To examine the changes in style with the longer poems that express
Rich's social vision
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (1978)
"Transcendental Etude" p. 86 describes the process of learning oneself
or recreating oneself through the artistic metaphor of the etude.
How is this poem like an etude? How is one's life a composition?
What modes of composition are compared in this poem? What modes of
destruction? What is the relationship between creativity and gender?
Between destruction and gender?
Examine the landscape of this poem. What is the significance of the rural
beauty? What is the meaning of her contrast with brutal death? How are
we to understand the Vermont of rustic bliss and the Vermont of "rotgut
violence"? What is the poet trying to understand?
The poet describes the birth of the self as a radical dismembering from
the mother. What is the significance of this break? What is the effect
on the child?
The poet invites us: "But there come times -- perhaps this is one of
them -- / when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die" (92-93).
What is the meaning of this?
Beginning with line 112 the poet's interest in the relationship between
women becomes explicit. She claims "Birth stripped our birthright from
us / tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves / so early on...."
(114-116). What does she mean? How does the world we are born into tear
woman apart (literally and symbolically) from women? The essay "Compulsory
Heterosexuality" sheds insight on the social problem Rich addresses here.
In the second to last stanza, Rich describes a vision of love between women.
What images does she use? How do these images fit into the landscape of
the poem? What is the effect of this passage?
She ends that stanza : "A whole new poetry beginning here" (147). What
is the connection between the love of women and the new poetry? What
is the connection to the transcendental etude?
In the closing image she offers us a woman leaving "the argument and jargon
in a room" and constructing herself out of pieces, "the finest findings."
How is this stanza a new vision? Compare this composition with the
performance of Liszt in the fifth stanza. What are the implications of
this new identity?
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981 (1981)
"For Ethel Rosenberg" (p. 95) explores the poet's reaction to the
execution of this woman in 1953 as remembered and revisioned in 1980.
In it we again follow the poet's confrontation with history that is
both personal and political and never simple. In it she challenges us
to evaluate our political condition honestly, even if that means
repudiating ideas we once held sacred.
What do you know about Ethel Rosenberg? What can you find out? How
does the political and social context of her death affect the meaning of
What is the poet's state of mind described in the opening section -- in her
"random sleepwalk" and "Escaping from home"? What is the significance of
her "Jewish father"? What might we infer about her "questions of loyalty/
and punishment"? Loyalty to whom or to what? Punishment of whom, by whom
for what? What is the relationship between the poet and Ethel Rosenberg?
What is the relationship between her marriage and the Rosenberg's?
The second section describes the possible interpretation of Ethel Rosenberg
as she sinks into the poet's soul, while yet remaining "so painful
so unfathomable / they must be pushed aside / ignored for many years" (59-61).
How does Rich describe Ethel Rosenberg here? What is the "female monster"
the family needs? What does it mean for Ethel Rosenberg to want to be an artist?
How is the speaker like Ethel Rosenberg, "a bad daughter a bad sister" (54)?
In part three the poet treats Ethel Rosenberg with greater sympathy,
beginning to see her as a victim, but recognizing her power. What power
does this figure have over the poet? What are the implications of her
addressing Ethel Rosenberg in the last stanzas? What are the implications
of questioning her feminist potential?
In the final stanza the poet comes to see Ethel Rosenberg as a complex
woman, not the symbol of political conspiracy or matrimonial loyalty.
Here the poet grapples with her own identification with the historical
person and the female context in which Ethel Rosenberg's power is suspect.
Ultimately she accepts the radical difference of Ethel Rosenberg. How
would you describe the resolution of the poem? What are the implications
of the journey the poet takes in this poem? What impact does this re-visioning
and re-membering have?
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