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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

“To my grandmothers Mary Gravely and Hattie Rice whose lives I begin
to imagine and to the activists working to free women’s bodies from
archaic and unnecessary bonds.” So Adrienne Rich dedicated Of Woman
Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), in words that leave
no doubt as to her aim: to explode the apparatus that had long subordinated
women.1 Of Woman Born confronts head-on the institution of motherhood
and takes issue with Rich’s father, who imposed on her his ideas about educa-
tion from earliest childhood. He thought poetry no mere dalliance of youth;
he taught his daughter Greek and Latin, advised strict adherence to estab-
lished meters, and introduced her to nineteenth-century writers – Tennyson,
Keats, Arnold, Swinburne, Pater – whose work would remain an evocative
presence in her poetry. Her early work reflects these influences, but even as
a young poet Rich recognized the seductive force of language. How can one
be a poet and not a collaborator? How does one write poetry without ven-
triloquizing the voices that have confined and defined women? Poetic influ-
ence stands over her shoulder: “Again I sit, under duress, hands washed, /
at your inkstained oaken desk,” writes Rich in “Juvenilia.”2 However, her
moral core confirmed, Rich wrote poetry that willfully but elegantly refused
implication in cultural hierarchies, habits, and traditions – acknowledging
language’s double bind while generating a new social and political vision.
To her benefit, that same father urged Rich to write poetry – to “work,
work / harder than anyone has worked before”3  – encouragement that
brought her early acclaim and set her on the path to become a prolific writer.
By her mid-twenties, she’d published A Change of World (1951) and The
Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems (1955), garnering praise from W.  H.
Auden and Randall Jarrell. Her early work was stylistically bold and tur-
bulent but gracefully remade poetic forms. Rich set into motion the meta-
morphosis that would transform her from a girl copying out passages from
Blake, Keats, and Longfellow into a woman tending closely to the intimate
give and take between formal experiment and thematic concern.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Rich confronted her twin needs to be loved and
to be a writer. But she recognized that the entrenched position of the female
muse, the vestiges of patriarchy and the Victorian family, the very infusion
of language with “the powers of the father” (OWB 58) could not hold, for
the cost was woman’s voice. “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters. / The
beak that grips her, she becomes,” Rich writes in the title poem to Snapshots
of a Daughter-in-Law (21). The burden of her argument lies here:  an all
but tyrannical determination casts womanhood as incommensurate with
artistic self-expression, constrains women in paradigms of romantic love,
and perpetuates duplicities that glorify women as ornamental helpmeets
alone. Women who submit to this cultural norm, Rich suggests, confirm
their own alienation, relinquish their subjectivity, and sink into depression,
self-loathing, madness, and suicide.
Rich was well aware that this abduction of female identity involved the
corrupt ideals of patriarchy. In developing a counter-poetics, she traced her
genealogy to Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Rich’s world-creating effort beckoned women poets of the past and enlisted
new comrades in arms. But recognizing that poetry can resist conformity,
complacency, and inequity did not alter the daily realities of her life as a wife
and mother relentlessly tasked with domestic concerns. Battling the claus-
trophobia of motherhood and her legal and economic responsibilities to her
husband, Rich refused to be immobilized by poetic proscription. Mimicking
the form of a laundry list, Rich recorded in a 1965 diary entry: “Necessity
for a more unyielding discipline of my life. Recognize the uselessness of
blind anger. Limit society. Use children’s school hours better, for work &
solitude” (OWB 31).
Almost fifty years after composing it, Rich identified Snapshots of a
Daughter-in-Law as a sharp break from her previous work, signaling her
retreat from convention toward new forms reflecting her identity as a female
poet.4 Relatively controlled in structure, the poems in her first collection
were more likely to locate alienation in another woman’s experience, as in
“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” where “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding
band / Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.”5 Snapshots concerns her
own subjectivity, her own female passivity; private concerns yield to a pub-
lic vision. “Double Monologue” moves from inner-directed reflection to
a democracy of experience, a shift poignantly mediated though punctua-
tion: “Find yourself and you find the world?” The question is, how? Her
assertion that “We had to take the world as it was given”6 is thus both
dispiriting and revelatory, an act of recognition and defiance. She would face
the given world through poetry and social action, through poetry as social
action. With Snapshots, Rich began keenly to focus on timbre and an array

