Adrienne Richs Poetry and Prose
True Storms: “Storm Warnings” Analysis
Everyone has dealt with troubled times, which can accurately be described as ‘dark times’ or ‘internal storms.’ In the poem “Storm Warnings”, Adrienne Rich organizes the poem’s main statement in the middle of the poem in order to mimic the buildup and aftermath of a real storm, provide the division between her external and internal storm, and elaborate on the uselessness of warnings. Her organization of the the focal point of the poem is important, as it is specifically placed in the middle.
If we look at the first two stanzas, she uses imagery to paint a picture of her setting. With, “The glass has been falling all afternoon” and “gray unrest is moving across the land” (Rich, line 4 ). For these quotes, the author is describing her environment that is affected by the storm. What typically happens when a storm is arriving, so the buildup to it. Then we see her make her main statement at the end of the second stanza. “Weather abroad and weather in the heart alike come on regardless of prediction” (Rich, line 13). It is in this line that the author first mentions a metaphorical storm, a storm in the heart. She chose to place this shift in tone in the middle of the poem in order to imitate the events of a real storm.
In the second half of the poem, the author has switched to her actions after seeing the storm coming. She prepares herself and goes in defense mode to protect herself. “I draw the curtain as the sky goes black” (Rich, line 21 ). This no longer depicts the buildup to the storm, but instead the aftermath. The first and second stanza depict a storm, in the literal sense, while the third and fourth stanzas portray both a literal and internal storm. She starts off the poem by describing her environment affected by the storm. Rich leaves her chair to examine outside as soon as the signs of a storm make themselves visible. “Watching boughs strain against the sky” (Rich, line 7 ). This is a literal storm because she is describing the effects of the storm on external, tangible things such as, the sky. However, in the second half of the poem, we see the author using a metaphorical meaning of protection from harm: “We can only close the shutters” (Rich, line 22). This statement signifies the helplessness and feeling of despair Rich and others get when they realize they can’t do much to stop the storm. Rich also presents the uselessness of warnings when it comes to warding off storms .When speaking about internal storms, Rich clarifies that many people try to avoid change even though it is not something people can control.
A storm will come no matter how cautious you are: “Weather abroad […] come on regardless of prediction” (Rich, line 13-14). Rich states that if the storm has been predicted to come, it will, and if it hasn’t, it still will. Not knowing about it does not stop it from approaching. This applies to both a literal storm and an internal storm. There are some who try to avoid any changes in their life in fear of chaos, creating a false feeling of control over their personal and internal storms. However, as Rich states, “time in the hand is not control of time” (Rich, line 18 ). This is a metaphor for a watch, signifying the measurement of time, but just because you can measure time does not mean that you control it. Similarly, in an external storm, no one has control of the weather, and in someone’s personal life no has control over what changes come next. The author also hints at skills she has acquired from previous storms, from drawing the curtains, to lighting a candle. “This is our sole defense against the season; these are the things that we have learned to do” (Rich, line 26-27). Those that have experience with many internal or external storms usually are more prepared for the next one; thus, Rich comes to the conclusion that taking a defensive route is best when approached by a dark situation.
Adrienne Rich organizes the poem’s main statement in the middle of the poem in order to guide the reader’s reactions and emotions through a simulated experience and to underscore one of her main themes: the questionable value of warnings. By using metaphors, she is thus able to elaborate on the similarities between literal storms and the storm within that everyone faces.
True Love in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and Adrienne Rich’s “Living in Sin”
Both Rich and Shakespeare address the theme of true love in their respective poems Living in Sin and Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds. The subject matter of both poems deals with the nature of true love, various implications of which are explored by each poet. However, similarity in theme does not guarantee in any way agreement in treatment; it can be argued that both poems take opposite or paradoxical views of the same concept. While Shakespeare portrays his view of the ideal love with great conviction, Rich in a seemingly careless series of disjointed images represents a realistic depiction of the situation of two lovers. Put simply, or even simplistically, it may be argued that Shakespeare takes the Romantic view of love while Rich takes the Realistic one. A closer examination of both poems will help in the understanding of how each treats and represents the theme of true love. It is interesting to note the Christian allusions pertaining to marriage in both poems. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, he says, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments”, bringing clearly to mind the traditional Christian wedding ceremony in which those who do admit impediments are asked to “speak now or forever hold your peace”. Rich titles her poem suggestively “Living in Sin” which superficially points to adultery in the context of Christian matrimonial tenets but could very well represent the sin of staying in a marriage or commitment that is loveless or unsatisfactory. This is just one of the ways in which the poems may be contrasted in the way that they treat the theme of love. Another interesting manner in which they may be seen are how they are formed and structured. Shakespeare’s version of ideal love follows the native form of the iambic pentameter and his typical rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Rich, on the other hand, uses free verse to show the striking imagery that makes up “living in sin” — “Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,a piano with a Persian shawl, a catstalking the picturesque amusing mousehad risen at his urging.Not that at five each separate stair would writheunder the milkman’s tramp; that morning lightso coldly would delineate the scrapsof last night’s cheese and three sepulchral bottles;that on the kitchen shelf among the saucersa pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own–envoy from some village in the moldings…”The tightly regimented focus of ideal love in Shakespeare’s sonnet gives way to the disillusion and ambiguity of the reality of love in Rich’s verse. In keeping with this, the poets have contrasting tones as well. Rich is an omniscient narrator who while delving into the uncertainties and pain in the woman’s mind is still separate from the woman and thus a more reliable representative of her experience of real love – although unhappy, by evening the inconsistent and most likely, insecure woman is “she was back in love again, though not so wholly but…” Shakespeare is a resolute and so sure of his view of true love, that he goes so far as to proclaim — “If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” In saying so he is effectively negating the possibility of any disagreement, as of course it cannot be disproved that he did write and that men have indeed loved through the ages. In the realms of reality, there is no one truth, the woman may be in love one moment and out of it the next; disillusioned one moment and in denial in the next, and she may also be struggling to make sense of the difficult reconciliation of her expectations from her relationship and what she is getting in reality. Rich’s tone reflects this uncertainty very well. By the same premise, in the ideal world objective reality makes all truth knowable, therefore, Shakespeare paints a picture of true love that he can be so confident about because it is only the kind of love that he describes that he will accept as true love. Let us note that is it the marriage of “true minds” that he is focusing on, i.e. Love that extends beyond the physical and sensual world. Indeed, the woman’s falling in and out of love is something that in Shakespeare’s book would never qualify as true love, as he says:“Love is not loveWhich alters when it alteration finds,Or bends with the remover to remove:O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,That looks on tempests and is never shaken” However, as we read Rich’s poem, we do know that the feeling being described here cannot be disqualified as being untrue to the spirit of true love. As the woman in the poem is “jeered by her minor demons” the audience may be able to identify a certain sense of familiarity in the woman’s pain and insecurity in the relationship with her lover and/or husband. Both poems are greatly effective in their own way, and by their form and content, present their respective poet’s idea of true love faithfully and convincingly. The polestar in Shakespeare’s sonnet is challenged by the grimy surroundings and indifferent partner in Rich’s poem, even as the fickleness of the woman’s feelings are countered by the timelessness of Shakespeare’s vision. In their own ways, both poems depict certain aspects of a vastly debated, elusive and enigmatic single explanation of the phenomenon of human bonds and what we like to call “true love”. In a sense, both poems deal with the expectations from true love, whether they are fulfilled or not. For example, in Rich’s poem she says, “She had thought the studio would keep itself; no dust upon the furniture of love.” This represents the woman’s frustration at the living situation, a practical reality which inevitably interferes in the lovers’ experience of true love. An unclean apartment is hardly the “edge of doom”, which the ideal love of Shakespeare’s sonnet would endure and bypass, however, in Rich’s poem it is enough to cause cracks to appear in the “furniture of love”. With the hints of frustration that could even be of a sexual nature — “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.” one finds a great contrast to Shakespeare’s vision of love that “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come;” where even the onset of age and the loss of physical beauty (and its implied sexual allure) does not lesson the power and surge of true love. In the end, it is up to the reader to decide which poet they agree more with; whether they feel that true love is untouched by the rigors and hardships of daily existence or an eternal and timeless feeling that bypasses everything, including the mortality of specific lovers. They may also decide if it is possible that true love changes even as time passes due to inevitable external factors or if it is something that should never alter in order to qualify as real and relevant. It is useful to remember in the quest for the relevance of each perspective that they also represent not only individual people’s concepts of an already difficult problem, but also that they stand for entire ages and cultures and are inevitably affected by the social, political and historical contexts of the poets that wrote them.
