was still happening, and civil rights movements including feminist movements had become bolder and vocal. Therefore the poem can apply to various social and political contexts of 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the poem speaks of a diver who first reads “the book of myths” (Rich 1) before preparing exhaustively to dive into the ocean in search of a ship wreckage. The speaker spends a considerable time in the poem to describe into details the preparation of the mission. The diver is armed with a camera, knife-blade, black rubber body-armor, and mask.

It is not until stanza four that the diver finally dives into the water and from there things start happening quickly as the speaker “blacks out” but is able to regain consciousness through the aid of the mask that pumps blood powerfully (Rich 36-37). The stanza shows the panic and shock that the speaker experiences immediately is in the unfamiliar territory all alone but through determination and strong will is able to confront the fears. In stanza five, the speaker has gotten used to the surrounding and has even forgotten what the mission was in the first place but reminds the reader what the mission was in stanza six. The speaker states that the mission was “the wreck and not the story of the wreck” (Rich 62). This means reading something or hearing someone tell you about a difficult experience that that person experienced in life are completely different from the actual personal experience. This is true in tragedies and difficult moments where not until one experiences the feeling, cannot understand fully how someone feels in such moments.

Stanza eight is somewhat confusing even to the speaker who is half human and half fish exhibiting both genders (mermaid and merman). The speaker also uses “we” instead of “I” to describe self and admits to this confusion when states “I am she: I am he” (Rich 77). At this juncture one might interpret this to mean that Rich was speaking about her sexuality where she was still married to her husband but had just discovered that she had erotic feelings for women. The fact that she admits to having multiplicity of identities can be interpreted as having a “normal identity” to the public but away from public’s scrutiny she has another identity just like a mermaid which can appear as a human being when the body is viewed from the head to the waist but when one gets into the water discovers that below the waist is a fish.

One realizes in stanza nine that the poem is not just about sexuality since the speaker describes the wreckage into details. The speaker explains how treasures of value such as “silver, copper, vermeil cargo” have been left to rot in the sea (Rich 80). The speaker has gone at length to describe the wreckage in order that reader will understand the magnitude of the wreckage which seems to have lost its usefulness. This stanza can apply to several situations like the Vietnam War where soldiers go to war full of energy and enthusiasm but many return home scarred by the events of war with some experiencing psychological and physical problems. The treasure of youthfulness and ambition of the soldiers is destroyed and they come home a wreckage of their former self. The poem ends in stanza ten on a winning note with the diver having found the way but unfortunately the name does not appear on the book. This can be interpreted as victory on the part of the person who was going through a difficult moment, or disaster or even a person who was exploring his/her own identity. However, even after the victory no one seems to take notice of the victory as indicated by “names do not appear” in the book (Rich 94).

According to Perry (32), the androgynous narrator suiting up for underwater exploration of the wreck can symbolize several things namely traditional marriage, heterosexuality, the history of western civilization, or failed relationship. It is a personal journey for the narrator in search of truth hidden in a decaying past. It is a poem about sexual relationships, stereotyping, and autonomy. On the hand, Schulman (11) states that the speaker who is the poet shows that is capable of showing empathy and mercy as well as possessing honesty that is not influenced by either toughness or tenderness. In the poem words are seen as “purposes and “maps” in the exploration of a terrifying reality.

The Will to Change (1971)

According to Langdell (99), “The Will to Change” was partially written at the time when Rich had separated with her husband (1969-70) before the latter committed suicide and thus the book is a combination of fear of and desire for liberation. It is therefore not surprising that Rich in this book allows the reader to live in her life as an alienated wife, loving mother, passionate friend, lesbian lover, and most importantly a champion of women issues. In the poem “Planetarium” the poet goes through self-unification and development as a feminist poet. Through her poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”, Rich expresses the pain she goes through as she searches for the language that she can use to express the pain she has gone through as well as the suffering that society was going through in 1960s during a turbulent social change period. In the concluding poem of the first section of this book, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, Rich announces to her lover that the decision she has made in moving away from the traditional language and heterosexual love is irrevocable.

Boyers (132) states the title of the book was a reflection on the poet’s will in her life and work. He states that poems in this volume are about the will to be self and other, to be two in one where she embodies the present and the possibility. It is about the will not to be stuck with the past, the will to be deluded or stay in a comfort zone, and the will to change situations. In one of the lines in the poem “The Blue Ghazals (1968),” she states that “A man isn’t what he seems but what he desires,” signifying that life is full of unlimited possibilities if just one has the will to transform the impossibilities into possibilities. However, Boyers (146) accuses Rich of advocating for anarchy in the same poem when she says “Disorder is natural, these leaves absently blowing.”

According to Boyers (146), the poet is ambiguous in the poem “I Dream I’m the death of Orpheus (1968)”, where she says “A woman feeling the fullness of her powers at the precise moment when she must not use them, a woman sworn to lucidity.” He wonders what type of terrible lucidity that would prevent someone from using powers that she believes she possesses. He is a “little disappointed” by Rich who he accuses of impatience and rashness in the poem “Our Whole Life (1969)” where she could hardly resist herself from watching “Meanings burnt-off like paint under the blow torch”. There is an insatiable hunger to know, devour, transform, and move on in Rich’s will to change and no matter what is done, this perpetual hunger will not go away as shown in the poem “Images for Godard (1970)”. In this poem she says that “the notes for the poem are the only poem, the mind collecting and devouring all these destructible”.

According to Boyers (147), unlike her previous collections, “The Will to Change” has turned Rich from wholeness to analytic lucidity. In her previous collections, there was maturity in her writing that exhibited calm alternating rhythms which are absent in this collection which appears fragmented. The poet has decided to turn to the will to change to validate her own hungers in order to provide authenticity she was seeking in her poems. In this collection she has lost her blend of instinct, learned wisdom, and innocent eye which she possessed in her previous work where she knew that there was a limit to will. The toughness so well expressed in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” are lacking in this collection where she concentrates on nature and lets herself to be as she says “something very common, in my own way”.


Adrienne Rich was a poet of great repute whose work was and is still being appreciated far and wide making her win several awards, commendations, and honors in the process. Through her work, readers have been able to relive the years of 1960s and 1970s which were characterized by social change and the Vietnam War. She has also allowed us to relive her struggles as a lesbian, woman, and Jew. In the “Diving into the Wreck (1973)”, Rich takes up the role of an androgynous poet who challenges the status quo in terms of sexuality, autonomy and stereotyping. In “The Will to Change (1971)”, the poet expresses the difficulty she experiences in getting a language that express her pain and the struggles in the society. Although, “Diving into the Wreck (1973)” has been hailed as a masterwork even winning awards from it, critics feel that “The Will to Change (1971)” is underwhelming compared to her previous work and lacks some of the appealing traits present in the previous poems.

Work Cited

Boyers, Robert. “On Adrienne Rich: Intelligence and Will.” Contemporary Poetry in America, (Spring-Summer 1973): 132-148

Fox, Margalit. “Adrienne Rich, Influential feminist Poet, Dies at 82.” The New York Times, March 28, 2012. Accessed June 24, 2015 <;

Langdell, Cheri Colby. Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change. Portsmouth: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.

Perry, Donna. “Reviewed Work: “Diving into the Wreck,” In Poems, Selected and New, 1950-1974 by Adrienne Rich.” The Radical Teacher, 30(June 1986): 32

Schulman, Grace. “Review: Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich.” The American Poetry Review, 2(5): 11


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