Redefining Female Identity in Adrienne Rich’s “Planetarium” and “Diving Into the Wreck”
Adrienne Rich, an influential contemporary American poetess and essayist, devoted a great part of her writing to express her feminist thinking and beliefs. Her writing is not merely a medium, which she uses to express her feelings and present her opinions on various themes, but a means that she resorts to in order to change prevalent attitudes towards women and femininity. Through her writing, not only does she describe the women’s roles, which are imposed on them by society, but she also attempts to redefine female identity, as is evidenced in the poems “Planetarium” and “Diving Into the Wreck” to be analysed in the present article. Rich expresses her resentment and indignation triggered by the monotonous and repressive domestic life in her fourth poetry collection entitled The Will to Change: Poems, 1968-70 (1971), in which she also makes an effort to redefine women’s identity. This attempt is better reflected in the collection Diving into the Wreck (1973). Rich points out how the needs and aspirations of a female artist contradict the expectations of the traditional, patriarchal society. This article focuses on the poems “Planetarium” and “Diving into the Wreck,” since they are both quintessential of her writing, as well as on the essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” all written within the time span between 1971 and 1973. In them, Rich overtly invites women to change their lives and move away from strict social norms, and indicates the process through which women can achieve their rebirth.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, American women become aware of their contribution to its victorious outcome. However, the state does not acknowledge their invaluable offer, and this is reflected in its overall stance towards them. In the decade of the 1950s, the ideology of the “feminine mystique” is dominant. According to this ideology, women’s exclusive vocation is to take care of their household, be an affectionate mother and wife and ensure social stability. Their responsibilities together with their daily chores restrict their time and repress their aspirations. Their identity is defined solely in terms of their role as housewives and mothers.
In the 1960s, women realize the importance of unity and solidarity as well as the need to become politically active and as a result, a great deal of women’s rights movements emerge. An example of their activity is that of women who participate in the Democratic Party and urge President Kennedy to establish a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. The Commission aims to reexamine and redefine women's role in the realms of the domestic life, the economy and the legal system. Its reports emphasize the unequal treatment faced by women at work and lay the foundations for the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The report of 1963 also coincides with the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, in which she discusses the “problem that has no name,” referring to women’s frustration triggered by the fact that their engagement with the housework and child-rearing restricted them in a way that they could not satisfy any of their aspirations and desires. However, when the Commission is unable to achieve its goals, the need for a new institution becomes evident, and thus the National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded in 1966. The new organization explicitly states the dilemmas of working women who are constantly facing discrimination at the workplace. The problem that emerges is that women cannot realize the real dimensions of this dilemma as they are still affected by the entrenched ideology promoted by the popular culture, which, while suggesting equal rights, also ardently supports the feminine mystique.
It is only in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the emergence of the women’s rights movement puts an end to the distinction between the public and the domestic sphere that characterizes American female and male roles since the English settlement in the seventeenth century. Hence, young women, who are not satisfied with the achievements of the National Organization for Women, along with members of the students' movement of the era, found the women's liberation movement. The new movement does not set specific goals, but intends to entail all the aspects of women's life. For the advocates of the movement, reforms in legislation are not sufficient, but a total change in people's attitudes is necessary so that women are fully integrated in society and recognized as equal partners. Rich, being an active member of the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, manages through her work to express her feminist ideas and highlight the women’s need for unity and solidarity.