Adrienne Rich’s Evolution as a Poet
Adrienne Rich’s poems in The Fact of a Doorframe dramatize the conflict between what patriarchal society dictates women should be and what they are. In her earlier poems, like “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” she uses tight rhyme and careful control as she struggles to keep the conflict below the surface. However, her later poems, like “Rape” and “A Woman Dead in Her Forties,” are less cautious in their investigation to explore women’s issues and leave behind Rich’s past niceties in form. Finally, after Rich is able to find her own unique voice and the voice for women everywhere, is she able to reach her full potential as an artist and a revolutionary.The poems from Rich’s early career, such as “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”(4) and “At a Bach Concert,”(5) written in 1951, possess a restrained visual rhythm and sparse use of enjambment. Both have exactly sixteen lines, though the first has three stanzas and the second has four. The restrictive nature of these poems’ forms is very representative of Rich’s personal struggle to abide by constrictions of patriarchal society. The tone of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reflects this sense of restriction, using the binary opposition of Aunt Jennifer, bound by the confines of marriage, and tigers, free and independent. The tigers “do not fear the men beneath the tree;/ They pace in chivalric certainty.” By emphasizing the tiger’s fearlessness and certainty, Rich’s speaker accents Aunt Jennifer’s uncertainty. The speaker tells the reader that the tigers are fearless but does not include Aunt Jennifer in this description, leading the reader to believe the opposite. This binary opposition focuses further in the second stanza where Rich utilizes enjambment to create tension and draw focus to the stanza’s concluding lines: “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band/ Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.” This line especially accentuates the burden of domination and loss of self in marriage. The Uncle owns the Aunt as much as he does the band. Aunt Jennifer is not her own person; she has been bought and will belong to her husband until her death. The next stanza begins at her demise, describing her dead hands as “terrified,” yet another reference to Aunt Jennifer’s antonymic relationship to the fearless tigers of the first stanza. The second line of this stanza, describing her hands as “still ringed by the ordeals she was mastered by,” clearly references her marriage as her master, making her a slave under its rule. The final couplet, “The tigers in the panel she has made/will go on prancing, proud and unafraid” gives the poem a cyclical nature, thus drawing the attention of the reader back to the tigers’ fearlessness, further accenting Aunt Jennifer’s fearful confined life. However boundary pushing the subject of the poem, the distant voice and traditional form with rhyming couplets makes the poem less than groundbreaking. This poem has turbulent undertones with its language of oppression and fear, yet the distances narrator gives Rich permission to deny these ideas as her own. As a woman trying to fit into a man’s world of writing, Rich is careful to color her world within the lines that have been pre-set.Later in her career, Rich begins to take a bolder, razor sharp approach to her work as it becomes more overtly political. In “Rape,” (105-106) written in 1972, Rich addresses how the physical rape is only the beginning of the all-encompassing rape women must face when they decide to press charges in a male dominated system. It is not just the assailant who rapes the woman, but the system that distrusts her, questions, and berates her. The first stanza which begins “There is a cop who is both prowler and father:/ he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,/had certain ideals” sets up that the women being spoken to is familiar with the law, she has grown up around him and knows him. There is a certain opposition presented in the first line between the words prowler and father. The word prowler immediately evokes images of someone sneaking surreptitiously, shrouded in darkness, not to be trusted. A prowler enters a home uninvited, like a rapist enters a woman. Already drawing a correlation between the cop and the offender provokes feelings of distrust in someone who should be trusted. However, the next description of the cop is father, which ideally personifies the idealistic, average Joe with a family to protect. This direct opposition tears the reader between distrust and trust.Already, this poem directly correlates to “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” in its use of binary opposition, yet in this poem, Rich immediately directs her readers’ attention to this. By putting this man, this cop in the victim’s direct neighborhood, the reader knows this man is an immediate part of her world, and just as the rapist has infiltrated her world, the cop has entered her safety zone. The stanza’s closing, “You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,/ on horseback, one hand touching his gun” presents an image where the cop is above the woman the speaker addresses, elevated not only by riding horseback, but by his position of authority. The cop comes to her like a classic fairytale hero would on horseback, gallantly striding to the damsel’s rescue. Yet even in her victimized state, the neighborhood father who has grown with her family keeps his hand on his gun representing his distrust of the woman. Also the gun serves as a phallic symbol as well, loaded and ready with its bullet to penetrate another person against their will just as the rapist is. The speaker continues “You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:/ he has access to machinery that could kill you” once again echoing the image of a rapist in the cop, his very presence forcing him to ‘know’ him. The double meaning of know comes into play here, with the idea of knowing someone biblically, once again clearly creating a dichotomy between the cop as a knight in shining armor and as a man capable of unspeakable horror. This unspeakable horror is exactly what the cop wants the woman to discuss. The speaker continues “his hands type out the details/and he wants them all/ but the hysteria in your voice please him best.” Even though the cop is supposed to be the gallant rescuer, he enjoys the woman’s pain, her hysterics as the rapist most likely did in the act of raping her. The use of the word ‘pleases’ which, like know, also can have a sexual connotation, sexualizes the act of dictation of the event, makes the cop a similar dark and evil figure like the rapist. Here Rich closely examines the revictimization that happens in the recounting of the event itself and in society’s distrust of the women who go to the authorities in these situations. What makes this recounting worse for the victim here is not simply the retelling but the satisfaction the cop gets from it as “he knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined; / he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.” The cop seems to think he knows better; he assumes he knows this woman and mentally categorizes her as either a “nut or a slut.” Rich does not throw around such foul language; however, the stench of such labels hangs in the air. Rich utilizes repetition in the final stanza to further this point, and to show the fear and desperation that the woman feels. In this stanza the speaker continues, “he has access to the machinery that could get you put away;” refocusing once again on the machinery that the cop has, the power that society has awarded him. The speaker goes on from here to use more repetition saying “and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,/ and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,/ your details sound like the portrait of your confessor,/ will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?” The easiest assumption to draw here is that the cop is indeed her physical rapist, but I think Rich is asserting more than that here. She is saying that the cop, symbolic of the very system set up to protect people, is just as guilty as the perpetrator and just as guilty of rape in its treatment of her. Rich comes a long way from “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to “Rape,” abandoning rhyme and making politically charged and overt statements about the treatment of women. However, she still sticks to neat stanzas and is removed from the situation, distancing herself from the victim by making it another person, never really coming fully into the poem.It is later in her career when Rich fully realizes her potential as an artist to speak for those not spoken for, to go further, become more overt, more political. Rich finds her voice and begins to speak to the issues including herself in them. In “A Woman Dead in Her