poem index

May 23, 2009 Saint Peter's Church, New York City From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

On May 16, 1929, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951, and was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for A Change of World that same year.

In 1953, she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad. Two years later, she published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, of which Randall Jarrell wrote: "The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale."

But the image of the fairytale princess would not be long-lived. After having three sons before the age of thirty, Rich gradually changed both her life and her poetry. Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Leaflets (1969). The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam war. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse. In 1970, Rich left her husband, who committed suicide later that year.

It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.

Since then, Rich has published numerous collections, including Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010); Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006 (2006); The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 (2004), which won the Book Critics Circle Award; Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (2001), Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (1999); Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (1995); Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (1993); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (1991), a finalist for the National Book Award; Time's Power: Poems 1985-1988 (1989); The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (1984); and The Dream of a Common Language (1978).

Rich is also the author of several books of nonfiction prose, including Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (W. W. Norton, 2001), What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986).

About Rich's work, the poet W.S. Merwin has said, "All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been startlingly powerful."

Rich has received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship; she is also a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." She went on to say: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."

The same year, Rich was awarded the Academy's Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82.


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Diving into the Wreck

Adrienne Rich, 1929 - 2012
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

The author of numerous collections of poetry, Adrienne Rich's poetry examines such things as women's role in society, racism, politics, and war

by this poet

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poem
Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
elsewhere

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
poem

 

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