In her first poetry collections, entitled A Change of World (1951) and The Diamond Cutters (1955), Rich presents woman’s role in the patriarchal society and seems to view things from the perspective of a woman who is trying to accept the duties and demands that her role entails. She adopts a rather passive attitude towards what she describes and her writing style accords with the traditional stylistic rules for writing which are dominant in that era. The use of strict meter and rhymed stanzas, as well as the elegant writing characterized by syntactic perfection, and accompanied with natural fluidity, reinforces the sense of self-distance that Rich desires to achieve in her early writing (Keyes 20). However, after her marriage and birth of her children, Rich undergoes a transition in the point of view she adopts in her poems, since she realizes that her engagement with her domestic errands does not permit her to be committed to her art. It is during this period of time that she initiates to write about the female experience and laments for women being oppressed by the patriarchal society
During the period of 1968-1970 Rich decides to make a transition in her life. Her poetic collection The Will to Change, published in 1971,marks, as the title denotes, her early attempt to explore women’s efforts to define their own reality. The poem “Planetarium,” included in this collection, proves that Rich even at periods of personal difficulty never stopped striving for a forceful articulation of her views with regard to female position in society. In particular, she writes: “A woman in the shape of a monster/a monster in the shape of a woman/the skies are full of them” (1-3). The poet uses the word “monster” here so as to show that females do not conform to the patriarchal stereotype that demands from them a complete devotion to their traditional roles. Rich complains about the fact that women’s capacities and achievements are not acknowledged by society and most of the times they are belittled and underestimated. As she informs us with a note preceding the poem, “Planetarium” is inspired by the figure of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, the sister of another distinguished astronomer, William Herschel. However, being overshadowed by her brother’s recognition, Caroline's achievements and hard work were never acknowledged or praised. As a result, Rich's note serves as a statement for all women. In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” written for the MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession in 1971, Rich states that in “Planetarium” it is the first time she identifies with the persona in a poem (25). As a female poet, she often has to put up with social criticism because her work diverges from conventional patterns and norms. The persona in the poem intends to express her indignation for the pressure society puts on her. She feels emotionally overwhelmed and oppressed since society deprives her of every opportunity to express herself freely. All these feelings also become evident in the form of the poem, and in particular in the spacing between words and lines. Rich uses enjambment and caesura as a means to imprint her resentment and indignation. For instance, she writes:
'virile, precise and absolutely certain'
from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the Nova' (17-20)
Furthermore, she is obliged to use the patriarchal language imposed on her by society. More specifically, she writes in “Planetarium,” “I am bombarded yet I stand/ I have been standing all my life in the/direct path of a battery of signals/ the most accurately transmitted most/untranslatable language in the universe” (34-38). The use of the verb “bombard” plays an important role here as it conveys how overwhelmed she is by feelings of distress and indignation. Between “I am bombarded yet” and “I stand” (34), there is an extra typographical space allowing the personal to further highlight her intense feelings. Moreover, the constant use of the personal pronoun “I” brings forth female subjectivity in a much more forceful manner. Throughout the poem, she makes use of images that manifest both her inner turmoil and physical pain. When she writes “Heartbeat of the pulsar/heart sweating through my body” (30-31), she makes the body the means through which her feelings are displayed and visualized. The poem is dedicated to all women who are “an instrument in the shape/of a woman” (42-43), in other words a tool that everyone uses and manipulates. Rich is critical of society’s attitude towards women, an attitude that undermines female existence and creativity. She mentions that women’s powers have been always denied throughout the years and women, being obliged to obey to social conventions, they have had to suppress their own abilities and energies. For example, the woman scholar or scientist, who has been engaged with activities beyond her household and child-rearing duties that do not abide by the patriarchal rules, has been regarded as a monster-woman. At that point in the poem, Rich aims to make women realize that they are not alone in their efforts since there are “galaxies of women, there /doing penance for impetuousness” (13-14), and provide solace to them. Society deplores this kind of women’s choices and often makes women feel ashamed of not being able to assume their social role with complete success. Furthermore, society overlooks women’s efforts and refuses to appreciate their achievements in domains out of the private sphere, whereas it praises women who manage to assume perfectly their prescribed role as mothers and wives.