Forties”(154-159) a deeply moving eight part poem that Rich notes took three years to write, Rich finally tears through the safety and includes herself, using first person and abandoning stanza and all established form to speak the unspeakable. The poem is a journey through disease from beginning to end, in this case what I interpreted to be a threnody for her dead friend. Rich begins in poem one with an incisive immediate hook: “Your breasts/ sliced-off The scars/ dimmed as they would have to be/ years later.” Rich plunged violently into this poem immediately and mercilessly approaching mastectomy. The voice has no mercy for the reader, as the disease has had no mercy for the woman, her friend. The speaker wants her readers to feel that pain, that slice and knows that the most effective method is not to mince words. She continues to describe a group of friends happily topless as the woman uncomfortably take off her top as well, revealing her scars. “ I barely glance at you/ as if my look could scald you/ though I’m the one who loved you,” says the speaker in a tone that reveals her shame and her cowardice for not being able to face this disease both literally and figuratively with her lover. The speaker goes on: “I want to touch my fingers/ to where your breasts had been/ but we never did such things.” In a relationship where touches and embraces are so familiar, Rich is at a loss to embrace this new change in landscape. In part five of the poem, Rich’s speaker once again confronts her friend: “You played heroic, necessary/ games with death,” almost trying to provoke her friend into some kind of reaction, wanting her friend to give into fear, show emotion, do something other than what she is doing. The speaker goes on to say “I wish you were here tonight I want/ to yell at you/ Don’t accept/ Don’t give in/ But would I be meaning your brave/ irreproachable life, you dean of women or/ your unfair, unfashionable, unforgivable/ woman’s death?” Rich utilizes alliteration to highlight her speaker’s real grievance here, her friend’s death and not her friend’s attitudes. The repetition of the prefix “un” and the heightened language here, reaching their peak with “unforgivable,” serves as the climax for this piece of the poem. By ending here, without any catharsis, the reader is left in the same state of disarray as the speaker. In eight, Rich touches upon almost all the body of “A Woman Dead in Her Forties,” and finally is able to mourn her friend saying “ I understand/ life and death now, the choices” finally forgiving her friend for being human, being weak, allowing herself to die. In the last heartbreaking lines the speaker laments, “I would have touched my fingers/ to where your breasts had been/ but we never did such things.” Here Rich’s speaker now knows the unfortunate sting of regret and cannot escape it. Rich finally realizes that she has had the power all along to touch women’s pain everywhere, speak the unspeakable as poetry is meant to, reveal the mysteries of women. Rich had this power and did not use it, but by speaking of her regret, abandoning the stuffy restrained form set by her male peers, Rich loudly declares that she will not stand silenced any longer. She will have no more regrets, she will touch women’s pain everywhere no matter how hard it may be. Adrienne Rich struggled with women’s issues throughout her career, but it was only when she began to use the first person, abandon form, and take on a more overt and political voice that she was able to realize her potential not only as a poet, but as a woman.
“Song of Solemnity”
Adrienne Rich’s “Song” plays out an uncomfortably intimate melody concerning a woman’s feelings of inescapable loneliness. Adrienne asserts the tortured song of this woman’s soul so beautifully, teasing the reader early on with passivity, and then cunningly slips into prose so lovely that the reader cannot help but be intoxicated, drawn in like a lover. But like a midnight seductress, Rich sweetly seduces only to leave her lover mystified and spellbound, yet shattered by the silence that comes at the song’s end. Through “Song” Rich lets the reader try her on, lets the reader think we have gotten under her skin, only to leave us as isolated as we seemed to think she was. The sweet sad melody of “Song” quite simply put is that as much as people may think we can penetrate each other, we are always left alone to our own devices and often times we cannot even find it to trust the song of ourselves to be enough. Rich begins the poem with “You’re wondering if I’m lonely” already creating a disparity between “you,” the reader, and “I,” the poet. These two characters are separate, alone; different from each other, the line in the sand is drawn. The distance between “you” and “I” is even greater emphasized with simple capitalization, drawing the eye immediately to both words that rise away from the others. By immediately addressing her reader, Rich has succeeded in appealing to the reader’s greatest interest, themselves and now can be content in having a captive audience. By continuing with “OK, then yes, I’m lonely” the reader has already made some small victory by making this poet, this stranger, admit to and concede to what we are now wondering about. She continues, “as a plane rides lonely and level/on its radio beam” emphasizing her loneliness again by repeating the word, drumming it into our minds, but also by taking us out of the world of you and I and placing us far far above the earth on a lone plane riding on a invisible beam, so dense that is beyond our eye, just as she is beyond us. The lone plane is left “aiming/ across the Rockies/for the blue-strung aisles/ of an airfield on the ocean.” Once again, Rich reiterates disparity, first with “You” and “I,” now with the heights of land and the depth of sea. Both places evoke feelings of loneliness as both are displaced from simple land, one reaching into the heights of the heavens, and one surrounded by ‘water, water everywhere.’ To begin the second stanza, Rich again separates the reader from herself, but this time with more conviction, stating “You want to ask, am I lonely?” telling us what it is that we want, almost coyly knowing but whip lashes us out of our calm with “ Well, of course,” as if the want is ridiculous. With the line “lonely/ as a woman driving across country,” she again plays on the notions we already have, knowing that we will naturally make a woman driving alone more vulnerable, more fragile than we would a strong self actualized man driving. No, Rich knows just as well as a state highway trooper that a woman driving alone seems to scream lost, alone, vulnerable, searching in a way that a lone male driver never will. Rich isolates further dividing us now with time and space in “day after day, leaving behind/ mile after mile/.” The thoughts become as segmented and as separate as the reader and the poet, the distance between them longer than time itself wider than miles can measure, like the loneliness of the human heart, deeper than all the depths we have explored and have yet to explore. Rich iterates leaving behind, “little towns she might have stopped/and lived and died in, lonely” suggesting travel without an ending, without a place to end, suggesting her loneliness is just as incurable. The real accent here is how she ends the sentence with the echo of “lonely,” almost using the word as punctuation.“If I’m lonely” pushes the reader away, sending a barreling blow by questioning something that was admitted. Has Rich been honest with us? Or was this all some elaborate farce? The word “If” stands as a contradiction to us, her trusting reader, and further serves to isolate us from her feelings, as if we could not even fully conceive the notion of lonely. Expanding on this she goes on with “it must be the loneliness/ of waking first, of breathing/dawn’s first cold breath on the city”. The idea of being entirely alone in a city of hundreds, even thousands evokes such a mournful feeling of seclusion, and again she takes this feeling further by making the example come closer to home, in this case, literal home. “of being the one awake/ in a house wrapped in sleep” perfectly and painful scars the reader with her singularity. She is the one awake, while even the house has sleep to wrap itself in and keep itself warm with while she lies awake with only dawn’s cold breath.The repetition of “If I’m lonely” makes all the more pronounced the solitude implied with: “it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore/in the last red light of the year.” Once again the idea of cold comes into play, only now the idea of cold is exhilarated by reaching the stage of being ice. The word last here accents the idea of one, alone. This last light “that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither” has the casual freedom of knowing sublimely and simply what it is, but Rich bitterly cannot come to such an easy answer. Yet the rowboat knows it is neither “ice nor mud nor winter light/ but wood, with a gift for burning.” The tone of longing here to define oneself in such simple terms really reaches out to the reader. The only real gift the rowboat can give is in its destruction, to burn up into ashes and fade away, just as Rich knows eventually she will. Rich here looks at how simply we define ourselves, just as a rowboat is a rowboat and I am a student and Rich is a writer, but really we are so much deeper, but we cannot ever know what it is to be Rich or the rowboat. We can only know ourselves and that is a journey that lifetimes are spent traveling and oftentimes the only final destination we reach is a death full of unanswered questions, sometimes empty like floating rowboats with no purpose.Through isolating language and clear tone, Rich is able to bring her reader in just close enough to let them feel the pain as she pushes them away. And that is when the reader finds that we are all trying to get closer in our art and in our song, but sometimes the distances between are just like melody: unseen by the human eye but felt in the deepest corners of our hearts