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

of poetic voices: “Sometimes they’re conversational,” she said, “sometimes

they’re more like the dialogues or choruses of Greek tragedy, addressing
conditions of urgency in a communal order or disorder. The voices may be
individual, but they’re searching for a shared moral reality” (Waldman).
Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962–1965 locates her beyond roles and social
conditioning; in it she seeks a creative life that circumspectly honors artistic
legacies. Rich saw that violating cultural and historical preconceptions was
essential to the formation of woman’s identity. One of Rich’s moral impera-
tives was to confront the wounding effects of separating mind and body.
Dividing human beings from nature was intolerable, deleterious. Man’s pro-
pensity to abstraction had become a nihilistic assertion of mind over matter.
“When you put your hand out to touch me,” she explains in “Moth Hour”
(1965), “you are already reaching toward an empty space.”7 This reign of
abstraction eradicated body in pursuit of mind; it devalued life, sacrificed
community, and beckoned sorrow, war, and misery. Facing this destruction,
Rich sought renewal. Creating a meaningful world through poetry, forming
a community of women, and bridging the gap between art and life, aesthet-
ics and politics, were imperative. Her willingness to bear the pain of these
radical transformations is stark:  “I’d rather / taste blood, yours or mine,
flowing / from a sudden slash, then cut all day / with blunt scissors on dot-
ted lines / like the teacher told” (“On Edges”8). Rich now began to question
the preeminence of the individual, rejecting the isolated self as an oppressive
fiction, a construct supported by a culture of hierarchies.
Empathy for victims of the Algerian War and the War in Vietnam suffuses
Leaflets: Poems, 1965–1968. What other response to everyone caught in the
common struggle? What medium better than poetry to modify conscious-
ness and sensibility? “I wanted to choose words that even you / would be
changed by,” she declares in “Implosions” (L 42). At the heart of Leaflets is
a rejection of apolitical aestheticism and a pointed confrontation with the
twin aggressions of sexual and military oppression.
By the time Rich published The Will to Change: Poems, 1968–1970, for-
mal experimentation had become essential to her project. Words and the
spaces between words were of equal importance. Rich also began to pro-
mote the values of visual communication, of witnessing. Film and photog-
raphy became alternatives to poetic revelation, as is clear in poems such as
“Images for Godard” and “Shooting Script.”
In “The Blue Ghazals,” Rich writes: “The moment when a feeling enters
the body / is political. This touch is political.”9 This would become one of
her most enduring convictions: that the body and touch, sensuality and sex-
uality, could reclaim political meaning, and that emotional sterility was a
patriarchal instrument of oppression. Rich’s counter-poetics made a virtue

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Wendy Martin and Annalisa Zox-Weaver

of physicality, flesh, and blood, resisting the institutions and detachments of

the disembodied patriarchal “I,” and using language to physically affect the
reader or hearer.
In the early 1970s, Rich seethed with censure in poetry and prose. Diving
into the Wreck – considered by many critics her best work – defends a female
ethic against patriarchal greed and collectiveness against fragmentation.
Love, sex, marriage, and motherhood are reviewed with a fastidious pessi-
mism, reflecting Rich’s dedication to the era’s feminist movement. Nothing
less than a new social order and community will do, with a new mythology
fortified against invasions by the male mind. The title poem posits each sen-
tence as an act of repudiation and recreation: “I put on / the body-armor of
black rubber,” “I go down. / Rung after rung.”10 The poet submerges herself,
looking squarely at the object itself, repudiating the narratives that obscure
it: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the
myth” (DW 23). Rich willfully confuses space and time: diving in is going
back. Plumbing the sea’s depths becomes a confrontation with civilization,
Western culture, the labors of the poet, the sediment of man-made error.
Having reached the wreck, the narrator takes a clear-eyed look at the self: a
figure who embodies male and female, mind and matter, subject and object.
It is the primordial world “where the spirit began”:  “We circle silently /
about the wreck. / We dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he” (DW 23). The
punctuation indicates that the diver-poet has found the parity she sought, in
a time before the ancient quarrel began between sacred and profane, good
and evil, feminine and masculine.
In Diving into the Wreck, Rich’s anger entails a concentrated awareness.
Women must overcome “self-trivialization, contempt for [themselves], mis-
placed compassion, addiction [to love, to depression, to male approval].”11
In her poems, and in the vision they uphold, women must write themselves
into a world of mutual support, inter-subjectivity, reciprocity, and egalitar-
ian empowerment – an aim inaccessible in a society that exploits women.
Her ten-part poem “Phenomenology of Anger” exalts the challenge of fac-
ing demons. “Madness. Suicide. Murder. / Is there no way out but these?”
(DW 25). Rich identifies the systematic evils: geopolitical violence, war, the
technological subjugation of nature, oppression of third-world peoples.
Wounds appear on psyches, bodies; on grotesque, scarred landscapes; on
entire cultures.
Rich is no longer just the mother at home, her soul evacuated by domestic
demands and the tyranny of heterosexual romance; she is a soldier doing
battle with men who “[gun] down babies at My Lai / vanishing in the face
of confrontation.” As the machinery of patriarchy, war dehumanizes and
decentralizes the other, co-opting the soul into its machine, sadistically

