The Will to Change: Adrienne Rich and the Poetics of Becoming

Julie Marie Wade

In memoriam, Adrienne Rich (1929–2012)

Since I was more than a child
trying on a thousand faces
I have wanted one thing: to know
simply as I know my name
at any given moment, where I stand.
—Adrienne Rich, “Double Monologue” (1960)



In the spring of 1999, I enrolled in an undergraduate seminar called “Twentieth-Century American Poetry” at my small Christian college in the Pacific Northwest. I was nineteen years old; I was not yet a feminist—I was barely a poet—but I was desperate to find a place where I belonged. During our sixteen-week semester, fifteen weeks were devoted to significant male poets of the past 100 years, while one week was set aside for female poets. That week we read Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich.1 For a long time after that class, I mistakenly believed there were only five major American poets who were women, but of these I recognized at once that Adrienne Rich was my favorite.

I came home for summer vacation and told my mother I was going to have Rich’s poem “Splittings” read at my wedding someday. “No, you’re not,” my mother scoffed. “It’s bad luck to have a lesbian poem read at your wedding.”

“We could change the pronouns,” I suggested. “I like what she has to say about love. She writes like somebody who knows what she’s talking about.”

“You’ll have a sonnet by Shakespeare and a passage from the Bible,” my mother said, and with that, for her, the subject was closed. For me, the subject was yet to be named, let alone opened, let alone deeply or sufficiently plumbed.

In 1999, I knew next to nothing about my newly professed favorite poet, Adrienne Rich. I had read only 8 poems from the span of her then-50-year career, and those had been pre-selected for me by A. Poulin, Jr. in his anthology, Contemporary American Poetry. At the time, as I read those Rich poems with incantatory urgency, sequestered in the quiet of my college dorm, I had never heard of women’s & gender studies or queer studies. I had a benign, well-intentioned boyfriend who occasionally expressed interest in marrying me and whose company I genuinely enjoyed. I had been told by my parents that poetry was only a pastime and could never be transmuted into a viable livelihood. In all respects, my life had been laid out for me like a dinner plate from which I was expected to eat: I would go to graduate school in psychology; I would get married to a financially successful man; I would have children; I would run a private practice as a licensed therapist in a desirable part of town; I would live a comfortable, affluent life; I would be happy.2

Sixteen years later, this past and its presumptions for the future are almost unrecognizable to me. The only checkmark I can reasonably place on that early inventory for successful life is that I am happy. I have been fortunate to study and complete a Master of Arts in English, a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Humanities as well as a graduate certificate in women’s studies. My fourth collection of poetry is forthcoming next year. I self-identify as a feminist and a lesbian and lived with my life-partner for more than eleven years before we were able to legally wed last year. Our marriage is not recognized everywhere in the country we call home, we do not have children, and while we enjoy a good and satisfying life together, we rent in an expensive city and make substantial student loan payments each month. In short, we are comfortable but not affluent. We are privileged in terms of race and class, yet excluded in many ways in terms of gender and sexual orientation. And somewhere an entire place setting has been removed from a long-untended dinner table. 

When I choose, I can recount and vividly re-enter the past, but this is not my primary task in daily interactions with the public world. More often than not, I speak and write and learn and teach as my present self as opposed to the various selves I have been. That is, I am more aware of being this current incarnation of self than of how I became and am still becoming her. My experience seems to reflect that powerful way the present grows up and over the walls of the past like ivy, obscuring other identities we have claimed, different beliefs we have held, all the previous lives we have lived or considered living. Intellectually, we may understand there is no stasis; we may believe human beings are constantly evolving; yet we proceed as if trajectories are predictable, the past and present merely successive points along a smooth, un-ruptured line. 

In the same way that I am encountered now as a poet, feminist, and lesbian—and most often assumed to have always been so—I long regarded Adrienne Rich as being a poet, feminist, and lesbian rather than becoming any of these selves, or alternatively, assuming any of these social identities. I imagined myself evolving to share Rich’s fixed and enduring subject positions—like a ship moving toward an unwavering lighthouse in a storm—without considering how Rich herself had come to occupy these subject positions—how Rich was and is likewise a ship at sea. Because anthologists like A. Poulin, Jr. have at their disposal a historical subject’s entire body of work to date, the selections they choose to include may be chosen, consciously or not, to support a consistent, linear trajectory over a gradual, fractured, or contradictory one. Likewise, my mother knew to associate Adrienne Rich’s name with “lesbian poetry” without ever even having read her work. It had not occurred to either of us that Rich’s life-canon might include poems that were neither “lesbian” nor “feminist” in the perspective they offered on the poet’s life or the larger world.

