Introduction and biographical information: The poet Adrienne Rich was an intellectual and poet whose work life spanned about 70 years. She began as an award-winning formal writer of lyric poetry and published as early as 1951. In the 1960s and 1970s she changed her style to feminist free verse poetry. She addressed political issues. She had married into the traditional wife and mother roles while at the same time being an intellectual. She and her husband separated and then he died in 1970. Rich was faced with being a single parent to her three sons. Rich’s poetry reflected her life’s journeys. She was the daughter of a professor and married a professor, then she became a professor’s widow. Rich was a politically radical intellectual during the turbulent Vietnam era (Bindel 2012). Rich viewed the conflict that was alive in her home life as being caused by conflicting roles of mother-wife and poet-feminist. To her culturally inherent characteristics of motherhood collided with her with the job of writer. As Rich became more radicalized politically, the changes were reflected in her writing. She was noted for her straight talk and the huge divide between her early traditional style and her more modern writings. Critics debated about whether she was a poet prophet or an angry white woman (Bindel 2012). Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law: In Adrienne Rich's poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, she expressed the strain that existed between the role of wife and the job of being a poet. In 1963 Rich began her departure from traditional poetry and began publishing poems such as Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law that were reflective of her conscientious awakening to the ills of society and particular the women’s movement. In this poem, the author explored her dissatisfaction with the nature of literature and in her personal life. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, her beginning stanzas seem to have referred to her mother, who had been a concert pianist but gave up her career to become the wife of a professor:
“You, once a belle in Shreveport,with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,still have your dresses copied from that time,and play a Chopin prelude”(Rich 1970).
Rich herself was married, unhappily so, and not thrilled with the culture of marriage or with motherhood. This was an extraordinary admission to make during this period, especially in such a public way:
“Your mind now, moldering like wedding-cake,heavy with useless experience, richwith suspicion, rumor, fantasy,crumbling to pieces under the knife-edgeof mere fact” (Rich 1970).
The poem expresses the desire to self-mutilate, so great is her pain:
“Sometimes she's let the tapstream scald her arm, a match burn to her thumbnail,or held her hand above the kettle's snoutright in the woolly steam” (Rich 1970).
She had grown civic minded and disillusioned with what many would have seen as a great life. She was an award-winning poet, married to a professor, and had three sons, the whole American Dream. However, Rich was desperately discontent. It was the publication of the poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law that marked a change in her literary and personal journey into what some would call radical feminism. This phase would last through many years and be reflected in her writings. Some of the verse is about things that plagued women of her generation, straddling as they were between the male chauvinism of the 1950s and the freedom promised by the 1960s. Her imagery was angry and sometimes crude. She wrote, “the female pills, the terrible breasts” referring to the birth control she was forced to take in order to prevent pregnancy and the sagging breasts women typically deal with after breast feeding their babies (Rich 1970).
Planetarium Rich took on the astronomer William Herschel and the male academy of scientists in her 1968 poem Planetarium (Rich 2002). Rich depicts the misery of a women astronomer whose life work is over shadowed by the males in her field. The poem is dedicated to “Caroline Herschel (1750—1848) astronomer” (Rich 2002). She characterizes the apparently brilliant Caroline as suffering because of a male dominated culture that viewed woman with intelligence as freaks and monsters:
“A woman in the shape of a monstera monster in the shape of a woman” (Rich 2002).
This is a multi-layered reference to other successful women who historians ignored because of their sex. The monster in the poem could easily refer to the Frankenstein creature created by Mary Shelly. Rich was also known to have referred to the 18th century British writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelly’s mother, making her Percy Shelly’s mother-in-law. They were all related to George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is possible that Mary Shelly based the Frankenstein monster on Byron. Undoubtedly, all these familial connections were known by Adrienne Rich who felt herself being stifled by the intellectual community and successful males surrounding her in her own family. In Planetarium Rich is grieving the loss of a woman who was an astronomer, who discovered eight comets, who knew all about astronomical observation but was left out of the history books in favor of her brother. Rich’s grief is primordial when she writes,
“Galaxies of women, theredoing penance for impetuousnessribs chilledin those spaces of the mind” (Rich 2002)
Rich was then describing not only the loss of people like Caroline Herschel, Mary Shelly, and Mary Wollstonecraft but also of all the women in history whose minds were wasted and achievements ignored because they were merely women.
Comparison and Contrast In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Rich grieves for women in her own family, herself, her mother, even apparently her mother-in-law. However, there is also an oblique reference to another intellectual woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had lamented the fears of being labeled a harpy and a whore because of her suffrage activity.
“a woman, partly brave and partly good, who fought with what she partly understood.Few men about her would or could do more, hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore” (Rich 1970).
Mary Wollstonecraft was imagined as a woman who was not wholly good or wholly brave. At least not as brave as Rich who would eventually discard the whole image thing and embrace the identity of a radical lesbian feminist. Wollstonecraft feared being branded as harpy, shrew, and whore by men and women alike. Rich wrote, “harpy, shrew, and whore were some of the descriptors that were left to stain the name of Wollstonecraft by the patriarchy, in this bit of Rich’s poem” (Keyes 1970).
In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, it is Rich’s relative(s) who had been left emotionally dead. In Planetarium, it is Caroline who was left with odd instruments and tools lying in the snow. It is no coincidence that Rich wrote Planetarium at a time when her marriage was dissolving into acrimony. It is also no wonder that she angered many people, including her husband. In Planetarium it appeared Rich was criticizing the entire human history of male-dominated societies. She is also not sympathetic to the women who did less than she did. She wrote as someone who had matured to the point where she would not tolerate men or patriarchy at all. In Rich’s poem Planetarium, she discussed Caroline Herschel as a woman who in her own right was an astronomer, not simply as a relative of William Herschel. Rich imagined the stress that a woman in the 19th century must have experienced while trying to satisfy the traditional role of women and at the same time having scientific inclinations. Speaking as if she was Caroline Herschel, Rich wrote, “I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind (Rich 2002). This is another examination of a women trying to strike a balance between their professions and being a traditional female. Rich was very happy after her split from her husband. She thrived in her new lesbian identity. She discovered a better life than the one that included being married to a man. She lived with her female partner for decades, and they only separated when Rich died of rheumatoid arthritis in 2012. Rich continued to argue that the patriarchy she lived in was an economically, intellectually, and emotionally oppressive. One of her recurring theme was that the sex-class system is the basis for modern culture. Rich’s writing legacy is an angry one; however, she was an extremely popular poet. She received (and refused) literary awards and is still taught in college classes. Rich’s angry attacks against the male dominated status quo were reflected in both Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and Planetarium. In these works she blamed men, culture, and sometimes even women for treating intellectual women as monsters and dead things.
Bindel, Julie. Adrienne Rich obituary: Radical poet revered by feminists and literary critics alike. The Guardian, (2012). Internet Resource. Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Print.Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems, 1950-2001. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. Print.Rich, Adrienne. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970. Print.Rich, Adrienne, Barbara C. Gelpi, Albert Gelpi, and Adrienne Rich. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews, and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.