Another important element of the poem is that Rich refers to the role that the poet, especially a female poet, has to assume in such cases. For her, “seeing is changing” (27), and the role of the poet is dual. At first, the poet has to be an observer of the world and become aware of the problems and concerns that torment people. It is only then that she will be willing to change the situation by motivating, preparing and supporting people in their efforts to change their reality. As a result, “Planetarium” finds Rich in the outset of a new era for herself, with her role as a poet undergoing a major change. It is in the context of this attempt that she invites all women to make their own contribution towards taking a step that will lead to the “relief of the body/and the reconstruction of the mind” (44-45). Women should be actively engaged in the process of changing their lives by embracing and not denying their abilities and skills. This constitutes the first step towards establishing their new female identity.
For this to happen, women need to proceed with the redefinition of their female roles. This is where Rich turns to in her seventh poetry collection, Diving into the Wreck (1973). The whole collection reflects Rich’s decision to recreate female identity since this constitutes a preparatory stage for the radical change in women’s lives. What is pivotal in Diving into the Wreck is that Rich suggests new ways through which women will be able to transform the world, overcome the social burdens and become free to use their powers without restrictions, prohibitions and fear. In other words, Rich tries to make women realize that they need to reconstructtheir female identity. In the title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” the poet personally undertakes to accomplish the mission she has predicted in her previous collections. Convinced that the exploration of the female history lays the foundation for the redefinition of female identity, she plunges metaphorically into the deep waters of the female past and tries to explore every aspect of it. The ultimate aim of her quest that in the poem features as an underwater exploration is to trace the myths that compose female history and recognize all these social conventions established by the patriarchal society so as to constrain women’s lives. Only when this journey is completed, will she feel able to proceed to the female transformation she has envisioned. The poet highlights that this journey requires isolation and for this reason the persona has to be alone in the quest of her own origins and “not like Cousteau with his/assiduous team/aboard the sun-flooded schooner” (9-11). This kind of isolation does not only allow her to concentrate on her mission, but also means that she is devoid of any kind of pressure and restrictions imposed by those around her. Rich realizes how important it is for her female persona in the poem to learn to “breathe differently” (51) and “learn alone/to turn [her] body without force/in the deep element” (41-43). The poet suggests a new way of living, according to which women will act independently without being constrained. This permits women to form their own opinions on issues that concern them.
The wreck featuring in the poem functions as a metaphor of the history of all women who have found themselves restricted under the pressure of patriarchal society. As Margaret Atwood claims, the persona is diving into the wreck “of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women” (Cooper 238). The aim of the journey as it appears in the poem “Diving into the Wreck” is dual; the woman has to explore the female history and “see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail” (53-54). More specifically, she needs to assess the devastating effect of the male-dominated culture on herself and then try to save other women who may have undergone similar experiences. She makes clear that she is interested only in doing her own research that will enable her to form her own opinion and unveil her own truths without being influenced by any kind of external factors. It is a prerequisite of change to explore “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (60-61). The persona of the poem does not need any kind of rules or guidance. She is free to lead her own way. This sense of freedom is evident in the form of the poem, which deviates from the traditional poetic patterns. “Diving into the Wreck” is characterized by lack of regular rhyming and stanzaic patterns by adopting variable lengths. For example, Rich writes:
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here (42-49)
In this journey, she is alone and “there is no one/to tell [her] when the ocean/will begin” (31-33). For Rich, it is very important that women form their own opinions regarding their condition without being affected by preconceived ideas that society tries to impose on them. Only after women have formed and expressed their own insights, will they be able to attain their ultimate goal of reconstructing their identity.
The whole poem composes an image of revitalization and reflects the poet’s attempt to redefine both herself and female reality in terms of a new feminist framework. In order for women to be prepared for their rebirth, Rich suggests in her poem “Diving into the Wreck” that they should undergo the process of recreating their own identity. So the poet envisions in her poem a persona with both female and male attributes defining herself as “the mermaid whose dark hair/streams black, the merman in his armored body” (71-72). In the poem, notions which seem to be contradictory, such as subject and object and female and male, are brought together (Martin 190). In this way, it becomes clear that the conflict between male and female will gradually fade out and both of them will start to act as one. For Rich, it is the last time she tries to merge female and male characteristics within the same entity in her attempt to define female identity (Cooper 113). This fusion of female and male characteristics within the new female identity opens up new perspectives for a society where women will feel free to create their own future without restrictions.