As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote in The Second Sex, “One is not born a woman; one becomes one.” But how does one become a particular kind of woman? A feminist, for instance, and/or a lesbian? This is partly a personal question and partly a political one. If one significant aspect of contemporary feminist thought is the pursuit of a usable past—for individual persons as well as collective social movements—then I would like to suggest that this pursuit is best oriented toward “moments of change” (becoming) rather than periods of apparent or actual continuity (being) within individual lives and social movements.3 My framework is consistent with much third-wave feminist theory and its prevailing emphasis on “personal voice, ambiguity, contradiction, and multiple identities” (16), as articulated by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey in the preface to their Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. These “multiple identities,” however, tend to refer within third-wave discourse to the multiple subject positions at which an individual is located in the present moment—that is, being multiple selves/ holding multiple identities simultaneously and the interlocking systems of both privilege and oppression that imbricate to form the current, multivalent self.  Since Adrienne Rich’s literary legacy ultimately spanned more than 60 years, emerging alongside the rise of “confessional poetry”4 as the dominant trend in American poetry at mid-century and extending through two successive “waves” of American feminism5 I posit Rich as a historical subject uniquely positioned for investigation in this matter of tracing and recording a personal and increasingly political becoming. 

I am not alone in my assertion that Rich’s personal and public histories offer vital insights into one way a feminist and—distinct but related—lesbian consciousness can emerge, evolve, inspect itself, revise itself, and ultimately come to anchor an individual historical subject to particular social locations and identities, all the while examining new possibilities for lived experience, personal identification, and social justice activism. This is the difference between a firmly constructed and unmoving lighthouse and a ship that, even when anchored, still floats and bobs in response to the breeze. This ship, like the historical subject herself, can also withdraw her anchor and travel again, yet she is never constituted apart from the sea she glides on; that is, apart from the “specific historical and cultural context” in which the historical subject finds herself (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 18).

Amy Sickels, in her biography of Adrienne Rich, writes that Rich’s “transformation over the years, as poet and as a citizen of the world, [was] astonishing and inspiring” (123). Sickels describes Rich as a role model of self-reflection for women and men of diverse backgrounds and ages, individuals grappling with privilege, oppression, sexual identity, and their own conflicted relationships to feminism. Scholar Sherry Ann Smith notes, in Adrienne Rich: Poet of Change, that “instead of focusing on definite goals and completion, Rich concern[ed] herself with process and potential, the vital heart of change.” (2) By demonstrating that she was not just a feminist or a lesbian in some timeless sense (being), Rich’s poetry documents the active and ongoing struggle toward authentic self-knowledge (becoming), which is the necessary first step toward situated knowledge or standpoint theory. Kirk and Okazawa-Rey describe this feminist theoretical position as follows: “What we know, as the direct result of our experience, is understood in a specific historical and cultural context, and cannot be generalized” (19). Though it cannot be generalized, I contend that the situated knowledge we construct from authentic self-knowledge must be modeled for us by credible representatives like Rich; if we are individually attuned to our own becoming, we are better positioned to “generate knowledge and understanding that reflects the perspectives and interests of a broad range of people, communities, and life circumstances, that is visionary, not just reactive, and that could lead to social change.” This social change is also known as praxis, which Kirk and Okazawa-Rey define as “reflection and action on the world to transform it” (19).

Kirk and Okazawa-Rey emphasize in their introductory chapter, “[Feminist] Theory and Theorizing: Integrative Frameworks for Understanding” that “it is the responsibility of everyone to reflect on, evaluate, and judge the world around us, and our places in that world, as an essential element of theorizing” (18). Literary theorist Jane Mary Vanderbosch describes Adrienne Rich as the ideal representative of this reflective, process-oriented approach to situated knowledge and corresponding praxis:

Adrienne Rich, the gifted and acclaimed American poet, educated herself […] She came to suspect as she grew older that she had not learned what she needed to know. So, in concert with other feminists, she began during the late ‘60s a process of self-education; she ‘unlearned’ what she was taught about women and ‘re-learned’ what she needed to know. In both ‘unlearning’ and ‘re-learning,’ Rich not only assumed the Socratic responsibility as a learner to know herself but she also claimed the right as a teacher to share her knowledge with others. The result of Rich’s self-education is a body of literature that is as instructive as it is aesthetic. Chronicling her growth and development, her works prompt the reader to begin to analyze, evaluate, and perhaps understand what it means to be a woman in twentieth century America. (5) 

Carmen Birkle, in Women’s Stories of the Looking Glass: Autobiographical Reflections and Self-Representations in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde, echoes Vanderbosch’s reading of Rich’s life and work:

Adrienne Rich’s experimentation with various forms of personal life, with heterosexual and lesbian relationships, with the integration of black and white women’s lives [part of her emerging feminist consciousness in the 1960s] reveal[ed] a search for identity at work that tries to deconstruct the imposed social norms, to analyze them, and to reconstruct them to an acceptable form. Whereas at one time or another she [set] one form of life as ideal above others, she constantly ha[d] to revise her statements, add new important issues to her poetry, and [came] to the conclusion that openness for changes both in her life and her poetry […] [could] translate into a viable social and poetical organization (121).