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

exterminating people like so many pests. But Diving into the Wreck is noth-
ing if not productive. It confronts war’s predators and prey, its horrors and
unspeakable wounds, transporting the poet to the other side. A  pastoral
vision peeks from behind the apocalypse: “I would have loved to have lived
in a world / of women and men gaily / in collusion with green leaves, stalks, /
building mineral cities, transparent domes” (DW 30).
The distance between Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and Diving into
the Wreck is marked; more radical modes replace irony with emotional
awareness, and reticent outsiders with a resolute narrative voice. Rage has
been her catalyst: “my visionary anger cleansing my sight” (“The Stranger”
[DW 19]). This testimony to productive anger leaves her lucid, making pri-
vate perceptions public, establishing a coherent point of view, and a poetic
vision that must bring about a sense of community. In Diving into the Wreck,
Rich moves from pessimism and accusation – from indictments of the insidi-
ous and pervasive forces of patriarchy – to a specific awareness of what her
rage produced: forms of knowledge, power, creative velocity.
Many of these major motifs appear in Rich’s prose of the period. Her
essay “When We Dead Awaken:  Writing as Re-Vision” urges the very
self-reflection undertaken by the poet-diver.12 Its most hortatory, ambitious
decree is that women, by “entering an old text from a new critical direction,”
look squarely at how they’ve been written into human history. Women must
renegotiate their place in literature, as sexual beings, and as casualties of the
“old political order”; they must interrogate representation. Rich brings to
the dock the language that has written male prerogatives into aesthetics and
history – “the assumptions in which we are drenched.” The essay is uncom-
promising and unapologetic: “women can no longer be primarily mothers
and muses for men: we have our own work cut out for us” (WWD 18, 25).
Published in College English, “When We Dead Awaken” registers keenly
what happens as a thirty-year-old woman poet, at about the time of her
third child’s birth, roils in the conviction that she will inevitably fail at both
motherhood and poetry.
Rich thus produced volumes of work that lamented, convicted, and repu-
diated the burden of being a poet in a world that denies women lyrical
mobility and invalidates their experience. From Snapshots of a Daughter-in-
Law (1963), Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to
Change (1971) to Diving into the Wreck (1973), The Dream of a Common
Language (1978), and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981)  –
books spanning twenty years – Rich sees darkness through to the end, rec-
ognizing the poet’s obligation, her obligation, to lay bare the foundations
of patriarchy. Rich shines a light on positive images of women, becoming
deeply concerned with how women might “re-vision” and witness their own

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lives; the poetic act would be collective, inclusive; it would expunge heroic
individualism and de-sanctify male virility.
A leader among American feminists in the 1970s, Rich also began to speak
of her women-centered lesbian identity. Rich’s poetry responded to her his-
torical moment by imbricating lyrical assonance, consonance, slant rhyme,
and onomatopoeia with antiwar slogans, women’s letters, disjunctive frag-
ments of dialogue, anecdotes, and internal monologues. Activism dedicated
to the feminist movement, gay rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War
redoubled Rich’s commitment to create a more humane society. Integral to
topical concerns was (again) her deep awareness of the power of language.
Language, she felt, must be liberated from ideology, contest itself as a pre-
possessed form of representation, and live on its own. “Poetry is, among
other things, a criticism of language . . . Poetry is above all a concentration
of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to
everything in the universe” (LSS 248).
By the time she wrote Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and
Institution in 1976, Rich was a well-established poet. The book extends
the theme of excavation and submersion, of going back in order to move
forward. Faithful engagement with her feelings pivots into broad diagnos-
tic assessments of how history, myth, psychology, and anthropology have
sought to govern women’s most private experiences. The only triumphant
figure in the shift from totemic society to patriarchal culture is the male
hero – as doctor, father, husband, author, and creator. The shift from fertility
cults to the medicalization of the female body ensured patriarchal control
over pregnancy and childbirth and, by extension, over abortion, contracep-
tion, methods of delivery, and gynecological surgical procedures; women
became passive objects in the reproductive process. In a chapter titled
“Motherhood and Daughterhood,” Rich confronts the legacy of matro-
phobia that has alienated women from one another. The “cathexis between
mother and daughter” meant the loss of love and intimacy between women,
symbolic and sacred bonds that must be healed through a “courageous
mothering” that recognizes her struggle to “create livable space around her,
demonstrating to her daughter that these possibilities exist” (OWB 247).
Again, Rich saw only one way to proceed: radically alter the very soul of
oppression, reversing a tragic destiny by writing in defiance of the ethics,
politics, and personal meaning that patriarchy upheld as sacred truths.
Rich’s first book after coming out as a lesbian, The Dream of a Common
Language (1978), presents lyrical explorations of themes from Of Woman
Born. The poems express her faith that personal experience, public discourse,
and a new social vision are inextricable. Rich once again delves into the pre-
historic past, recreating the realm of women’s primordial power. Through

