The theme of descent and return is a traditional one in Western literature. In Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), the hero Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult with dead prophets and heroes. Because of their great wisdom, they tell him how to return safely, and he learns how to return home from his expedition. Adrienne Rich has written a modern version of this descent theme.
The implications of this wreck must be examined. What exactly has failed? Perhaps the “wreck” is the covering up of subconscious desires and knowledge as one grows up. Perhaps the diver represents all humans, submerging into the depths of personal histories to find out who they really are. This is certainly one possibility; however, if one examines the context in which this poem was written, one may learn more about Rich’s intentions.
One of the clues to the meaning of the wreck and the diver is the last statement about the “book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” At the time she wrote this poem, Rich was learning and writing about women’s experiences. Much of this material was unavailable before the women’s movement began in the late 1960’s. Rich was one of the pioneers in the rediscovery of women’s history and women’s literature. In 1971, she wrote an essay entitled “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” In the article, she wrote about an awakening of women’s consciousness,...
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Born in Baltimore in 1929, Adrienne Rich began writing poetry at an early age, publishing her first book, A Change of World, in 1951, the year of her graduation from Radcliffe College. The book was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by W. H. Auden, who wrote of Rich’s poems: "[They] speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." Rich went on to publish another collection of poems in 1955 called The Diamond Cutters, of which Randall Jarrell wrote: "The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale."
But the image of the fairytale princess would not be long-lived. After marrying Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, and having three sons before the age of thirty, Rich gradually changed both her life and her poetry. Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and Leaflets. The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam war. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse. In 1970, Rich left her husband, who committed suicide later that year.
It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
In the title poem of the book, the speaker, alone aboard a "sun-flooded schooner," slowly descends into the ocean looking for a certain shipwreck. Thus she descends from the illusion of reality—the humanmade, mythical world of the everyday—into the overwhelming but enlightening reality of the ocean, where the shipwreck lies in black waters, looking up at its distorted image—the sunny schooner:
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.
Other notable poems in the collection are "The Phenomenology of Anger," filled with references to the violence of Vietnam, and "Trying to Talk with a Man," which takes place in a desert where bombs are being tested; the bombs, however, turn out not to be external threats but internal ones.
"If Adrienne Rich were not a good poet," wrote Margaret Atwood in a review of the book for the New York Times, "it would be easy to classify her as just another vocal Women’s Libber, substituting polemic for poetry, simplistic messages for complex meanings. But she is a good poet, and her book is not a manifesto, though it subsumes manifestoes; nor is it a proclamation, though it makes proclamations. It is instead a book of explorations, of travels."