Just as Vanderbosch suggests that Rich’s focus on personal “growth and development” (becoming) led to a situated knowledge of “what it means to be a woman in twentieth century America” (being)—both for the poet and for the reader of her poems—Birkle also posits a “search for identity” that extended outward, with the capacity to translate into a “viable social […] organization.” Both literary scholars echo feminist scholars Kirk and Okazawa-Rey’s assertion that “to validate individual women’s personal experiences [i]s a starting point for recognizing and understanding discrimination against women as a group” (19), and recognition and understanding are in fact “reflections and actions on the world to transform it.” 

In what follows, I will examine four “moments of change” in Adrienne Rich’s lived experienced as documented/reflected by particular poems. My goal is to trace the evolution of authentic self-knowledge toward situated knowledge of the larger world, a necessary precursor to feminist praxis. A close examination of Rich’s poetry across time models for the engaged reader a more active, evolving feminist (and subsequently lesbian) consciousness than would a reading of Rich’s late-in-life work as representative of her final—and often presumed constant—self. As a result, the reader is encouraged to see how one is neither “born a feminist” nor a “lesbian” but arrives at these nuanced subject positions through experiential and intellectual struggle, struggles with the potential to yield visionary social change—in this case, visionary social change in the active form of the poem.


A Brief Biography

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929 to Arnold Rice Rich, a renowned pathologist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, and Helen Jones Rich, a former concert pianist.6 Although her father was Jewish, Rich and her younger sister were raised Christian in an affluent home with an extensive library. Rich’s most formative influence was her father, who “planned to create a prodigy” (Academy of American Poets) of his oldest daughter. So Rich’s future likewise was laid out for her like a dinner plate. 

By the age of twenty-one, Rich had distinguished herself as a gifted student and a poet of exceptional promise. In 1951, she graduated from Radcliffe College and was awarded the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for her first poetry collection, A Change of World. In writing the foreword to A Change of World, W.H. Auden—who had selected Rich’s book for the prize—noted that the influences of masters like Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats were evident in her work and concluded: “poems are analogous to persons; the poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs” (11). 

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, and had three sons before her thirtieth birthday. She fulfilled the expected roles for an elite white woman of the 1950s—those of wife and mother—while also, unconventionally, continuing to write and publish poems. Of her second collection, The Diamond Cutters (1955), esteemed poet Randall Jarrell wrote, “The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale” (Academy of American Poets). 

Over the next fifteen years, however, Rich’s poetry began to speak less “quietly,” and Rich herself to seem less like a “princess in a fairy tale.” These changes in the ethos and subject matter of her poems reflect an incipient political consciousness informed by the growing women’s rights, civil rights, and anti-war movements of the 1960s as well as a growing awareness of her own privileged status in terms of race and class. This period marks a shift in Rich’s identity toward becoming a recognized and respected feminist poet and activist of the American second wave. In 1970, she divorced her husband and began work on her most ambitious and explicitly political collection to date, Diving into the Wreck, which received the National Book Award in 1974. Rich shared this award publicly with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, “on behalf of all women,” inaugurating her life-long commitment to coalition-building between white and women-of-color feminists. 

In 1976, Adrienne Rich commenced a love relationship with novelist Michelle Cliff and came out as a lesbian with the publication of The Dream of a Common Language two years later. At this cultural moment, Rich again situated her knowledge of the world, this time as a lesbian feminist poet and participant in the American gay rights movement. By 1981, Rich and Cliff were living in northern California, where they managed the lesbian literary journal Sinister Wisdom and where Rich launched her career as a professor of poetry, feminist studies, and what would later become gay and lesbian (queer) studies. This is also the year that Rich published her influential treatise, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which provided a theoretical framework for examining lesbianism across a continuum rather than as a binary-based opposition to heterosexual female identity. 

Until her death in 2012, Adrienne Rich continued to write, teach, advocate, and shape the history of American feminism as a literary poet and scholar, a feminist poet and scholar, and a lesbian poet and scholar, three deeply imbricated identities. However, none of these identities ever remained static nor did any of them emerge a priori of Rich’s lived experience. Recall, for instance, Auden’s initial description of Rich’s work in 1951: “the poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs” (11). Anyone who has read an Adrienne Rich poem published in the last 50 years would find this statement absurd, might simply refuse to believe that Auden could be describing Rich’s work at all. The only enduring truth from this statement that I can discern is that her poems “do not tell fibs.” They are emphatically committed to telling the truth, yet the truth of Rich’s poems from the early 1960s was a truth of speaking back to authority, speaking out against injustice, speaking as boldly and loudly as needed to be heard, and of questioning the taken-for-granted privilege of her elders rather than quietly endorsing them with blanket respect. 