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

assonance and consonance, the six-part “Sibling Mysteries” emphasizes the

bond shared by sisters with their mother: “Remind me how we loved our
mother’s body / our mouths drawing the first / thin sweetness from her
nipples.”13 The primary social relationship between mothers and daugh-
ters becomes a lens through which to explore women’s erotic love for one
another and the deep connections to be enjoyed in a community of women.
Again, Rich places language at the fore. Communication is essential to
any break from alienation toward companionship among women: “No one
sleeps in this room without / the dream of a common language” (DCL 8).
Consolation and hope are located in understanding and naming one’s expe-
rience. Marie Curie’s achievements elucidate how scientific conquest comes
at a cost, cavalierly sacrificing women in the name of innovation:

She died          a famous woman          denying

her wounds
her wounds          came          from the same source as her power (DCL 3)

Killed by the destructive power of her own discovery, Curie symbolizes the
collateral damage of an arrogant cultural complex of patriarchal compet-
itiveness. The poems in this collection empower caesuras with a force that
surpasses language itself. Prominent spaces between words are declarations
of struggle. In “Power,” the spaces signal Curie’s struggle – a Faustian bar-
gain that cost Curie her life. In “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” caesuras
serve a different purpose, indicating the efforts and possibilities of the team
of women who climbed Russia’s Lenin Peak in August 1974 but ended – like
Curie – in death. “We could have stitched that blueness together like a
quilt” (DCL 5). However, Rich makes clear that their deaths did not oblit-
erate their communal effort or the fact that their commitment to coopera-
tive work bridged gaps and presented a revolutionary alternative to selfish
Rich moves from historical example to personal reflection in the second
part of The Dream of a Common Language. “Twenty-One Love Poems”
exalts the everyday, the particular, and the immediate. Eloquence comes
through the work’s conversational tone, repudiating the conventions of
Romantic tradition. Here, Rich consecrates acts of self-referentiality, fear-
lessly affirming the value of domestic details and the tenderness of lesbian
love. The lover speaks to her beloved: “But we have different voices, even
in sleep, / and our bodies, so alike, yet so different / and the past echo-
ing through our bloodstreams / is freighted with different language, dif-
ferent meanings  – ” (DCL 30). The poem weaves together the threads of
Rich’s work: the complexity of communication, the body’s place in human