The importance of identity revision as a prerequisite for redefinition is examined more thoroughly in Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” where she suggests that women should initially explore their past and reflect upon it in a critical way with the ultimate aim to change it. The title of her essay is not randomly chosen. It is inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken, published in 1899. The play is about the agonizing efforts a woman makes in order to reinvent herself. Rich views revision as a presupposition for female redefinition. She defines it as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (18).Self-awareness not only constitutes a means of redefinition, but it also marks women’s resistance to the restraints set by the patriarchal society. The importance of revision lies not only in the fact that it is indispensable for women’s self-awareness, but it also functions as a means to defend themselves against the devastating effects of the patriarchal society (18-19). Women should liberate themselves from any preconceived ideas and construct their identity by themselves. It is through self-knowledge that women cease to become victims of the patriarchal society. She then proceeds to underscore that it is imperative for women to explore the past in order to subvert the deeply entrenched societal stereotypes, and not to disseminate them. The journey to redefinition will not be without obstacles. Since the female literature of the past does not provide solid foundations for the reconstruction of female identity, women have to find new language and use new images to express their new condition. In order to support her views, Rich resorts in her essay to other poets, as is the case of Sylvia Plath and Diane Wakoski, saying that “man appears as, if not a dream, a fascination and a terror; and that the source of the fascination and the terror is, simply, man's power-to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman” (19).She also refers to other female American poets, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop who prefer to keep a distance and not refer to themes which are pertinent to women’s problems. Rich highlights that female writers avoid challenging the patriarchal patterns in their writing mainly being interested in the elegant and delicate expression of their ideas. It is their female role that restrains them and prevents them some times from thinking beyond the limitations their social role prescribes. However, it is this sense of restriction that serves as an energizing force behind most of female writing since it works as an outlet of suppressed emotion and intellectual power.
Then, she chooses to use herself in her essay as an example describing the steps she has taken throughout her writing career in an attempt to redefine herself. Her early writing is characterized by her desire to satisfy the male figures of her life, a desire reflected in the poetic formality encountered in her poems. At that time, Rich faces a conflict between her role as a woman and her role as a poet. As she confesses in her essay, “About the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to con-sider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me” (23). She feels here that she is unable to fulfil her vocation as a poet, namely to bring the change she was hoping for with her writing. The role of the poet is to bring about changes, since “writing is renaming” (23). For Rich, language constitutes a very useful tool, which she exploits in a suitable way in order to reinvent not only her own life, but also all women’s lives. However, there are many critics who claim that around 1970 Rich ceases to view language as a means through which one can reimagine the world. For instance, Paula Bennett asserts that in the period between 1968 and 1970, Rich reconsiders her points of view about the use of language (204). According to this point of view, Rich presumes that language can function as a medium of the patriarchal society employed with the ultimate aim to manipulate and oppress women and, consequently, it cannot be used to contribute to their struggle for change (204). Bennett continues to say that the poet, being overwhelmed with feelings of anger and dismay due to the internal conflicts she faces, she chooses to deal only with her personal concerns in her writing, giving up in a way all her previous attempts to make women realize their condition and motivate them to react against what oppresses and restrains them (204).
So what Rich reminds women here is the new role they have to take on. She ardently supports the reconciliation of domestic life with working life. She does not urge women to relinquish their everyday responsibilities in order to achieve their redefinition. The need for female solidarity is also highlighted at the end of her essay. In particular, she says “We can go on trying to talk to each other, we can sometimes help each other, poetry and fiction can show us what the other is going through; but women can no longer be primarily mothers and muses for men: we have our own work cut out for us” (25). Women can overcome all the obstacles society poses, on condition that they share their experiences, help each other and contribute actively to the achievement of their goal, which is to struggle for a better future.