In 1997, in a published letter refusing the National Medal for the Arts from the Clinton administration, Rich described her personal canon this way:

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country […] There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.7

This letter demonstrates Rich’s retrospective awareness that her poems from the second decade (1960s) of her publishing history are qualitatively different from her poems of the first (1950s). She implies that her first decade of poems were not yet reflective of “art’s social presence,” which would include art’s value as a vehicle of feminist praxis in the form of situated knowledge. This letter acknowledges in fact that Rich’s poems of the 1950s, to her mind as to ours, reflect a pre-feminist, pre-lesbian consciousness, which did not shift seismically until “the early Sixties.”

Thus, when Auden described Adrienne Rich’s first collection of poems in 1951, he was not writing in error but in fact describing a truth of the time. Though it is a truth we no longer recognize when regarding the public and poetic identity of Adrienne Rich, Auden’s words provide powerful testimony for how far Adrienne Rich would travel in pursuit of authentic self-knowledge—evidence of Rich’s life as a work-in-progress. Rich’s poetry did in fact reflect her unexamined “respect [for] elders” in the literary canon, and her early adulthood likewise followed a similarly traditional path. 

A Change of World (1951)

“Storm Warnings” is the first poem in the first collection of poems ever published by Adrienne Rich, and it is an aptly titled harbinger of work to come. The collection itself, A Change of World, when re-read in light of Rich’s subsequent 60 years of contributions to American poetry and American feminism, seems more a preface to the poetry that would follow, anticipating the author’s and the culture’s “changing world,” rather than analyzing this change outright in the present moment.

In her poetic debut, Rich describes a “gray unrest moving across the land.” She writes, “I leave the book upon a pillowed chair/ And walk from window to closed window, watching.” This is the first personal gesture of the poem, and at once, a symbolic one. Think of young Adrienne: twenty-one-years old, brought up in comfort and affluence (hence, the “pillowed chair”), educated at Radcliffe and now published by Yale University Press. Yet this speaker “leave[s] the book,” puts down the traditional tool of knowledge and steps to the window instead, which serves as the site for a different way of knowing the world. She is young, and the window is “closed.” She has lived a sheltered, privileged life. But the speaker is “watching.” She is learning there is another way to learn, a way to witness the direct action of the world, even if she is not yet a full participant in that action, those “storms.” Even if she has not yet begun to suture the split between “love and action,” theory and praxis.8 

In the second stanza, Rich extends this distinction between public book-truths and privately witnessed truths, marking received knowledge of the world as “weather abroad” and experiential knowledge of the world as “weather in the heart.” Yet both ways of knowing have something in common; both “alike come on/Regardless of prediction.” The public and private worlds are full of surprises, yet the storms within each are inevitable.

Rich tells us, “the wind will rise,/We can only close the shutters.” When watching becomes too painful, her personal speaker returns: “I draw the curtains as the sky goes black.” She has glimpsed another way of seeing or knowing the world: a possibility of engagement with history being made or about to be made; a taste of agency in the face of incipient change. But the speaker steps back from this engagement, surrenders this agency, and postulates, albeit poignantly, “This is our sole defense against the season.” Here Rich appears to realign herself with the paradoxically privileged position not to see—in other words, to look away. She concludes her poem with an epiphany that may be read as a diagnosis of the problem of privilege (e.g. freedom to turn a blind eye to the plight of others) or even a capitulation to this problem: “These are the things that we have learned to do/ Who live in troubled regions.”

Rich’s first book cannot be rightly called “political” or “feminist” in its orientation toward either the public world or the poet’s personal life. What the book demonstrates is potential, that “vital heart of change,” and not just the literary potential to which W.H. Auden referred in his introduction. Rich is also establishing her feminist potential here, her ability to reflect on what she describes and to consider the imbrications of personal life with the wider social world—the ways “weather abroad” and “weather of the heart” might and must intersect. Though she is a witness who has drawn the curtains closed, she is also a witness who acknowledges that she has done so. This, I would argue, is the first step toward forming a feminist consciousness: Rich’s willingness to name and consider the choices she has made.

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963)

In the title poem of her 1963 collection, Rich—now married ten years and mother of three sons—begins to trace her evolution as a daughter and a daughter-in-law to better understand her current family constellation as wife and mother. Describing her own mother, she writes:

Your mind now, moldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact. In the prime of your life.

Nervy, glowering, your daughter
wipes the teaspoons, grows another way.

