To examine the changes in style with the longer poems that express
Rich's social vision
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
"From an Old House in America" (p. 63) is a complex poem in sixteen parts.
These sections demand to be understood both as discrete poems and as part
of the larger progress or process that is the whole poem. In this series,
it is important again to recognize the importance of place. What is
significant about the setting of the poem? What is important about the
age of the house? What is important about the setting of a house as
opposed to an apartment or a field or a street? What is significant
about the country?
As the sections progress, we begin to understand how place affects the
thought of the speaker, how the objects in her presence remind her of a
past that is not accessible. This initiates an imaginative journey
through the past and back to the present by the end of the poem. How
does the poet/speaker attempt to connect with the past? What is the
significance of these objects, these actions?
In part five the speaker makes an abrupt jump back to the present, and
she addresses "you". What can you infer about her conflicts and their
conflicts from sections 5 and 6?
Examine the imagery of section 7. Who is the speaking "I" of this part?
What are her characteristics? What identities does she include? What
is the meaning of these multiple female voices of the past?
Section 8 again returns to the present: "Tonight, in this northeast kingdom."
What does she observe in the presence around her? What is their significance?
"I would simplify / by naming the complexity" (132-133): this line sums up
the purpose of the poem. What is it that Rich is naming in this stanza?
What is "this separation of powers"? What is "the allotment of suffering"?
And how does this fit in the context of the poem "from an old house in America"?
In stanza 11 the speaker appears to come to a crux in her thought-process:
"A dream of tenderness / wrestles with all I know of history / I cannot now
lie down" (172-174). What are the implications of these conflicting images?
How do we understand the suicidal imagery? What are the implications of the
sexual imagery? What is the source of the danger?
Sections 12, 13, 14, and 15 deal with the conflicts between the sexes that
arise out of myths and fears of heterosexuality. They also represent a
dialogue at the present state of the crisis. What does Rich attribute to
"lust" and "fear"? What reasons does she suggest for man's hatred of women?
What are the implications of the gendered dialogue in section 15?
Section 15 insists on the necessity of looking at the damage. Why is it
important to see the damage done by fear and hatred? What is the role of
history in the lives of the living? What does the imagery of judgment and
tenderness suggest? Who is the "She" who awaits your coming? What does
the poem project as a future?
Why is the last section a necessary conclusion to the prediction of section
15? What does the speaker say to women about the future? Explicate the
lines "because the line dividing /lucidity from darkness / is yet to be
marked out" (247-249). How is the frontier woman like the feminist poet?
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