Throughout her poetic work, Rich makes an attempt to motivate women to make the change in their lives breaking down all these social barriers that oppress them and restrain their creative energies. In her first collections, Rich merely gives an account of women’s role in the patriarchal society without making any personal comments or suggestions for the improvement of female condition. After 1970, she undergoes a major change in her life as she experiences the end of her marriage. The feelings emerging from this transitional phase of her life are reflected in the collection The Will to Change, and more specifically in the poem “Planetarium,” as has already been argued, in which she envisions a new world for women and reconsiders the role of the poet, who now assumes a more active role in the redefinition of female identity. As her writing progresses, Rich becomes more active in the process of female redefinition and does not only advise women to try and change their condition, but she also provides her own suggestions as to how to achieve this goal. In the poem “Diving into the Wreck” that comes from the synonymous collection, she suggests that women should first explore the female history and trace the myths encompassed in it. Finally, she makes clear that women need to cooperate with each other and create bonds of unity and solidarity in order to gain an insight into their own selves.
In her poems, Rich articulates her ideas through the female personas that she uses. Her personas seem to undertake new roles which are not associated with the female. Such a presentation of the female personas constitutes an innovation that Rich introduces to female writing. Female personas are depicted to challenge the patriarchal patterns and fight to subvert the patriarchal stereotypes. Having established their own rules, women are now ready to proceed with the redefinition of their own identity. Rich’s writing provides women with the impetus to struggle and claim their freedom and independence, and constitutes a means through which women can recreate their own identity and change their lives. However, her writings allow us to see how many more diversities are hidden within female subjectivity and how many more parameters need to be taken into consideration. Starting from Rich, the reader is encouraged to delve deeper into what it means to be female both in the Western and Eastern culture. Gender and its representations will continue being eminent subjects of discussion and artistic exploration in the decades to come.
Bennett, Paula. My Life, a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics.Boston: Beacon, 1986. Print.
Clapp, Elizabeth. “American Women.” A New Introduction to American Studies. Ed. Howard Temperley and Christopher Bigsby. New York: Routledge, 2013. 326-351. Print.
Cobble, Dorothy Sue, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
Cooper, Jane Roberta. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Revisions, 1951-81.Michigan: Michigan UP, 1984. Print.
Evans, Sara. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: The Free Press, 1989. Print.
Kane, Daniel. “Twentieth-century American Poetry.” A New Introduction to American Studies. Ed. Howard Temperley and Christopher Bigsby. New York: Routledge, 2013. 326-351. Print.
Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: Georgia UP, 1986. Print.
Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1984. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.
---. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision.” College English 34.1(1972):18-30. JSTOR. Web. 4 October 2015.
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), astronomer, sister of William; and others
A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them
a woman 'in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles'
in her 98 years to discover
she whom the moon ruled
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
in those spaces of the mind
'virile, precise and absolutely certain'
from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the Nova
every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us
Tycho whispering at last
'Let me not seem to have lived in vain'
What we see, we see
and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body
The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo--
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken 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.
Diving into the Wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
you breathe differently down here.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
New Criticism was prominent in American literary criticism until late in the 1960s. It resisted the interpretation of literary texts in the context of the author’s life and contemporary historical conditions. It considered that every text was “autotelic” that is theoretically complete within itself, independent of any relation to the author’s life or intent. Poets affiliated with New Criticism were Howard Nemerov, John Hollander, Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur.
Maria Tsitoura holds a B.A degree in English Language and Literature from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her main academic interests lie in the field of American literature, and in particular, in American contemporary poetry. Her fondness for writing has started from a very early age and has grown while she was pursuing her undergraduate studies. During her studies, she had the opportunity to attend several courses on American Literature, which has sparked her interest for further study and research in the field. She is passionate about reading literature and learning foreign languages. She speaks English, French, Italian and Turkish. Her research interests also include the effects of literature in teaching English as a foreign language.
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