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relations, vestiges of the past. But Rich does not idealize. Ambiguities and
obstacles are part of this passionate attachment: “two women together is a
work / nothing in civilization has made simple, / two people together is a
work / heroic in its ordinariness” (DCL 35). Rich reassigns the meaning of
“heroic,” overriding its legacy of idealized individualism. Being a lesbian in
a phallocentric political system is an act so courageous that it can contain
pain, fear, and anger as part of its intricacy.
Rich’s 1979 book of essays, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose,
1966–1978, continues her dialogue between prose and poetic expression,
exploring contemporary questions related to women’s higher education, the
meaning and future of feminism, lesbian issues, and the field of women’s
studies. In A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978–1981, Rich
returns to examples of women’s lives – both exemplary and conventional –
to underscore the deep value of positive female images. Public figures such
as Willa Cather, Simone Weil, and Ethel Rosenberg, placed in company with
Rich’s grandmothers, Mary Gravely Jones and Hattie Rice Rich, present a
collective of women who excelled in spite of hardship and adversity. Motifs
of social inclusion are echoed in Rich’s incorporation of letters and diaries,
texts that destabilize the reign of the master narrative. The terms of civili-
zation are recalibrated here, as Rich traces moments of female friendship,
community, and vision. Through coexistence with natural cycles, women
can achieve holistic fluidity: “trust roots, allow the days to shrink / give cre-
dence to these slender means / wait without sadness and with grave impa-
tience.”14 The bonds among these women are not isolated examples but
embodiments of the possibility for productive social and literary influence.
Rich decries the use of words and images as instruments of denigration and
violence, as insidious ways of normalizing brutal misogyny in the form of
rape, pornography, and death-dealing objectification. The answer is not to
“to become / free of language at last” (WP 5); instead, women must find
appropriate syntax, images, and metaphors to produce their own realities.
“[L]anguage is power,” Rich asserts, and poetry can be “used as a means of
changing reality.”15
Several poems in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far enact this
very process, presenting language that honors nature and the female expe-
rience. “Coast to Coast” (1978) portrays a woman’s face and body as
inter-constituent with the landscape, “Your face, fog-hollowed burning /
cold of eucalyptus hung with butterflies / lavender of rockbloom” (WP 6–7),
an image sharply contrasted with Petrarchan fragmentation of the female
body (as in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century blazons). The conventional
naming of the parts becomes, in her hands, a form of emancipatory expres-
siveness and a reclamation of female corporeal grace. The ancient chthonic

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

mysteries of blood and birth still stir in women’s bodies, explains Rich, just
as historical predecessors inform present-day living and a pluralistic ethos
bridges divides among race, caste, and nationality.
“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” published in
1980, renews Rich’s inexhaustible commitment to radical modes of articu-
lation. The essay condemns institutionalized heterosexuality as another tool
for the oppression of women. Refusing to be an agent of this system, Rich
asserts the “lesbian continuum,” a capacious concept that binds lesbians and
non-lesbians, trans-historically and across cultures, in a shared repudiation
of sexual tyranny. The formidable threat of institutionalized heterosexuality
“strips women of their autonomy, dignity and sexual potential, including
the potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integ-
rity.”16 Individual resistance is one place to begin dismantling sexual impera-
tives, freeing women from the “sexual slavery” that plays an indispensable
part in male dominance.
Rich’s twenty-three-part poem “Sources” (1982) rejects accredited forms
of expression for the deeper consciousness afforded by a collage of forms
and styles. Short lyrical stanzas, conversational phrases, staccato dialogue,
and long prose poems unite in a rich, textured cohesion that includes a
range of voices. Importantly, this collection shows Rich deeply exploring
the influence of her Jewish heritage for the first time, offering her father
and husband as examples of the Jewish man’s detachment from his ethnic
roots. Her disciplinarian father, and private, brooding husband are, how-
ever, cast in a sympathetic light. No one is immune to patriarchy’s insidious
designs. Arnold Rich and Alfred Conrad embody the deleterious effects of
the cultural equation between masculinity and invulnerability, and of the
pervasive undercurrents of anti-Semitism. Woman’s condition becomes the
human condition as both sexes suffer from a detached sense of self and the
loss of a meaningful connection to the past. Without understanding one’s
present-day lived experience, Rich maintains, one fails to be a citizen of
the world.
Rich’s literary acknowledgement of her Jewishness had come earlier, in
1960, with the poem “Readings of History,” which includes the oft-quoted
lines “Split at the root, neither Gentile nor Jew, / Yankee nor Rebel, born /
in the face of two ancient cults, / I’m a good reader of histories” (SDL 38).
But her 1982 essay “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” is more
intrepid: “This essay, then, has no conclusions: it is another beginning for
me. Not just a way of saying, in 1982 Right Wing America, I, too, will
wear the yellow star.” Rich is “The poet who knows that beautiful language
can lie, that the oppressor’s language sometimes sounds beautiful.”17 As
Rich sees them, negotiations around sexuality and gender are not separate

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from explorations of Jewish identity. She was raised Episcopalian by her

