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Home » Best Poems of Adrienne Rich

10 of the Best Poems of Adrienne Rich

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.

Best Poems of Adrienne Rich


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

later spread

sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair

asleep but not oblivious

of the unslept unsleeping

elsewhere

On such a night, the poet-speaker proclaims:

Tonight I think

no poetry

will serve

(…)

verb force-feeds noun

submerges the subject

noun is choking

verb    disgraced    goes on doing


Power

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

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.


Rural Reflections

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.


Stepping Backward

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.

FAQs

What is Adrienne Rich’s most famous poem?

“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.

What were Adrienne Rich’s poems about?

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.

What poems did Adrienne Rich write?

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.

Is Adrienne Rich a radical feminist?

Adrienne Rich is a radical feminist and an openly lesbian poet who celebrated women’s struggle, queer love, and sexuality through her poetry.

What is the poet Adrienne Rich known for?

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).


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