A “snapshot” itself is concerned with stasis, the desire to capture a moment before the moment has passed. Snapshots are inherently paradoxical, however, because our desire to capture a moment with a snapshot is motivated by our sense of the moment as fleeting, fluxing, and ultimately uncapturable. In other words, this present moment of being is always in the process of becoming something else.

Here, in these two small poetic snapshots framed as stanzas, Rich compares her mother’s life with her own life and attempts to differentiate herself from her mother, as a person and perhaps also as a member of different generation. Her mother’s life is described as “heavy with useless experience.” Why “useless,” we may ask? Even though Rich is not using explicitly feminist language here, she suggests that her mother’s experience is useless because it has not been reflected upon. Her mother is not working toward authentic self-knowledge, but instead, her perceptions of the world and of herself are dominated by “rumor, fantasy […and] mere fact.” Translated into feminist terms, Rich’s mother has not examined her own experience in order to yield the kind of situated knowledge necessary to build a feminist consciousness. 

By contrast, Rich—referring to herself as her mother’s daughter—“grows another way.” Formally, she creates a distance between herself as speaker and subject of the poem by using “your daughter” instead of “I.”  In her earlier poems where she relies exclusively on the first-person, Rich is merely describing her actions, i.e. closing the curtains in the face of the storm. Now, by holding herself at a distance and regarding herself as her mother’s daughter, Rich opens a reflective space in which to examine her differences from her mother and her process of becoming an other (“grows another way”).

This attention to becoming continues in the third section of her title poem when she declares, “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters./ The beak that grips her, she becomes.” Continuing with her use of third person, Rich allows the speaker and the subject of these poems to represent both herself and more than herself—to open a space for personal as well as collective reflection. Given her increasing involvement with the burgeoning women’s movement,9 Rich’s examination of her experience as a particular woman in American culture does not exist in isolation from other women’s quest for similarly situated knowledge of the state of women in American culture. To be a “thinking woman,” which I interpret here as a reflecting, self-examining woman, is dangerous; it is equivalent to sleeping with monsters. 

The second image in this snapshot—of the woman being gripped by a beak and becoming that bird that grips her—points to Rich’s critique of women’s complicity with patriarchy, with their own oppressed status in society. In light of her earlier snapshot, however, the image may also be read as a maternal one. Mother birds grip their babies in their beaks. Rich has just informed us that her mother’s daughter “grows another way,” yet this divergence is not without dangerous consequence. In this succinct poetic line, we hear her personal voice, her ambiguity of feeling, and her multivalence of meaning. The baby bird typically becomes like the mother; by analogy, Rich suggests that women become like their mothers. Yet she also refuses a life of “useless experience” and “grows another way.” This personal refusal stands in for a larger, cultural refusal on the part of emerging second-wave feminists to remain in the “grip” of the past, e.g. the anti-feminist 1950s of their mother’s generation. As “thinking women,” these feminists are collectively determined to reflect on their experiences, raise their consciousnesses, and alter the future by “grow[ing] another way,” itself a kind of praxis. 

In her final snapshot, Rich writes:

she’s long about her coming, who must be
more merciless to herself than history.
Her mind full to the wind, I see her plunge
breasted and glancing through the currents,
taking the light upon her
at least as beautiful as any boy
or helicopter,
            poised, still coming,
her fine blades making the air wince

This snapshot is even more paradoxically about movement, which symbolizes the agency emerging feminists seek to cultivate in themselves through reflection and to enact in their world through the situated knowledge that constitutes feminist praxis. This “she”—which now represents Rich and more than Rich—has been gradually becoming herself (“long about her coming”) and is in fact “still coming” at the end of the poem. Her growth continues even beyond the scope of the poem. The images of plunging into the wind, “making the air wince,” suggest breaking out of the beak of the mother, the past, the patriarchal structure, and beginning to fly on her own. In this endeavor, she will be “at least as beautiful as any boy,” which might imply a liberal-feminist consciousness of women and men being equals in their capabilities and thus deserving of equal opportunities. 

The most striking line, however, is Rich’s observation that the poem’s collective “she”—this new “thinking woman,” this feminist consciousness—“must be/ more merciless to herself than history.” History has not been kind to women, but women must not let themselves off easy as a result, must not wallow or content themselves with victim status. Plunges are not for cowards; flight is not for the faint of heart. Rather, Rich asserts that women must inspect themselves in a manner “more merciless” than they have been inspected by history. Instead of closing the curtains on the storm, women must stand in the storm and face their complicity in the “troubled regions” in which they live.

The Will to Change (1971)

Twenty years and three poetry collections later, much has changed in Adrienne Rich’s lived experience of the world. Much has also changed in the landscape of American politics, with the second wave of the American feminist movement now in full swing. Hear how, in her poem “Planetarium,” Rich speaks back and across time to her former self, that young woman who once watched a storm approach and closed the curtains. She writes: “What we see, we see/ and seeing is changing.” She does not suggest there is any other option. Averting one’s eyes, pulling the shutters closed, is no longer “the sole defense against the season,” no longer a valid defense at all. Rich asserts there is no choice but to change in response to what she (as part of a larger feminist “we”) sees, and as a consequence, knows.