father (a Southern Jew) and her mother (a Protestant). Running throughout
these explorations is a sense of betweenness and an acknowledgment that,
according to rabbinic law (whereby ethnic identity is matrilineal), Rich was
not Jewish. In acknowledging  – indeed, claiming  – her Jewishness, then,
Rich also came to terms with the oppositions between feminism, on the one
hand, and the Jewish patriarchal tradition, on the other.
Rich’s embrace of Jewish identity was conspicuously situated in a
post-Holocaust world in which anti-Semitism nonetheless persisted in
America. In 1945, Rich had gone to a downtown Baltimore theatre, she
explained many years later, “to see newsreels of the liberation camps.” She
confirms: “I knew it had something to do with me.”18 Rich saw both her
father and her husband as deracinated Jews, distanced from any sense of a
shared religious past. In “Sources,” Rich vacillates between perplexity and
sympathy, issuing the query, “From where does your strength come, you
Southern Jew? / split at the root, raised in a castle of air? . . . With whom do
you believe your lot is cast?”19 Blood, Bread, and Poetry:  Selected Prose,
1979–1985 (1986) redirects questions about Jewish identity back onto the
poet herself, expressing her “belated rage” that the silences of her childhood
meant having to find her own way to Jewish self-awareness: “That I had
never been taught about resistance, only about passing. That I had no lan-
guage for anti-Semitism itself.”20
Readers of Rich’s poetry do not readily identify her as a Jewish poet,
much less as a religious writer. But in books such as Your Native Land, Your
Life (1986), Time’s Power: Poems, 1985–1988 (1988), and An Atlas of the
Difficult World: Poems, 1988–1991 (1991), Rich continued to draw upon
her Jewish heritage. Many critics regard “Yom Kippur 1984,” from Your
Native Land, as Rich’s exemplary study of Jewish themes. Named for the
Jewish day of fasting and repentance, the poem brings motifs of affiliation
and identity, community and solitude, obligations and expectations to bear
on Jewish self-identification. It opens with an effort to reconcile bifurcated
identities:  “What is a Jew in solitude? / What would it mean not to feel
lonely or afraid / far from your own or those you have called your own? /
What is a woman in solitude: a queer woman or man?” (YNL 75).
Rich’s Time’s Power (1989) extends her preoccupation with land, geog-
raphy, environments, remembered spaces, and designated sites of meaning.
“The Desert as Garden of Paradise”21 situates the reader – as she puts it –
“Where it began”: monotheism’s ground zero. But even as many of her poems
asserted her Jewish identity, Rich was well aware of distinctions between
Jewishness as religious identity and Jewishness as ethnic and social identity.
She participated in Jewish activism, working with New Jewish Agenda, a

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

progressive Jewish organization, and continued to explore issues related to

the consciousness and visibility of Jewish identity in Bridges: A Journal for
Jewish Feminists and Our Friends, which she cofounded and published from
1989 to 1992. From her first sparks of awareness, Rich remained commit-
ted to understanding “the Jewish question” and “the woman question” as
kindred causes.
In an interview with the American journalist Bill Moyers, Rich comments
that her 1991 volume An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988–1991
“reflects on the condition of my country, which I  wrote very consciously
as a citizen poet, looking at the geography, the history, the people of my
country.”22 In Atlas, Rich emphasizes feminist concerns as human concerns;
violence against the individual is violence against humanity. As several schol-
ars have noted, Rich’s extended meditation on the victims of brutality did not
exclude men (Atlas uses the examples of the imprisoned George Jackson, the
lynched Leo Frank, and the desperate conditions of emigration that brought
Annie Sullivan’s father to America). In The Dream of the Dialogue, Alice
Templeton underlines Rich’s gender inclusiveness, pointing to her ranging
concerns with “the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the ‘internal emigrant,’
and difficult truths, not the mock-innocent, the colonizer, the madness of sol-
itude, or the deception of simplistic alliances and oppositions.”23
In Atlas, seemingly dispersed moments and identities are actually part of
a mutual struggle: “Where are we moored? What are the bindings? What
behooves us?”24 Migrant workers become ill from malathion, a man beats
his wife, two lesbians camping on the Appalachian Trail are attacked, and a
younger version of Rich herself – married and living in Barton, Vermont –
present divergent fragments whose specificity resists incorporation into one
totalized American experience. Oppressions are at once site-specific and
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, Rich grants sym-
bols of national identity a prominent place, refusing to endorse the con-
servative, top-down patriotic values of Generals Norman Schwarzkopf
and Colin Powell. To Rich, war hadn’t to do with national conflict alone;
war involved everyday disruptions and dismantlings of human existence –
countless instances of “possession and deprivation, economic and religious
dogmas, racism, colonialist expansion, nationalism, [and] unequal power”
(Waldman). In her characteristic way, Rich presses upon our attention
examples of cultural and political despair, embodied here in indignation and
horror over the predicament of national identity provoked by the Gulf War.
Critical reception of Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991–1995
(1995) was markedly different from that of Atlas. This collection – which
takes its title from The Great Gatsby  – assembles individuals from the

