Annotated Bibliography: Poetry of Adrienne Rich

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[. . .] W. Norton; the two women begin editing the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom in the 1980s and the two stayed together for the rest of the century, moving from the East Coast to the West Coast to enjoy the privacy that Cliff desired (O’Mahoney).

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” was written in 1951—and marks the beginning of Rich’s career as a poet. It also foreshadows many of the themes that she would explore in her feminist writing and later in her activism as a feminist and lesbian. The poem’s power lies in its use of symbolism and the tropes of traditional feminist genre, as already established by Chopin and Woolf. Thomas Byars notes that

Rich’s own remarks on this poem are an important starting place; she discusses how even in a formal and consciously distanced poem of her early period, she can discover clear (if latent) feminist concerns. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the fact that the needlework tigers, like Rich’s poem itself, are ineffectual as rebellion, because the very means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressor's language, and thus reveal an unhealed split in the psyche of the oppressed. (37)

Rich describes the hands of Aunt Jennifer as “terrified” and “ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”—a suggestion that marriage is more of an act of subjugation and oppression than of love and commitment. The tigers that Aunt Jennifer weaves into the fabric that she sews resemble the desire of the emerging feminist—the desire to be free above “the men beneath the tree,” free to “go on prancing, proud and unafraid” (Rich). The tigers represent the fierce freedom that sits in the oppressed woman’s breast. The woman is shackled by the wedding band, just like a slave is shackled by chains. And just like the woman in Glaspell’s Trifles spends her time knitting and sewing in a discrete and separate act of escaping from her husband’s presence, Aunt Jennifer takes up the needle to weave for herself a pattern that represents her inner desires: she is one with the tigers who prance in the trees, unafraid of the men below who seek to capture them. Aunt Jennifer’s tigers are thus a symbol of the feminist spirit that was about to break free in the mainstream American consciousness in the years following the publication of Rich’s early poem.

By reflecting this desire on the part of womanhood to be free and independent of masculinity, Rich was foreshadowing the wave of feminism that would appear in the 1960s and 1970s, and she was foreshadowing her own activism in that movement, as Byars has pointed out: “The tigers display in art the values that Aunt Jennifer must repress or displace in life: strength, assertion, fearlessness, fluidity of motion. And the poem's conclusion celebrates the animal images as a kind of triumph, transcending the limited conditions of their maker’s life” (Byars 40). However, the tiger itself also doubles as a masculine image: “not only masculine, but heroic figures of one of the most role-bound of all the substructures of patriarchy: chivalry” (Byars 40), and this problematic because Rich uses that word “chivalric” in the poem to describe the tigers’ certainty. Does it mean that Rich sees Aunt Jennifer assuming masculine characteristics or rather qualities that have been possessed by the male patriarchy for centuries? This could be. Byars indicates that the “chivalric certainty” of the tigers “is a representation by Aunt Jennifer of her own envisioned power”—but, nonetheless, Aunt Jennifer is participating in her own submission to male dominance by weaving her discontent in a passive manner (in cloth) rather than in an active and defiant stance—in public, where real waves might be made. Rich’s poem can thus be viewed as a cautious first step towards radicalism—because an “assertion against the patriarchy is here imagined only in terms set by the patriarchs” (Byars 40) and not quite in terms set by women themselves, as they would go on to do so throughout the coming Women’s Movement. Indeed, Rich herself would distance herself from this early hesitancy and make her stance known in public, outside of passive knitting and cautious poetry. In other words, Aunt Jennifer’s tigers serve as an early announcement of things to come, but one that is still yet willing to exist within an accepted framework of speech and symbol. Once Rich herself would abandon the safety of that framework, her own life and orientation would change dramatically.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Adrienne Rich was an American poet whose identity and poetry was situated within the American Feminist Movement that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. Her own poetry and writings used the tropes and symbols of the American feminist literary tradition established earlier in the century by writers like Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf, and her beliefs reflected the attitudes and questions of identity put forward by writers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinhem. She became a feminist and lesbian activist, the latter following the death of her husband in the early 1970s. She described her lesbian identity as being an expression of true love, something she never found within the confines of traditional marriage or in heterosexual love. In her poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” she describes a woman whose knitting reflects her own inner desire for freedom from the heavy weight of the wedding band and foreshadows the direction that her own life would take.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NY:

Routledge, 1990.

Byars, Thomas. World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the

“Jubilation of Poets.” Kent State University Press, 1990.

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” VCU.

https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/hour/storyofhour.html

Flood, Alison. “Adrienne Rich, award-winning poet and essayist, dies aged 82.” The

Guardian, 29 Mar. 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/29/adrienne-rich-poet-essayist-dies

Horowitz, D. Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. Amherst:

University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Leicester, H. Marshall. “Of a fire in the dark: Public and private feminism in the Wife

of Bath’s Tale.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 11.1-2 (1984): 157-178.

Martin, Wendy. An American triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne

Rich. The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (Autumn

1975): 6-18.

O’Mahoney, John. “Poet and Pioneer.” The Guardian, 14 June 2002.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview6

Rich, Adrienne. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.” Owlcation.

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Aunt-Jennifers-Tigers-by-Adrienne-Rich

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. “Women, Reproductive Rights and the Catholic Church.”

Feminist Theology 16.2 (2008): 184-193.

Annotated Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NY:

Routledge, 1990.

Butler’s book focuses on the feminist theory of identity and gender issues. It helps to provide some background on the manner in which the feminist lens is used to explore issues of sex, sexuality and gender in the 20th century.

Byars, Thomas. World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the

“Jubilation of Poets.” Kent State University Press, 1990.

This book provides an analysis of Rich’s poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” and shows how the poem is used by Rich to represent her inner desires for freedom and independence yet how she is also not quite ready yet to actively revolt against the patriarchal system.

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” VCU.

https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/hour/storyofhour.html

This story by Chopin serves as the foundation for feminist literature in America, representing well the feeling of oppression that a woman unhappily married might experience.

Flood, Alison. “Adrienne Rich, award-winning poet and essayist, dies aged 82.” The

Guardian, 29 Mar. 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/29/adrienne-rich-poet-essayist-dies

This essay describes the life of Rich and illustrates some of her struggles and how she developed her art of writing poetry over time.

Horowitz, D. Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. Amherst:

University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

This biography of Friedan provides further context for the Feminist Movement, highlighting Friedan as one of the founders of the movement with her criticism of the stereotypical woman portrayed in popular media.

Leicester, H. Marshall. “Of a fire in the dark: Public and private feminism in the Wife

of Bath’s Tale.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 11.1-2 (1984): 157-178.

This essay shows how feminist ideas can be found in Western literature as early as Chaucer’s poem in The Canterbury Tales. The Wife’s ideas are reflected in modern feminist thought as well.

Martin, Wendy. An American triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne

Rich. The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

This book describes the lives of three American writers including Rich. It shows the development of Rich’s writing and how it was informed by cultural influences shaping society at that time.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (Autumn

1975): 6-18.

Mulvey’s article coined the phrase the “male gaze” and defined how filmmakers and audiences view the female figure. It is a good example of feminist criticism and feminist theory in a scholarly article.

O’Mahoney, John. “Poet and Pioneer.” The Guardian, 14 June 2002.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/15/featuresreviews.guardianreview6

This essay describes the life and evolution of Rich by examining her writings alongside… [END OF PREVIEW]

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