Tommy’s terrific pecha-kucha on Adrienne Rich and “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”:
They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.
A red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths.
To do something very common, in my own way.
The piece “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” encompasses the sentiment of impending loss; and yet it ultimately is not a loss but a gain of forthright character and statement of creative freedom. I decided to isolate the three single-line stanzas separating the three longer stanzas of the poem. The poem is structured by the following pattern of lines per stanza: four, one, five, one, six, one. Indeed, the original poem’s physical construction is indicative of intangible themes running throughout the piece. The single-line stanzas serve as bridges between sections, linking their ideas together. By choosing to unite the bridges through such a distortion, one does not fully comprehend the poem in its entirety; but he or she may certainly glean essential components of its composition.
The second stanza (the first of the distorted selection) is one of the few full sentences not chopped by line breaks. The “drug that slowed the healing of wounds” is one that extends sentiment longer than natural. The wounds become more raw with time instead of healing, as her craft forces Rich to draw upon memories of pain repeatedly throughout her compositional career, as to create genuine, raw passion and complexity within her works. Perhaps one day the wounds will heal; but for the moment, she must find a morbid pleasure in the tortured expression they inspire. The slowed healing further suggests the addition of lines to each stanza, from four to five to six. This literal expansion through the lengthening of stanzas slows the poem, makes it take longer to complete reading, extending and drawing out the memories and sentiments.
Complications arise in the interpretation of the “red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths”. Rich does not specify the nature of the plant – has it been cut and laid at a tombstone, or does it continue to grow within the ground? Regardless, it provides a point of contrast against the backdrop of the plastic wreaths, the artificial needles of which remain plastically still amongst the cycles of nature surrounding them. This imagery of the cemetery further suggests a mortality to come, as is linked with the fifth stanza of six lines through the initial first words: “A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor” (12). Rich explains metaphors in the terms of the expanse which she means: the landscape as the entity of time, a trip as a representation of the infinite. As an author, she admits, “I could say: those mountains have meaning / but further than that I could not say” (16-17). The forced metaphors come unnaturally; for indeed, sometimes a mountain is intended as… well, a mountain. The artificial wreaths indicate a frustration with the insistence upon dragging out metaphor to point of nonsensicality and absurd generalization. As Rich had stated in the third stanza, she desires to pass upon the wisdom acknowledging the shortcomings of the literary scene, such as “the failure of criticism to locate the pain,” which suggests too great a critical focus upon structure and a lack of subjective human emotion in the consideration of an author’s work (8). “[R]epetition as death” points to the monotony of continuous practice; for if one is stuck within a cycle of the same, there is no life to be lived; it is a state of existence which lacks all dimension and thus is robotically generated, rendering it meaningless in its numbness (7). The red plant thereby offers an escape from the monotony, standing as a bright triumph and expression of passion, blood, vital experience.
The final stanza, “To do something…,” affirms her determination to execute her work in a way that retains her individuality; and though the masses might take part in the art, she remains steadfast in her attempt to distinguish herself and to inspire others to do the same (as suggested by the third stanza: “I want you to see this before I leave:” [6-7]). It is the death of expectations of composition, as the attacking grammar, stress-inspired themes, and empty notations mentioned in the first stanza have entirely overwhelmed and killed any sense of structured creative expression. As “A Valediction” is distorted through its contraction, it highlights essential themes but critically misses the very expressions of execution that Rich prizes.
“Few men about her would or could do more,
hence she was labeled harpy, shrew, and whore.”
“Few men about her would or could do more,
hence she was ignored, the harpy, shrew, whore.”
While both texts apply a negative connotation to the woman, the reconstruction lacks the aggression that is present in the original text. “Ignored” is a much less active verb than “labeled.”
Not only is “ignored” a more passive verb than “labeled,” its meaning is framed in a passive context. To ignore, is to not acknowledge or give credit to. In the reconstruction, the men who do not approve of what the woman is trying to accomplish deal with the problem by not acknowledging her as significant. The men do not see her as a true threat to their establishment is she does not require any sore of acknowledgement. And the offensive adjectives that follow seem to be more of an afterthought. Whereas in the original text, the word “labeled” adds a layer of activity to the text. The men feel threatened enough to actively put down her work and her as a person. It makes what she is doing much more significant if it requires the men to strongly acknowledge it as negative work. She is being “labeled” as a threat, and they feel the need to get other people involved to achieve their goal of opposing her. They do this by labeling her as “harpy, shrew, and whore.”
It adds a sense of urgency to the overall theme of the poem. It creates the idea that if there are not more people willing to stand up for this, these situations and outcomes will just keep recurring. Not to mention, the word “labeled” creates a category for these women in a male dominated world. The reconstruction lacks the urgency and aggression that is created in Rich’s poem. The word choice of Rich’s poem is specific, and had she chosen another option her poem would lose some of the details that allow it to be so great.
Adrienne Rich was one of the most influential feminist writers during the contemporary women’s movement. More than just a poet, Rich was heavily involved in feminist, civil-rights, and anti-war activism.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland on May 16, 1929, Rich was heavily influenced by her father, the head Pathologist at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She developed a love for literature sitting in his library reading great poets such as Keats and Blake. Many of her early poems are influenced by how hard she worked to fulfill her father’s ambitions and have a clear resemblance to these authors.
Rich attended Radcliffe College where she wrote her first book “A Change of World” which won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Shortly after graduation, in 1953, she married a Harvard economist, Alfred Conrad with whom she had three sons. This period of Rich’s life was very difficult. She struggled with the concept of the prescribed role of womanhood. This radical change in Rich’s life can clearly be seen in her writing style. She began experimenting with fragmentation and jagged utterances and explored new issues such as the day-to-day truths of women’s lives and issues of identity and sexuality.
“Snapshots of a Daughter in Law”, written shortly after the birth of her third child, was a turning point in Rich’s writing in which she unleashed her new voice. Horrifying critics with her controversial topics, Adrienne Rich sealed her national reputation as a leader for the feminist movement. When she moved her family to New York City, she became active in the political movements and her National Book Award winning “Diving Into the Wreck” is heavily influenced by her anger at the Vietnam War.
In 1970, after the death of her husband, Rich came out publicly as a lesbian. She dedicated herself increasingly to the women’s movement both as a poet and public speaker. In a speech given in 1984, Rich summarizes her reason for writing in just seven words answering simply “The creation of a society without domination.”