To read Rich's prose on her poetry as a way to
understand the personal and poetic development in these volumes
With these volumes, Rich begins to experiment both with formal technique
and with political subjects that are vital to her. These poems are
written in the context of the Vietnam War; I believe that much of these
poems can be understood within our current context of war. These poems
deal with intense and difficult subjects, and Rich chooses a form that
reflects the matter of her poem. What forms does she use? What form is
she creating and what are the implications of its form? Be attuned to
her use of collage or snapshots imagery as well as the mixture of prose
and poetry. Watch for what she means by language. What do you think she
means by the comprehensive term "language"?
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), The Will to Change (1971)
Examine the personal voice of these poems. In what ways does
this differ from the earlier poems (1951, 1955)? Whose voices
does she include here? To what extent does she sacrifice
universality in these poems?
What is the good thing that the speaker finds "In the Woods"?
How might the theme of this poem compare with some of the
dominant themes on truth and beauty in Keats? I am particularly
intrigued by her attitude toward "happiness" (lines 1 and 37).
I also am intrigued by a contemporary use of pastoral imagery in
the poem. What does she mean by calling the woods her "ego's
Examine the dialogue in "'I am in Danger -- Sir --'".
In what ways is this a tribute to Emily Dickinson? In what ways
is this a critique? How does the contemporary female poet (Rich)
relate to the nineteenth-century female poet? Are there ways
in which this is specifically gendered?
What is the significance of the titular character in "Orion"?
How does the poet/speaker relate to this image? In what ways
does Rich deepen your appreciation for the poem by her discussion
on page 175? What does the poem have to do with love?
What is the significance of Rich's readdressing the issue
What is the poet's source of anger in "Nightbreak"? What is
being broken in this poem? In what ways does Rich change
the line of this particular poem? What is the speaker's
relationship to the oppressed and violated of the world?
What is the significance of the title?
The poem "Planetarium" is a companion piece to "Orion" (see page 175).
How does this poem comment on the problem in "Orion"? What is the
significance of the dedication? How is the woman astronomer's story
symbolic of the female poet -- the speaker of the poem? What is
the speaker's attitude toward the astronomer? Toward herself?
What is the poet's goal in the final stanza? Compare with Keats' idea
that poetry or art should be "friend to man."
"The Burning of Paper" is a highly charged poem that revolves
around the image of burning. Examine the ways in which burning
is used and invoked in the poem. What contexts does the poet
describe? What is the purpose of burning? What is the speaker's
attitude toward the fellow parent of the first stanza? What
is the point of comparing the burning of paper with the burning
of children? How are they similar? What is the style of this poem?
What is the effect of combining prose and verse?
In "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" the poet announces her
departure. In what ways is the poet departing? Compare this with
the departure described in the original poem by this name by Donne.
What is the
relationship between the first person and the second person of
the poem? (Try to read this based on the text first before
applying a biographical reading.) What is the difficulty in
communicating between the two? Examine closely the imagery of
the poem -- what does it suggest about the speaker's state of
mind, about the relationship she appears to want to protect?
What does the last line "To do something very common, in my own way"
mean? To what extent does this poem respond to or comment upon
Donne's original? Recall the meaning of "allusion." How does this poem
allude to Donne's original?
General questions to consider for each poem:
As you read identify the tone of the poem. Look for clues
in the language, in the grammar, in the ways the lines are shaped
-- are they full, short, chopped up, precise and orderly?
What does this indicate? Are there lots of questions, statements,
images, fragments? What does this indicate? What emotion is
conveyed in the language? What are the precise meanings of the words?
What are the images used to convey? What do the words sound like?
All of these things contribute to tone. Tone is sometimes a very
elusive character of poetry, but it is essential for understanding
As Mary Oliver makes clear in her chapter on "The Line" poets
use the line of poetry in a very conscious and artistic way.
Rich is particularly adept at using the line to convey meaning in
her poetry. Pay attention to the type of line she constructs.
Note the ways in which it differs from poem to poem and try to
assign a meaning to that difference. Are they short? Are they long?
More importantly, where does she break the line? How does
she use the break? Often times breaks force us to think more
closely about a phrase than we would if it were included within a
longer line. Why does she draw our attention to that particular
phrase? How does the meaning change for its isolation? How does
it develop more meaning as part of a larger sentence? What is the
effect on the tempo of the poem? What is the effect as the discreet
line registers its impact on your brain? Don't rush through
the breaks. Pay attention to difference or variation in form.
Ask yourself what it means for Rich to change a pattern.
Discuss the imagery of each poem. Examine how each poem is a
process of images as experience, depicting a psychological state.
The process of images is both your experience and the speaker's
How does Rich use allusion in her poetry? She frequently
maintains a dialogue with other poets, other artists, other
members of her family -- to name a few. What is the effect
of the different voices in the poem? What is the effect of
appropriating another's language? What is the speaker's
attitude toward the quotation or allusion? What is the reaction
or response in the poem?
What do the titles mean? How do they create expectations
for the poem? In what ways do the comment on the poem?
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