Free to Be, You and Me
Adrienne Rich uses free verse to separate herself from the male-dominated literary tradition in her poem “Diving Into the Wreck”. Her poem addresses the role of women in past literature while promising hope for the future generations. Rich’s reclamation of the literary tradition is achieved through both her context and her choice of form. The very first lines of the poem establish a challenging tone. She starts, “Having read the book of myths/ and loaded the camera/and checked the edge of the knife-blade”. The first image is of a book that she defines as a collection of myths. “Myth”, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth” (OED, 2003). In addition, this misrepresentation has been printed. It has a literary basis. The use of the word “myth” already raises the attention of the reader to find the misconception. The same effect is heightened by the enjambment used on the line. The line break after “myth” serves to hang the reader’s attention on it for a second longer as they scan down to the next line. With the reader searching for the falsification established in the first line, the second provides a concrete image, a camera. The camera creates a tone of exploration for the poem. Once again, as will be true in the third line, the enjambment puts the emphasis on the object. The camera serves to capture reality without distortion. The exploration in this poem is going to be a challenge presented to the establishment of old ideas. Rich is looking to redefine the literary tradition’s myths and insert her photographs, her own true images. In the third line, that peaceful exploration becomes edged, literally. As she “checked the edge of the knife-blade” the reader becomes aware of the danger in doing this. Rich is bringing the knife with her with the idea of using it as she checks it. The imagery invokes the tradition of the hunt. Instead of scope and rifle, Adrienne Rich is bringing along camera and knife. The same sense of danger is resonated throughout the first stanza as Rich dons “the body-armor” wetsuit and “the grave and awkward mask”. Rich is going to brave the adversity and go explore herself. The use of free verse throughout the first stanza allows Adrienne Rich to choose her enjambments more freely. In addition, the form allows for the line itself to become a measure of emphasis. The brevity of a line like “I put on” really accentuates the loneliness of the activity. She is the only identity on the line. Since free verse allows her to shorten the line, the reader feels more of the solitude of this adventure. It is the brevity of “I put on” that allows the reader to fully understand the deep contrast of Rich’s dressing and Cousteau’s “assiduous team”. Rich as a writer will explore the depths by herself where science will use many explorers. Yet, more importantly, Rich will explore the depths herself as a woman while Cousteau will travel with his team of assistants as a man. The literary tradition is based upon the writing produced by men. Females were rarely educated and, even rarer, was the female who was encouraged to publish publicly. Women in literature, therefore, are the product of males’ visions. Rich’s poem is about reclaiming that persona in literature for females. The method in which she is going to get to that persona is to change into the sexually ambiguous wetsuit. It’s “body-armor of black rubber…absurd flippers…grave and awful mask”, serve to cover the parts of her body that would identify her as female. The wetsuit’s effect is doubled by her choice of free verse. Her poem is not written in the forms of poetry that were established by men. She is not on Cousteau’s team or part of the troubadours creating the villanelle. Instead, Rich uses free verse to hide her sex. Her image of descending the ladder serves two functions. First, Rich uses the ladder as a sign of rebirth. It hangs “innocently” inferring childhood innocence. As she descends it into her new environment she finds herself being immersed in “the oxygen…the blue light…the clear atoms/ of our human air”. She is unable to walk with her new appendages, the flippers. It is a birthing experience. Yet, at the same time, the ladder motion of descending a latter rung by rung is one similar to the motion of the eye going down the lines of a poem line by line. Rich is going to dive into the literary tradition as she moves down the poem. Rich’s involvement with the literary tradition blends form and free verse. As she moves deeper into the water, becomes more involved in the literary tradition, she finds herself being faded out as a female writer. In order to regain her consciousness, she uses a line of iambic tetrameter. Rich regains her legitimacy, and her breath, through the use of meter in the middle of her free verse. She concludes the stanza with the idea that she must learn to finesse her way into the sea, the male-dominated literary tradition. She does so through the use of two lines of iambic meter. The regular sounding meter smoothly gives her that same legitimacy as “my mask is powerful” and allows her to give the poem legitimacy.Rich defines herself as different from those around her, those “who have always/ lived here”. She is not male and, therefore, deprived of the being in the literary history. Yet, she is there to see what damage has been done to the idea of women since the beginning of literary history. The wreck represents the female in literature. Ships were always named after females and Adrienne Rich plays upon this. Her actions towards the ship “stroke” it. She is gentle with it implying abuse. Rich continue to expand upon the double imagery by pointing out that the ship is “more permanent/ than fish or weed.” Not only is Adrienne Rich referring to the life of the decaying hull, but also, Rich challenges the antiquated idea that women were to be treated as objects. She has stated that this woman is more permanent than animal or plant. Afterwards, she establishes her intentions to reclaim the truth about women. She came to for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck”. She has brought her camera to capture the truth. Her diction continues to serve the double imagery of ship and female as it has a “face”, “ribs” and is “threadbare”. Rich uses the ongoing metaphor to dive into the wreck as a “mermaid” and a “merman”. As a writer in the literary tradition, she doesn’t want to be seen as female or male. Instead, Rich is rewriting herself as sexually androgynous. She embodies both male and female as the writer. The clearest example of this begins the second to last stanza. Rich uses an alternating line rhyme to indicate herself capable of both partaking in the male-dominated literary tradition and in the modern style of androgynous free verse. It is in her conclusion that Rich states that both reader and writer are the ones who can reclaim the sexual connotation of language, “find out way/ back to this scene”. She is inspiring the reader to reclaim their myths and erase their names out of the book of myths. Only in understanding the literary traditions and expectations of the past, such as meter and rhyme, can the writer break free of its limitations, such as form. Rich’s use of free verse in “Diving Into the Wreck” demonstrates how the literary tradition works. Her use of free verse stands as a challenge to those poems before itself, but also, is flexible enough to incorporate the stylistic elements of the tradition in order to use their power. She is able to reclaim the female identity in literature by combining both antiquated and modern form. In addition, Rich is able to reclaim the literary tradition in general to be one of sexual androgyny. Where the villanelle or sestina might have been the form of male writers, free verse is the form of the writer.