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Wendy Martin and Annalisa Zox-Weaver

cultural present (Studs Terkel, Abbey Lincoln, Ethel Rosenberg) with fig-
ures of the past (the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and the revolutionary
socialist Rosa Luxemburg), enacting an inter-subjective and spatio-temporal
layering that suggests all people, past and present, coexist. Rich’s unwa-
vering sense of moral and poetic responsibility meant that no oppression
would escape condemnation – a dutiful responsiveness that some critics saw
as harsh. “She is determined to be glum,” New York Times reviewer Denis
Donoghue wrote in 1996 of Rich’s Dark Fields of the Republic, Poems,
1991–1995. “Few of her new poems achieve the autonomy of a work of
art, floating free of their autobiographical context.”25 Rich’s work had long
courted controversy; accusations that she was an angry poet or anti-male
were not uncommon. But to Rich, poetic expression provided consolation
and hope even as it presented powerful indictments of aggression.
Three of the forty-two poems collected in Dark Fields concern her Jewish
identity: “Then or Now” draws in part on the correspondence of Hannah
Arendt and Karl Jaspers, both of whom survived Hitler’s Germany and
explored notions of German guilt. As does “Eastern War Time,” “Then or
Now” considers the trauma of the Holocaust in the lives of contemporary
Americans. For all of her efforts, Rich submits that the troubling relation-
ship between the personal and the historical is yet to be worked through.
“1941,” published in Midnight Salvage: Poems, 1995–1998 (1999), reflects
Rich’s effort to grasp the atrocities suffered by European Jews for those only
indirectly affected. Interviewing Rich in 1995, Lynne Meredith Golodner
asked if Holocaustism had replaced Judaism as religion or identity, to which
Rich responded: “It’s a huge question: How do American Jews frame their
identity, in terms of the Holocaust or in terms of Israel? And what is it
that we need to be doing here and now?”26 Abiding in her belief that his-
tory impinges on the present, Rich argued that, even after fifty years, the
Holocaust still called into question Jewish self-identity and the very cate-
gory of the human.
Rich turned to the subject of aging in Time’s Power: Poems, 1985–1988
(1989). Questions related to aging had always been embedded in Rich’s
treatment of history, time, death, and genealogies (literary, political, and
biological); now she faced them squarely. In The Creative Crone: Aging and
the Poetry of May Sarton and Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Henneberg describes
Rich’s subtle meditations on aging: “Because Rich politicizes everything that
is of consequence to her, aging too becomes political in her work.” Rich’s
self-positioning in the discourse of aging is uneven; neither embracing the
rewards of growing old nor disdaining time’s passage and its impressions
on the body, Rich ranges along a spectrum of emotion. As Henneberg sug-
gests, aging complicated Rich’s enduring themes. She “became more patient,

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

more accepting of beginnings, dissonances, compromises . . . [more willing

to] enter negotiations.”27 Once again, the structures, methods, and arrange-
ments of language reflect Rich’s poetic themes. Her embrace of more capa-
cious forms is evident in her move from strict formalism to free verse. Voice,
versification, and spatial order had been enduring ways in which her poems
fixed meaning. In work as early as “Why Else But to Forestall this Hour”
(from A Change of the World [1951]) to “Memorize This,” collected in The
School Among the Ruins (2004), Rich shifts from reflections on the directly
personal feminist implications of aging to explorations of old age as a part
of the human experience.
Its wide range notwithstanding, Rich’s oeuvre finds cogency in the local
and the global. Her poetic practice amounts to a dedicated and – at times –
raw effort to fortify her conscience against political and personal outrage.
For Rich, political tyranny comes in the form of a poet/mother rising at
5:30 AM to feed her son and finding time to work no less than it does in the
anguish of Guantanamo Bay. That the very poet who said “poetry makes
nothing happen”28 (Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”) had selected Rich
for the 1951 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for A Change of World reads,
in retrospect, like a dare. After receiving the US National Book Foundation
2006 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Rich
wrote in The Guardian:

poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering,

or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our
heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of
poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together –
and more.29

In one of her final collections, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve:  Poems,

2007–2010 (2011), Rich continues to consider the revolution of the “woman
citizen.” Her “late work,” as one may call it, is spiritually and intellectually
aware. Moved by descriptions of Guantanamo, and by the vicious American
recourse to torture, Rich addressed the possible failure of language to make
sense of state-sanctioned brutality: “Syntax of rendition: / / verb pilots the
plane / adverb modifies action / / verb force-feeds noun / submerges the sub-
ject / noun is choking / verb disgraced goes on doing [. . .]”30 Words fail to
depict the realities of the body. Aggression in the name of history, national
security, and war places harrowing pressure on language and bodies alike.
Where her early work enlists language as a way of coming into a new con-
sciousness, of facing terror and domination, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
sends a discouraging (but not necessarily pessimistic) message that to con-
trol language, to parse words, and to diagram sentences, may not repair the