In this poem, Rich reflects on her evolving life-course from a vantage many years further down the path of lived experience and feminist awakening. She returns to images of a storm, but this time the storm has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. The storm is no longer anticipated but actual and ongoing, and the poet is able to examine the part she has played in this storm—her own accountability as an impenetrable “galactic cloud”: 

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep    so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15  
years to travel through me    And has

I read these lines as Rich addressing the dangers of complicity with privilege, complicity with the status quo of social injustice, and the failure to act in response to what one has seen and learned. This “light wave” of feminist consciousness has taken—literally—15 years to reach her. She can now articulate, in the title poem of this collection, “We’re living through a time/ that needs to be lived through us,” anticipating the concept and language of situated knowledge. In this same poem, Rich critiques her own privilege once more in personal and symbolic terms: “Hoarding my ‘liberty’/ like a compulsive—more/ than I can use up in a lifetime—two dozen oranges in the refrigerator/ for one American weekend.” 

This “excess of oranges,” like the “pillowed chair” of the earlier poem, represents comfort and affluence, but now the poem is insufficient simply to document that privilege has been afforded her. The will to change is a resolution that extends beyond literary innovation to personal/political/moral alteration. The will to change also suggests the merging of these two trajectories—Rich’s identity as a poet and her identity as a feminist. As she boldly declares near the end of this volume, in a poem titled “Images for Godard”10

the mind of the poet is changing 
the moment of change is the only poem.


Dream of a Common Language (1978)

Within this ground-breaking collection of explicitly feminist poems, Rich includes her first section of explicitly lesbian poems titled “The Twenty-One Love Poems.” The frame for this section is that the speaker has written a meditation on love for each day for the three-week period that she and her lover are apart, and in so doing, Rich extends her quest for authentic self-knowledge into a new realm of woman-centered sexual experience. These poems document an incipient lesbian consciousness as growing out of and in contradistinction to her heterosexual past of the last 30 years and her feminist past of the last 15 years.

These poems reflect what Kirk and Okazawa-Rey will later discuss as the central building blocks of feminist theory, specifically the quest for situated knowledge: “personal voice, ambiguity, contradiction, and multiple identities.” Rich has been single, married, divorced, and now is partnered with a woman. She has been a pre-feminist poet, a heterosexual poet, a feminist poet, and now a lesbian feminist poet, inhabiting multiple identities that may seem to contradict each other. Yet the poet now seems even more at home in the ambiguity of personal evolution, as reflected by the break in her own formal pattern. Between love poems XIV and XV sits “The Floating Love Poem, Unnumbered,” which I read as a metaphor for the way identities also “float,” break with expected patterns—like a ship that changes course at sea. 

Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine—tender, delicate
your love-making, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests
just washed by sun. Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come—
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there—
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth—
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I had been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave—whatever happens, this is.

Rich no longer reaches for the image of a “snapshot.” She has no illusion that the moment can ever be captured, even for the purpose of reflection. Reflection happens within and against the constant grain of motion. Here, the tolerance for ambiguity, both at the beginning of the poem and the end of the poem, is striking: “Whatever happens with us, your body/ will haunt mine” and then, “whatever happens, this is.” She makes no predictions for what the future will hold, recognizing that all is always and already in motion. But regardless of “what happens” with her new lover, Rich resolves that the past cannot and will not be erased. By implication, just as this present (“this is”) will become part of her evolving personal narrative, Rich’s more distant past—as wife, as mother, as heterosexual—must also remain part of her evolving personal narrative. No truth can be more true than any other in a model that allows for ambiguity, contradiction, and multiple identities.  Re-vision, this term that Rich has become increasingly identified with,11 is separated with a hyphen to indicate seeing or looking again. She demonstrates this meaning in the poem when she looks back and recognizes she “had been waiting years” for this moment, in the presence of this lover, to arrive. The stylistic disruption of the hyphen is intended to convey that re-vision does not mean rewriting the past to match the present (being), but rather incorporating all elements of the past into a richer, more complex reflection of self (becoming). Like the floating, unnumbered poem, so is the evolving self—unmoored and searching, faced with another “moment of change.”

The final poem in Rich’s Dream of a Common Language is dedicated to her lover, Michelle Cliff, and conveys her ongoing emphasis on movement and change through its title. To “transcend” is to move across boundaries—often boundaries of consciousness as well as social constriction—and an “etude” is a musical movement. Notably, in fact, the nature of music is constant motion, such that this metaphor conveys both continual evolution of self as well as larger social movements like the women’s movement and the gay right’s movement.