The Love Poems of Rich, Marvell and Campion: Realism vs. Idealization
Jordan Reid BerkowPersonal ResponseLambertDecember 14, 1998The Love Poems of Rich, Marvell and Campion: Realism vs. Idealization Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” which explore the nature of lesbian love, differ strikingly from classic love poems written by a man to a woman, such as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Thomas Campion’s “There Is a Garden in Her Face.” Rich’s poems focus on the “us” aspect of love, the concept of two strong, yet imperfect women facing all oppositions together, while the love poems written by men are far more reverent, almost worshipful of their subjects. The lesbian poems have a sense of love being “real”, a connection based on far more than physical attraction, whereas the men’s poems focus on an idealized view of the woman: beautiful, pure, distant. The women in Marvell and Campion’s poems are lovely faÃ§ades, storybook figures without any real depth or imperfections. Perhaps the lesbian love poems could be seen as less eloquent, or less flawlessly romantic, but the romance in them is found in the genuine nature of the love. Rich is doubtlessly writing about experiences she has had, real people she has loved, whereas Marvell and Campion could ostensibly be writing about any beautiful, but otheriwse characterless, woman that they’ve seen. The stress that Rich places on the two members of the couple as equals is a striking contrast to Marvell’s and Campion’s poems, in which the female subject is placed on a pedestal and kept at a distance. There is little sense of a real-life relationship between the man and the woman. The men’s poems are mere descriptions of the woman and their love for her, with little discussion of how they interact, or how they may feel about her personality. Rich, however, creates an atmosphere of “us against the world”, writing “I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow, / and somehow, each of us will help the other live, / and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (Rich 237). Certainly, this discrepancy is at least partially a product of the different eras in which the poems were written; Campion and Marvell were writing in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, while Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” was written in the mid-1970’s. Victorian and Elizabethan culture dictated that the woman be far more removed from the often vile realities of life – revered, but not seen as an equal partner in a relationship. Sexuality would not have been a topic to be openly discussed. Rich’s discussion of the sexual nature of her relationships, however, is instrumental to a full grasp of the equal partnerships that she experiences. “I put my hand on your thigh / to comfort both of us, your hand came over mine, / we stayed that way, suffering together” (Rich 243). Although it is possible that the discrepancy in focus is due to the era, it is certainly notable that Rich focuses on the romance being found in the way that the two lovers hold each other up, helping each other through life, while the men’s love poems keep the woman remote, an idol more than a human. Marvell and Campion both describe a woman lovely to the point of perfection. Marvel writes, “[t]here is a garden in her face / where roses and white lilies grow; / A heav’nly paradise is that place” (Kennedy 288) while Campion describes a woman who “[a]n hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze” (Kennedy 375). Marvell’s and Campion’s poems are both flowery, lyrical descriptions of the beautiful woman that they love, yet it is not clear that they love her for any reason other than her beauty. Rich, by contrast, finds romance in the “realness” of the woman whom she loves. “we crouched in the open hatchway / vomiting into plastic bags / for three hours between St. Pierre and Miquelon. / I never felt closer to you” (Rich 242). Clearly, this is neither a delicate nor a particularly lovely image. Rich’s love is not idolatry, simple worship of an outer faÃ§ade. She loves the women in these poems because they are so real, so very human, with “traveled thighs” and “generous, delicate mouth[s] / where grief and laughter sleep together” that make them imperfect, yet perfect because of their wholeness as a person. They are not distant, untouchable – they are very possible, and so the love is that much more real and passionate. Rich’s poems are romantic because the love expressed in them is so genuine. The reader of Rich’s poems gets the sense that Rich has actually known these women, actually felt these powerful emotions. In the classical poems there is a distant quality, a feel of admiration or lust that nearly everyone could probably imagine, regardless of whether he had actually experienced it. “Had we but world enough and time, / . . .We would sit down and think which way / To walk, and pass our long love’s day” (Kennedy 375). There is a trite, simplistic feel to the experiences with the woman that Marvell recounts. Rich’s poems, however, possess a kind of rawness, a sensuality not easily imagined. “And my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds / break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly, / and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms” (Rich 238). This powerful, bold emotion exposes Rich’s very soul; she is clearly not hiding behind anything. This recalls the stereotype that is far easier for women to express emotion than men, as men often fear that a show of emotion makes them weak, vulnerable. Neither Marvell nor Campion risk anything in their poems; they are safe, distant. There is little personal information about the poet found in either poem, except that each narrator appreciates a woman’s beauty (hardly a trait which invites an impression of weakness). Rich risks far more with her poems, putting herself on display, showing her love for the women she writes the poems to by baring her soul to the world for them. Of course, which poem is more romantic all comes down to the question of personal preference. Which is more romantic: Reverent idealization or realistic, imperfect love? Appreciation of the physical traits of a person or of the person as an entire human being? Personally, I find Rich’s poems describe a love far deeper and far more real than either Marvell or Campion’s poems. The love that Rich expresses for the women in her poems is a total love, deep-seated and far-reaching; she loves every part of these women, even their imperfections. Marvell and Campion only see one side of the women who they “love”, and so I cannot believe that the love that they write about in their poems will be either deep or long-lived. I do not think that this discrepancy is entirely due to the fact that Marvell and Campion were writing heterosexual poems, while Rich is a lesbian writing to a woman, although I do believe that sexual identity plays a role in how one views love. The fact that far more obstacles exist to lesbian love than heterosexual love would certainly place more of an “us against the world” spin on Rich’s poems. Additionally, the different eras during which the poems were written had to have had something to do with the discrepancy. I do, however, think that if the Elizabethan and Victorian poets really had the same mentality towards love as Rich did and were simply conforming to certain restrictions, the underlying tone would have indicated more of the “total” love that I believe Rich describes. The most significant reason for the different attitudes toward love that are exhibited in Rich’s and Marvell and Campion’s poems is the simple fact that the two genders have opposing ideas of “ideal love”. The idea that men are more comfortable with separation, while women yearn for attachment is certainly not a novel one, but I find it interesting that these three poems express the differing attitudes that men and woman have towards love, sexual preference aside. All of the poets are writing about women, and yet the women in “To His Coy Mistress” and “There Is a Garden In Her Face” seem almost a different species than the women in “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Women, perhaps, are better able to understand the intricacies to the female character, and thus better able to appreciate other women as whole, complex people with imperfections, yet worthy of love. Women not only are more likely to seek an emotional connection, but also are especially likely to find that connection reciprocated when the love is directed towards another woman, resulting in intense love.