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Wendy Martin and Annalisa Zox-Weaver

damage. Her deep faith in the poetic line wavers; her syntax reflects condi-
tions of despair and urgency, the loss of a shared moral reality. But her faith
endures. Poetry is a way of transforming the world, of integrating shards
and mapping meaning, of making things happen.


1 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born:  Motherhood as Experience and Institution

(New York: W. W. Norton, 1995). Hereafter cited parenthetically by page num-
ber as OWB.
2 Adrienne Rich, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law:  Poems, 1954–1962
(New York:  W. W. Norton, 1963), 32. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as SDL.
3 Adrienne Rich, Sources (Woodside, CA: Heyeck Press, 1983): 9. Later reprinted
in Rich, Your Native Land, Your Life (1993).
4 Kate Waldman, “Adrienne Rich on ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,’ ” The Paris
Review (March 2, 2011), available online. Hereafter cited parenthetically as
5 Adrienne Rich, A Change of the World (New Haven:  Yale University Press,
1951): 19.
6 Adrienne Rich, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (New  York:  Harper,
1955): 24.
7 Adrienne Rich, Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962–1965 (New York: W. W. Norton,
1966): 47.
8 Adrienne Rich, Leaflets:  Poems, 1965–1968 (New  York:  W. W.  Norton,
1969): 45. Hereafter cited parenthetically as L.
9 Adrienne Rich, The Will to Change:  Poems, 1968–1970 (London:  Chatto &
Windus, 1972): 20.
10 Adrienne Rich, Diving into the Wreck:  Poems, 1971–1972 (New  York:  W.
W. Norton, 1973): 22. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number as DW.
11 Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New  York:  W. W.  Norton,
1995):  122–213, Rich’s italics. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number
as LSS.
12 Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken:  Writing as Re-Vision,” College
English 34.1 (October 1972): 18–31. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as WWD.
13 Adrienne Rich, Dream of a Common Language:  Poems, 1974–1977
(New York:  W. W. Norton, 1993):  48. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as DCL.
14 Adrienne Rich, A Wild Patience Had Taken Me This Far:  Poems, 1978–1981
(New York:  W. W. Norton, 1973):  44. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as WP.
15 Adrienne Rich, taped conversation with Wendy Martin, May 1978.
16 Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs 5.4
(Summer 1980): 637.
17 Adrienne Rich, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” in Nice Jewish
Girls: A  Lesbian Anthology, ed. Evelyn Torton Beck (Boston:  Beacon Press,
1989): 73.

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Adrienne Rich: The Poetry of Witness

18 Nan Robertson, “A Poet’s Political and Literary Life,” New York Times (June
10, 1987).
19 “Sources” is reprinted in Adrienne Rich, Your Native Land, Your Life
(New  York:  W. W.  Norton, 1993):  3. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as YNL.
20 Adrienne Rich, Blood, Bread, and Poetry:  Selected Prose, 1979–1985
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1994): 107.
21 Adrienne Rich, Time’s Power Poems, 1985–1989 (New  York:  W. W.  Norton,
1989): 30.
22 Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (New York: Doubleday,
1995): 345.
23 Alice Templeton, The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994): 164–165.
24 Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World:  Poems, 1988–1991
(New York:  W. W. Norton 1991):  12. Hereafter cited parenthetically by page
number as ADW.
25 Denis Donoghue, “Poetic Anger,” New  York Times Book Review (April 21,
1996): 32–33.
26 Lynne Meredith Golodner, “A Rich Tradition: Reflecting on the Art and Empathy
of Adrienne Rich,” available online at the site “Read the Spirit.”
27 Sylvia Henneberg, The Creative Crone: Aging and the Poetry of May Sarton and
Adrienne Rich (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010): 17.
28 From W. H. Auden, Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940).
29 Adrienne Rich, “Legislators of the World,” The Guardian (November 17,
30 Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems, 2007–2010 (New York:
W. W. Norton, 2011): 25.


Bennett, Paula, My Life, A  Loaded Gun:  Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics
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Wendy Martin and Annalisa Zox-Weaver

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Dickinson, Moore, and Rich (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
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