Transcendental Etude (for Michelle Cliff)

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down in the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them—
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die; 
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening […]
No one who survives to speak
new language has avoided this.

I am the lover and the loved,
home and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks, a stranger
in the storm
, two women, eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirit, each other’s 
limitless desire,
        a whole new poetry beginning here.

At the end of her first explicit volume of lesbian feminist poetry, Rich cites “a whole new poetry beginning here.” Her poetry will change, once again, to reflect her new consciousness of self, “as a poet and a citizen of the world.” The first line of this poem—“No one ever told us we had to study our lives”—takes us back to the conversations she is having with herself across time. It has been 15 years since Rich wrote Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, since she began to distinguish herself from the mother who didn’t impart the need for self-reflection. The language here is collective, addressed to herself, her partner, and the larger world of “thinking women.” She connects herself to a particular historical moment—a time near the traditionally marked end of the second wave, when factionalism among feminists has divided the movement in conspicuous ways12—by saying, “But there are times—perhaps this is one of them—/when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die.” I read this death as the feared or symbolic death of the women’s movement, forecasting a backlash she fears and predicts will occur against feminist progress. Phrases like “pull back” and “disenthrall” reveal her concern that greater reflection in the pursuit of situated knowledge is required; the work is not done yet. If there is to be “a new language,” one that accommodates the full complexity of human consciousness, Rich calls for the conditions that enable authentic self-knowledge and situated group knowledge: “silence, or a severer listening.”

In this poem, she marks Michelle Cliff as her life-partner in this process of deepened reflection. They are “two women, eye to eye,” engaged in a ceaseless re-visioning of self and world. And in italics, for emphasis, Rich claims the multiple subject positions of her past, who she has been and who she is still becoming: “I am the lover and the loved,/ home and wanderer, she who splits/ firewood and she who knocks, a stranger/ in the storm.” Because I read these poems as a conversation across history, both personal and public, I see Rich reflecting on give and take (“I am the lover and the loved”), stasis and change (“home and wanderer”), and the difference between taking the lead in a powerful form of action, like splitting firewood, and seeking and submitting to guidance, by knocking on the door. Her final image of this emphatic series is that of “a stranger/ in the storm.” Here again, she returns to the first image of herself, 27 years back in time, when she was a stranger to herself, someone caught in the storm of history, who closed the curtains—an action she then thought better of and so re-vised.



Adrienne Rich’s poetic canon is an active and ever-evolving resistance to monolithic histories, simplistic identity politics, and static notions of selfhood. Her life-work chronicles changing personal identities in dynamic conversation with a changing world, resulting in the kind of situated knowledge necessary for viable social change. Through a close reading of Rich’s first 30 years as a major American poet, I have traced how she succeeds in actualizing in literary form what Kirk and Okazawa-Rey define as the necessary pre-conditions for socially lived feminist theorizing and corresponding praxis: “to validate individual women’s personal experiences as a starting point for recognizing and understanding discrimination against women as a group” (19). For me, as for countless other poets and/or feminists and/or lesbians, Rich has demonstrated through her literary self-reflection a progressive movement toward “knowledge and understanding that reflects the perspectives and interests of a broad range of people, communities, and life circumstances, that is visionary, not just reactive, and that could lead to social change” (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 19). She has revealed the poem itself as an act of feminist praxis, wherein mapping the self and expanding its falsely circumscribed boundaries generates an informed and invigorated consciousness primed to grapple with the injustices of the larger social world.


Rich: A Cento for Adrienne

Note: A cento is a poetic tribute comprised entirely of language from an admired poet.

This is a woman’s confession
Every act of becoming conscious

We were standing in line outside of something

Imagining the existence
of something uncreated

The obscure underside of the imagination

In this mirror, who are you?
If they ask me my identity

I am she: I am he

Certain words occur
I choose not to suffer uselessly

We had to take the world as it was given

This is the grass your feet are planted on
a woman sworn to lucidity

Certain words occur
chain-smoking words

Do you think sex will matter?

Take the word
of my pulse, longing & ordinary

We are, I am, you are

Certain words occur
You offer other objects

Galaxies of women

It is hard to tell the truth
though the books tell everything

You are beside me like a wall
a woman sworn to lucidity
Take me…yes, take me…you know best



1 It is also worth noting that we read no poets of color and that the sexual orientations of the poets we read were never discussed.

2 My experience of early adulthood is reminiscent of how Rich describes her own early adulthood in a 1961 interview: “I had no idea of what I wanted, what I could or could not choose.” (qtd. in Vanderbosch, 9).