The Role of Compulsory Heterosexuality and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich
On the surface, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich seem like the most dissimilar of contemporary poets: Rich identified as Jewish, lesbian, and a feminist, while Plath considered herself religiously apathetic and although some scholars interpret the writing of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar as an admission of queerness, she publicly commented on neither her sexuality nor her status as a feminist, although this may be because she died prior to the second-wave feminist movement. However, as Rich wrote in her essay cc “women are all, in different ways and to different degrees [compulsory heterosexuality’s] victims,” and the fact that these women lived and wrote during the same era surrounded by the constant threat of male power is enough to consider them comparable in experience (645). Rich’s essay explores the darkest parts of patriarchal influence, including the characteristics of male power and various methods and patterns in the reinforcement of heterosexuality on women, and each of these poets addresses and rejects them in their work. Although male power and compulsory heterosexuality impacted them differently in their lives and they incorporate these types of experiences into their poetry differently, it is the barest, rawest parts of female existence that connect these women to one another. In this essay, I intend to identify and explore the different ways that Rich and Plath interact with compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power in their poetry.
Early in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich lists the characteristics of male power, which she takes from feminist anthropologist Kathleen Gough’s essay “The Origin of the Family.” The first two characteristics listed, which have various means of enforcement seem to be the most prevalent in both Rich and Plath’s poetry. The first characteristic is: to deny women [our own] sexuality… [by means of clitoridectomy and infibulation; chastity belts; punishment, including death, for female adultery; punishment, including death, for lesbian sexuality; psychoanalytic denial of the clitoris; strictures against masturbation; denial of maternal and postmenopausal sensuality; unnecessary hysterectomy; pseudo-lesbian images in media and literature; closing of archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence]; (638). This characteristic is addressed more frequently in Rich’s poems, such as “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” in “Twenty-One Love Poems,” with blatant rejection. The essay focuses primarily on the sexual orientation aspect of sexuality and seems to display a moral preference towards non-heterosexual couples, but it also notes that the problems with and limitations of heterosexuality are due to its close connection to male power, especially the assertion of sexual dominance (636). This tends to be observed more frequently in conjunction with the methods listed under the second characteristic of male power, which is highlighted and criticized more so in Plath’s poems, such as “The Jailer,” than in Rich’s poems. The second characteristic is: or to force it [male sexuality] upon them… [by means of rape (including marital rape) and wife beating; father-daughter, brother-sister incest; the socialization of women to feel that male sexual “drive” amounts to a right; idealization of heterosexual romance in art, literature, media, ads, etc.; child marriage; arranged marriage; prostitution; the psychoanalytic doctrines of frigidity and vaginal orgasm, pornographic depictions of women responding pleasurably violence and humiliation (a subliminal message being that heterosexuality is more “normal” than sensuality between women)]; (638-639).These are the characteristics that come up most frequently in Plath and Rich’s writing and they will be the ones I focus on in the context of each poem, but there are several other characteristic that appear and are rejected on similar grounds.
While observations on lesbian existence fall by the wayside in Plath’s poetry, they are a focal point in Rich’s work. In particular, Rich makes a point of rejecting “punishment… for lesbian sexuality; psychoanalytic denial of the clitoris… strictures against masturbation; denial of maternal and postmenopausal sensuality… closing of archives and destruction of documents relating to lesbian existence,” and she most notably does this “Twenty-One Love Poems.” In “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” the most sexually explicit of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” she writes: Whatever happens with us, your bodywill haunt mine—tender, delicateyour lovemaking, like the half-curled frondof the fiddlehead fern in forestsjust washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighsbetween 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, searchingme out, your strong tongue and slender fingersreaching where I had been waiting years for youin my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is.Here, the speaker begins by promising her body to an ungendered lover, and although she never explicitly names the gender identity of her lover, the discussion of “generous thighs / between which [her] whole face has come” and the “dance of…nipples” suggests that she is speaking about a woman. By describing the lovemaking between the speaker and another woman, Rich is completely rejecting the ideals of heterosexual intercourse and male sexuality that were considered superior in the 1980s. Likewise, by directly addressing the sexual relationship between the two women, the Rich is clarifying that women do not need men for sexual pleasure or sexual purposes despite the observations she makes in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” The contradiction between innocence and wisdom in the eighth line suggests both interest and confusion with the unfamiliarity of having sex with a woman as well as freedom from male sexual oppression. Regardless of a woman’s sexual orientation, her experience can be located along the “lesbian continuum” as a victim of male enforcement of heterosexuality. Although the substance of the poem blatantly challenges compulsory heterosexuality and male power, its greatest significance may be the fact that it brings lesbianism and issues of male power to the forefront of poetic discourse by offering a detailed account of lesbian physical and emotional intimacy (O’Mahoney). However, as Plath demonstrates, this is not the only way for a female poet to challenge the patriarchy.
The poem of Plath’s that is most straightforward in the wait it addresses the second characteristic of male sexuality is “The Jailer” from her collection Ariel, which was published posthumously. She begins the poem by subtly addressing institutional sexism within the home with the lines “My night sweats grease his breakfast plate. / The same placard of blue fog is wheeled into position / With the same trees and headstones.” In the first, she while she notes that the man who she speaks about does not care about her and considers her extremely replaceable. After this, the speaker then rhetorically asks, “Is that all he can come up with, / The rattler of keys?” These lines may reference another characteristic of male power, “to confine [women] physically and prevent their movement,” which would also be a characteristic of a literal jailer (639). The main purpose of this stanza seems to be the confirmation that the jailer the speaker is wary of is the man she cooks breakfast for, who is probably her husband. The next stanza, which most blatantly addresses the force of male power on women, reads:I have been drugged and raped.Seven hours knocked out of my right mindInto a black sackWhere I relax, foetus or cat,Lever of his wet dreams.The first line may reference literal sexual force and coercion as Rich lists as methods of forcing male sexuality on women, but it is also possible that Plath is actually toying with the concept of a forced, coerced, and violent marriage: the rape the speaker mentions is likely marital rape at the hands of the man she describes. In her essay, Rich quotes:As one accused rapist put it, he hadn’t used “any more force than is usual for males during the preliminaries”… [MacKinnon] criticizes Susan Brownmiller for separating rape from the mainstream of daily life and for her unexamined premise that “rape is violence, intercourse is sexuality,” removing rape from the sexual sphere altogether. Most crucially she argues that “taking rape from the realm of ‘the sexual,’ placing it in the realm of ‘the violent,’ allows one to be against it without raising any questions about the extent to which the institution of heterosexuality has defined force as a normal part of ‘the preliminaries.’ Never is it asked whether, under conditions of male supremacy, the notion of ‘consent’ has any meaning.” (642) In relation to “The Jailer,” this suggests that Plath is blurring the lines between love and violence by blurring the lines between sex and rape.
