To read Rich's prose on her poetry as a way to
understand the personal and poetic development in these volumes
I encourage you to read all of the poems from the first three volumes
in the collection (several of which we have read and discussed from Perrine)
because it will give you a greater exposure to Rich's style and
characteristic themes. As you read you will begin to notice how
certain recurrent images -- say, her use of trees as a metaphor
for human beings -- become symbolic of particular meanings that
you might miss if you only read partially. These are the shortest
poems (outside of Keats' sonnets) that we will be reading, and
because they are written in a contemporary idiom, they should be
immediately more familiar to you. However, this does not mean
that you can or should read them quickly. On the contrary,
all poetry -- and Rich is no exception -- requires patience.
Be patient with the text; read carefully for nuance and inference.
Know what the words mean. Look up words that are unfamiliar --
look up words that are familiar but you cannot specify. Pay
attention to words or phrases that resonate with other things
you know and try to identify the connection. Be patient and read
slowly, and you will be amply rewarded.
I recommend that you read the poems first and follow that by
reading the prose essays. Rich is incredibly
insightful and clear in her analysis of her own poetry, and she
offers us remarkable commentary on the process of poetry --
that is, the process of creating poetry and the processes
through which poetry gains meaning and coherence in the world.
After you read and understand her essays, return to the poetry
and read them again. Read especially the poems on which she
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
A Change of World (1951) and The Diamond Cutters (1955)
In her essays, Rich looks back to these early poems and finds
them incredibly formal and impersonal. In what ways are these
poems formal? Are they regular in rhythm and line length?
Stanzaic form? Rhyme? What effect does this formalism have on
the meaning of the poems?
In what ways are these poems impersonal? Whose voice does each
poem adopt? What characterization develops? What are the poems
In "When We Dead Awaken" Rich discusses her attempt to be
universal, which she says means "not female." In what ways
do these poems attempt to be universal? To what extent do
Examine the metaphor of cutting diamonds in "The Diamond Cutters."
What does the metaphor refer to? Read Rich's reaction to that
metaphor years later -- see pp. 259-260, and comment on the
In response to the question about whether or not she now censors
certain metaphors for their political implications, Rich says:
"Well, I think you have a censor going if you're -- how shall I
put it? -- in a position of dissent in this country. You need
a consciousness alerted about what images you yourself are
receiving from outside, what the media are representing, what
mainstream art is representing. A lot of critical antennae
develop as you become aware of the amount of disinformation that's
being purveyed, how little the conditions of our actual lives are
reported or represented -- what's left out as well as what is
presented. And I think those censors inevitably also refer to
what you yourself are creating. I mean you can't live in a
constant state of checking everything as it swims to
the surface of consciousness. But I think that there is a way
in which that process -- "what is missing here? how am I using this?"
-- becomes a part of the creative process" (260).
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963)
Observe the formal departures of this set of poems.
In what ways does Rich begin to experiment with the line?
In "The Knight" what does the titular figure represent?
(And in this way it functions in a way similiar to that of
"The Diamond Cutters.") I think this poem is particularly
appropriate to comment upon having just
finished discussing Keats' poetry. In what sense might this
be a poem
in dialogue with the chivalric past? In what sense, then, might Rich
as a poet be in dialogue with Keats (and here I'm thinking of the Keats
of La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Eve of St. Agnes and possibly Lamia)?
In what ways does this poem
respond to the medievalism / high romance characteristic of
some of Keats work? What is the response?
What does the Knight symbolize in the first stanza? What does he symbolize
in the second stanza? What do the series of questions in the final
stanza indicate? What is the speaker's attitude toward the knight?
What might this poem have to say about constructions of masculinity in
literature and culture?
For "Snapshots" I recommend that you read the poem
first and try to understand the collage of images and
voices that Rich brings together here. What do
these separate stanzas have in common? What theme
runs throughout uniting the disparate parts?
After you have reached a level of understanding of
the poem on its own terms, read Rich's explanation of
it in "When We Dead Awaken." How does this information
affect your understanding? What is happening to the
speaker in this poem?
This poem is particulary dialogic -- by which I mean
it includes the speaking voices of many people, past
and present. In forming these dialogues the poet
is deliberate, deliberate in choice of person/character/author
and deliberate in the lines chosen. What is the effect of
What is the tone of the speaker in "Prospective Immigrants"?
What information does the speaker relay? What is the condition
of immigration that the poem explores and how might this be a
metaphor for other experiences? After reading "When We Dead Awaken",
how might you understand the lines:
"Things look at you doubly / and you must look back/ and let them
happen" (7-9). What might this have to do with the metaphor of
vision and revision that Rich describes on page 167?
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