3 One frequently anthologized third-wave text that emphasizes “becoming” over “being” in the development of feminist consciousness is Michael Messner’s “Becoming 100% Straight,” a 1999 essay that I now teach in my women’s & gender studies courses. Messner’s essay explores the gradual and often conflicted series of events that result in his identification as a heterosexual adult while emphasizing the evolution of this identity rather than the more familiar born-this-way paradigms of both heterosexual and homosexual identification.

4 The term “confessional poetry” was coined in 1959 by M.L. Rosenthal in an article for The Nation, wherein he forecasted, based on Robert Lowell’s poetry collection Life Studies, that American poetry had begun to take a more introspective, self-focused turn, which indeed came to dominate trends in poetry over the next 30 years.

5 I share Kirk and Okazawa-Rey’s perspective on the feminist wave metaphor as a dynamic one: “The wave metaphor suggests both continuity and discontinuity with the past as women shape theoretical understandings for their generation, circumstances, and historical period. Note that these shorthand labels—first wave, second wave, third wave—make complex, powerful transformative movements, with their divergent and overlapping strands, seem much neater, more unitary, and more static than they are in reality” (18).

6 The biographical chronology presented in this section is informed by Amy Sickels’ biography, Adrienne Rich.


8 One of Rich’s most famous and frequently quoted lines is from her poem “Splittings,” which appears in The Dream of a Common Language, where she writes, “I refuse these givens/ the splitting of love and action,” which might also be read as the splitting of theory/intellectual commitment from praxis.

9 At the time this book was published, Rich was having marital problems, caused in part by her growing interest in American feminism as well as her growing anti-war and anti-racist consciousness. By 1966, she and her husband, periodically separated, had relocated to New York City where Rich participated in consciousness-raising groups and hosted Black Panther events in their Manhattan apartment. The couple officially divorced in 1970.

10 It is striking to note that Rich’s initial fascination with “snapshots,” as in photographs taken to capture or preserve a moment in time, gives way to a fascination with film and the moving images of the screen. Even the word “images,” as in “Images for Godard,” suggests a fluidity that works against the attempted stasis of a “snapshot,” which is, in essence, an image made still. This shift in metaphorical preference seems reflective of Rich’s increasingly explicit focus on the flux of personal identity and evolving consciousness.

11 In 1972, Rich published one of her best-known prose articles entitled “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” wherein she defines this term as follows: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (18).

12 The late 1970s mark the beginning of what have been called the “feminist” or “lesbian sex wars,” wherein feminism became centrally focused around the issue of pornography. Rich’s poetry, while it does not explicitly acknowledge the conflict between “pro-sex” and “anti-pornography” feminists, seems to recognize and anticipate the deepening rift between feminists polarized into these two camps. For a brief history of this conflict, please see:

Works Consulted

The Academy of American Poets. “Adrienne Rich,” Accessed 9/22/10.

Auden, W.H. A Change of World. Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. 7–11.

Birkle, Carmen. “Adrienne Rich: ‘Ungrateful, Insatiable, Perhaps a Monster.’” Women’s Stories of the Looking Glass: Autobiographical Reflections and Self-Representations in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde. Munchen: Fink, 1996. 117–170. 

Cooper, Jane Roberta. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-visions, 19511981. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. (1949.) New York: Vintage, 1989.

Hedley, Jane. I Made You to Find Me: The Coming of Age of the Woman Poet and the Politics of Poetic Address. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Kirk, Gwyn and Okazawa-Rey, Margo. Eds. Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. (4th edition.) New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Klein, Michael. “A Rich Life: Adrienne Rich on Poetry, Politics, and Personal Revelation.” The Boston Phoenix, June 1999. Accessed 9/21/10.

Langdell, Cheri Colby. Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2004.

Messner, Michael. “Becoming 100% Straight.” Gender Through the Prism of Difference. (3rd edition.) Eds. Maxine Baca Zinn et al. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2005. 227–233.

Perreault, Jeanne. “Adrienne Rich: A Poetics of Subjectivity.” Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 31–70.

Poulin, A. Contemporary American Poetry. (4th edition.) New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Rich, Adrienne. A Change of World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951.
—. The Dream of a Common Language. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
—. “Letter to Jane Alexander, National Endowment for the Arts.” 3 July 1997. Accessed 9/22/10.
—. Poems Selected and New: 19501974. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.
—. The Will to Change. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971.

Rosenthal, M.L. “Poetry as Confession.” The Nation. September 1959: 154–155.

Sickels, Amy. Adrienne Rich (Gay and Lesbian Writers). New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2005.

Smith, Sherry Ann. Adrienne Rich: Poet of Change. Austin: The University of Texas, 1978. Dissertation.

Templeton, Alice. The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Vanderbosch, Jane Mary. The Education of Adrienne Rich: From Re-Vision to Revelation. Iowa City: The University of Iowa, 1980. Dissertation.

Werner, Craig Hansen. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.