For centuries, women were forced to view the what is now known to be violence as a part of heterosexual intercourse and relationships, and Plath writers her speaker as someone who is now beginning to realize that “the violent” is not “the sexual.” Likewise, in the language of contemporary social work, the jailer is a partner or ex-partner who attempts to restrict the victim in some way, whether that is sexually, which is addressed in the first two characteristics, physically, which is addressed with the characteristic “to confine them physically and prevent their movement,” or mentally, which is addressed in the final characteristic of male power, “to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.” The seven hours she spent “knocked out of [her] right mind” also might be the seven hours of sleep she is forced to have next to him after being forced to have sex with him. She may also be criticizing herself for consciously choosing him as a partner and in doing so not being in her “right mind.” Another example of forcing male sexuality on women that Rich lists is “the socialization of women to feel that male sexual ‘drive’ is a right,” which may be why the man in the poem is able to have and keep the speaker even in his sleep as the “Lever of his wet dreams” (639). By criticizing this characteristic of male power throughout the rest of the poem, which she does by making comments like “He has been burning me with cigarettes” and “What have I eaten? / Lies and smiles,” and in the last stanza by daring the reader to wonder: That being free. What would the darkDo without fevers to eat?What would the lightDo without eyes to knife, what would heDo, do, do without me? Here, although Plath is separating her poetry from Rich’s by failing to depict scenarios that blatantly oppose the enforcement of male power with force and deprival, she is taking her opposition a step further by encouraging the reader to imagine a world in which male power is not prioritized and heterosexuality is not compulsory while Rich just creates an image of that world.
Despite the fact that their tactics are different in these initial poems, Plath and Rich have the common goal of challenging compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power, and they use similar techniques to achieve this goal in Plath’s “Lesbos” and Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” At first read, Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and Plath’s “Lesbos” have little more in common than the fact that they are both poems written in English. For starters, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is nearly an eighth of the length of “Lesbos,” and it is broken into three neat, even stanzas while Plath’s stanzas start long and get shorter and shorter as “Lesbos” goes on. However, these poems both directly address the issues with compulsory heterosexuality and the enforcement of male power, with Rich doing so in simpler terms while Plath is more detailed and grandiose in her language. Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reads: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 woolFind even the ivory needle hard to pull.The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding bandSits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lieStill ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.The tigers in the panel that she madeWill go on prancing, proud and unafraid.This poem does not criticize male power by taking examples of characteristics of it and displaying the polar opposite as “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered” does––instead, it presents the reader a victim of compulsory heterosexuality who is weighed down in life and is free only in her creativity. Plath uses a similar technique in “Lesbos” when she writes lines like “You say your husband is just no good to you. / His Jew-Mama guards his sweet sex like a pearl” and “A dog picked up your doggy husband. He went on.” These lines make note of the ways in which people prioritize male sexuality and therefore succumb to male power, as Aunt Jennifer is obviously tired from many years of doing. Additionally, both of these poets mark tigers as symbols of freedom with the “proud and unafraid” tigers in Aunt Jennifer’s tapestry and Plath’s lone “I should wear tiger pants, I should have an affair,” which indicates that there is an animalistic freedom these women and perhaps many others associated with freedom from the patriarchy’s trap, and in including this symbol they are making evident to the reader the fact that they are unwilling to comfortably settle with compulsory heterosexuality and male power in the world.
One notable difference between these poems, despite their many similarities, is the fact that Plath is also using the speaker’s daughter as a vessel for criticism in “Lesbos” while Rich keeps her criticism limited to Aunt Jennifer’s husband. In the first stanza, Plath writes:And my child look at her, face down on the floor,Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappearWhy she is schizophrenic,Her face is red and white, a panic… Rather than displaying outward attacks from a man like her husband, the speaker is writing about a friend who harbors the ideals of compulsory heterosexuality and male power (Trinidad). In the lines above, the fourth characteristic of male power is being referenced: “to control or rob [women] of their children” (639). Literary critics believe, however, that the anger Plath was gearing towards others in her writing was displaced anger towards Ted Hughes, which strengthens the argument that this anger is a criticism of male power, like the despair in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” but here it is being expressed pre-mortem rather than post-mortem (Trinidad). As Rich quotes in her essay:female sexual slavery is present in ALL situations where women or girls cannot change the conditions of their existence; where regardless of how they got into those conditions, e.g., social pressure, economic hardship, misplaced trust or the longing for affection, they cannot get out; and where they are subject to sexual violence and exploitation.Despite the fact that the scenarios presented in “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,” “The Jailer,” “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” and “Lesbos” are different in various ways, they all reject in presenting (or, in not presenting) women who are stuck in a situation dictated by male power. In addressing female sexual slavery in their work, they are taking advantage of the concept of combining literature with politics, and although the archetype of the weighed-down wife is certainly not a new one, Rich and Plath refresh it with their criticisms of male power (Pratt,).
Although there are countless methods of forcing women to be the slaves of the patriarchy, there are also countless ways to combat this: so long as people are working against compulsory heterosexuality and male power, their place in literature and in the greater world will shrink. As Rich wrote in her 1975 speech “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her” (23). In writing separate expressions of the ways in which male power and compulsory heterosexuality are forced upon women, Plath and Rich paved the way for more women poets to express discontent with the sexual status quo and to change it. Although neither of them explicitly expressed this as a goal, it is likely that they would both be content with this outcome of their poetry.
O’Mahoney, John. “The Profile: Adrienne Rich.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 June 2002. Web.Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Edited by Ted Hughes, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008. Print.Pratt, Annis. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers: Notes Toward a Preliterary History of Women’s Archetypes.” Feminist Studies 4.1 (1978): 163. ProQuest. Web. Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer, 1980), p. 631-660. Rich, Adrienne. “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” Heresies 1.1 (1977): 23. Print.Trinidad, David. “‘Viciousness in the Kitchen’: The Backstory of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lesbos’” by David Trinidad. Blackbird Archives (2). 20 Nov. 2015. ACI Scholarly Blog Index. Web.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: How Gender Is Depicted in Poetry
Sir Thomas Wyatt, according to Peter Hühn, is not only recognized as one of the most important poets in the revival of the sixteenth-century English lyric, but he is also remembered for establishing the conventions of Petrarchan love in the English lyric both with his translations from the Italian and poems of his own. In his poem, as a matter of fact, he follows “the basic situation with which the Petrarchan conventions operate, that is that of a man wooing a socially superior lady in a courtly context where, for social and moral reasons, his desire cannot be fulfilled” (16). However, Wyatt poem “They Flee from Me” could not be more different from the description provided by De Gruyter. Indeed, even though this poem was intended to be a love poem, it reveals and subverts the stereotypical gender dynamics of the 16th century since it is the woman the one who gets slowly in control of the situation. On the other hand, Adrienne Rich is a feminist poet who focused both on “women’s history and movement” as well as on women’s oppression (Riley 1), and, as a consequence, it is not surprising that she wrote her poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” with the purpose to serve as a feminist poem. Indeed, the poem was written in 1951, a time in which there were much fewer options for women in terms of careers and family planning, so that most women were not financially independent. Thanks to both poem, we get a glimpse into the lives of the Wyatt and of the Aunt Jennifer’s of the world, and a glance into the ways in which gender construction affected and still affect us.
Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me” is a poem in which the speaker, Wyatt himself, challenges the normal Renaissance gender constructions. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which shows the progressive increase of a woman’s power. The first stanza, for instance, shows the typical male-dominant relationship so that the author does not refer to a single woman but talks in general always referring to the woman with the more generic pronoun “they”: They flee from me that sometime did me seek With naked foot, stalking in my chamber. I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek, That now are wild and do not remember That sometime they put themself in danger To take bread at my hand; and now they range, Busily seeking with a continual change. (1-7) Indeed, in the first three lines, the speaker reveals that he was used to submissive women, who were willing to endanger their lives to stay with him. Yet at the end of the first stanza, he also reveals that these women, who once were submissive and “tame,” are now taking it upon themselves to seek out whatever sexual partner they please. The speaker also implies that women are never satisfied and that they have an insatiable appetite for “a continual change” (7). Nevertheless, In the second stanza, the relationship that the speaker has with these women flips, from being male-dominated, to being female-dominated. The dominant gender’s change is reflected in a modification in the speaker’s use of pronouns. If before he referred to women in general, as if the whole category could be in his possession, now he refers only to one specific woman, who exercises control over him: Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise Twenty times better; but once in special, In thin array after a pleasant guise, When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall, And she me caught in her arms long and small; There with all sweetly did me kiss And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?” (8-14) The speaker admits that this particular woman is reversing the gender roles established in the first stanza by taking control of the situation and seducing him. However, the speaker does not seem to mind these night visits, indeed he admits that they are “twenty times better” (2), and he seems to particularly appreciate the woman’s way of dressing. In line ten, he admits that what makes this woman so special is her dressing “in thin array,” that is to say that this woman wore sexy, “elaborate and beautiful clothing” (OED). Moreover, in line twelve, he also acknowledges that he was “caught” in the woman’s arms, which are apparently long and small. By saying that he was caught in the woman’s arms, the speaker may be suggesting that that they were embracing each other, but he also reminds us of hunting and traps, as if the speaker is no longer in control of the situation. Furthermore, instead of saying she caught me, he says “she me caught” (13). This inversion can just be a stylistic trick used by Wyatt to stick to the iambic pentameter rhythm, but it can also be a trick used to emphasize the word “caught” and the man consequent loss of power. Then, the woman kisses the man, and, to underline her position of supremacy, she asks him whether he liked the kiss or not. Now, the woman is not just exerting control over the man, but she is also mocking him, by assuming a behavior that would be typically associated to a man.
By the third stanza, it is clear that the male seducer is the seduced and that the female character is the aggressive hunter. However, in this last stanza, the speaker appears confused since he is not able to fully comprehend their relationship: It was no dream: I lay broad waking. But all is turned thorough my gentleness Into a strange fashion of forsaking; And I have leave to go of her goodness, And she also, to use newfangleness. But since that I so kindly am served I would fain know what she hath deserved. (15-21) The speaker is apparently confused, so that he has to repeat to himself that what had happened was not a dream but the reality. His confusion stems from the fact that in the Renaissance period gender roles were clearly defined, and they were rarely openly challenged. He also confesses that the relationship they were having was not exclusive since both are allowed “to use newfangleness” (19), so both could have been “easily carried away by whatever is new” (OED). In the final lines, the speaker becomes more sarcastic and suggests that her beloved left him because he was being too kind, blaming himself for this outcome. Indeed, the roles of the man and the woman, as they were presented at the beginning of the poem, have now completely reversed, until the point that the speaker has become the one who is “gentle, tame, and meek” (3).
Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a three stanzas poem that tells the entire story of aunt Jennifer’s life. By contrasting the movement of the tigers with the stillness of Aunt Jennifer, the poem explores the controlled condition of women. Indeed, the poem opens with the description of the tigers: 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. (1-4) Instead of opening the poem with a description of Aunt Jennifer, Rich opens the poem with a description of her tigers. In the first line, the speaker describes the way in which the tigers move by saying that they “prance across a screen;” this description implies that the tigers move in a lively fashion, perhaps arrogantly. The speaker may be using the word topaz for its golden color, or topaz may be a representation of the strength and impenetrability of the tigers since the ancient Greeks believed that topaz had the ability to increase the strength of those who wore it, and Egyptians thought that it could protect people from physical harm (“Topaz”). The tigers certainly seem to be aware of their own power since they have no fear of “the men beneath the tree” (3). In the last line of the first stanza, the tigers “pace in sleek chivalric certainty”. The pacing of the tigers may represent fluid and controlled motion, as compared to the frolicking movement of the first line.
In the second stanza, the speaker finally introduces some details about Aunt Jennifer. The speaker reveals us that Aunt Jennifer finds herself weighted by her marriage ring given her by the narrator’s uncle. Yet, Aunt Jennifer’s hands are the only details that the speaker reveals about her, and which work as a synecdoche for her personality: 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. (5-9) Aunt Jennifer’s hands are described as intimidated, enchained, and shaking. Unlike her tigers, Aunt Jennifer is presented as an insecure person who feels oppressed by her marriage. The narrator does not tell us if Aunt Jennifer’s husband is alive or not, yet in the last line of the quatrain the narrator reveals to us that the ring “Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand,” so the presence of the husband oppresses her even only through the memory that the ring arouses. This quatrain also adds another detail about the tigers: if in the previous stanza we discover that the tigers are in a screen, now we can deduce that the screen is actually an embroidery created by Aunt Jennifer.
In the last stanza, the narrator imagines what will happens once Aunt Jennifer will be dead, and asserts that not even death will put an end to the command of her husband over her: 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. (10-14) According to the narrator, what will provoke Aunt Jennifer’s death will be the prolonged oppression to which she is subjected. However, her death will not be forgotten: the tigers she has painted will continue to live in the future and will symbolize her will to be free and rebel from a male-dominant relationship. Yet, this poem does not show only the dynamics that characterize the relationship between Aunt Jennifer and her husband, but it also shows the point of view of the niece. The niece, along with the tigers, represents the change that has occurred from one generation to the other. Through the description offered by the niece, the reader can understand that she is not subjected to the same dynamics to which the aunt was subjected; indeed, both the niece and the tigers are the product of an extremely patriarchal generation that no longer accepts this old mindset. What the poem wants to highlight is that the mindset has started changing, but it does not say that the patriarchal societies have been completely eradicated; it just suggests that it is possible to put them to an end if the mindset changes.
Both Wyatt and Rich’s poem can be analyzed to observe different gender dynamics and the different kind of relationship that can occur between men and women. Yet, on one hand, Wyatt amazes the reader by presenting a story that the reader would not expect, in which the woman is the “predator” and the man is the “poor victim.” On the other hand, Rich confirms and highlights the disparity that occurs between man and woman, and how this disparity can lead to toxic relationships that can affect one of the two partners for life.
“array, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/10979. Accessed 20 April 2018.
Hühn, Peter, and Jens Kiefer. The Narratological Analysis of Lyric Poetry : Studies in English Poetry from the 16th to the 20th Century, De Gruyter, Inc., 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.jcu.idm.oclc.org/lib/johncabot/detail.action?docID=3041939.
“newfangledness, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/126553. Accessed 20 April 2018.
Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tiger.” 1951. Riley, Jeannette E. Understanding Adrienne Rich. University of South Carolina Press, 2016. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1221948&site=ehost-live.
“Topaz.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 Jan. 2018, www.britannica.com/science/topaz.
Wyatt, Sir Thomas. “They Flee From Me.” 1557.