An Introduction to Feminist Criticism, Adrienne Rich and Thinking About Poetry

Feminist Criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforces or undermines economic, political, social and psychological oppression of women. Feminist critics explore the overt and covert implications of patriarchy, especially as relates to traditional gender roles. The belief that men are superior has, feminists argue, been used to justify and maintain male monopoly of positions of economic, political and social power. Feminist Criticism, generally speaking, seeks out and examines patriarchy in literature. Patriarchy, which not so long ago was the dominant ideology in this country, is the belief that women are innately inferior to men. In many societies today patriarchy remains the dominant ideology and women are viewed as second class citizens. This hierarchy of power is easy to recognize in many places around the world, however, in other regions patriarchal ideologies are often so socio-culturally infused that they are nearly invisible. Often, these embedded social structures don't readily appear as even related to a male dominated hierarchy of power. Feminist critics (both male and female) would, for example, consider the difference between the term slut, when applied to a woman, and stud, when applied to a man, and identify why the connotations of these words are so unequally matched when the definition is nearly the same. In fact, the only difference in the definition of these two words pertains to gender.

Another example can be found in our ideas about what constitutes the difference between a "good girl" and a "bad girl." The difference here doesn't necessarily seem related to patriarchy, rather the distinction between these judgements seems, at first glimpse, more closely aligned with morality. A Feminist Critic would argue, however, that many of our current ideas about "morality" regarding women, stem from the 1950s (and earlier periods in history) when patriarchy dominated the social and cultural milieu. Feminist Critics would also point out that both of these classifications attempt to "objectify" women and thereby reduce their potential for power.

Before we move on. Reflect again on how gender identity is shaped "Girl." Although this story is written from the feminine perspective, family and culture work also work to shape male identity.
For your individual writing today, please imitate Kincaid's style by writing a list of instructions that you remember receiving as a kid. What do's and don'ts do you remember hearing? What chores were you required to do. Please take 10 minutes to list as many of these directives. Do your best to imitate Kincaid's style by using the semi-colon, second person (you) and listing without using the subject in your sentence. For example, start your sentences with:
This is how you...
Don't ...
When you...

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Take a look at these two Pepsi Commercials and think about how each portrays women. Write a list of details, or describe what you see,  that helps you to form your conclusions.

Pepsi 1957

Pepsi 2011

Some questions a Feminist Critic would ask:
1. What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, psychologically) of patriarchy?
2. What does the work suggest about the ways in which race, class and/or other cultural factors intersect with gender in producing women's experience?
3. How is the work "gendered"? That is, how does is seem to define femininity and masculinity? What seems to be the work's attitude toward the gender(s) portrayed? For example, does the work seem to accept, question, or reject the traditional view of gender?

Write for 10 minutes individually on your response to the video in relation to #1 and 3 above. In teams, please discuss  #1 and #3.
The scribe should take notes and after the discussion the team should formulate a claim about the work. Remember, whenever you make a claim you need reasons and evidence to back it up.
For example:
The contemporary Pepsi commercial__________________because_______________.
The commercial demonstrates how _______________ by_______________.

Questions to consider?
Are these women depicted as victims?
Are these women conforming to a male dominated society?
How is their sexual identity shaped by culture?
Are these women 21st century feminists?


Are veiled women feminists? If they choose to veil for reasons of self-reverence or refusal to be objectified, then who is the most liberated?

"At the heart of my veiling is a personal freedom…I dress this way because it made it easier to get through adolescent phases and New York City streets with no self-loathing, body hang-ups, or sexual harassment. I wish more women emerged unscathed; no one should suffer for what they look like or what they wear." —Maysan Haydar

 "America is an image-obsessed society," Maysan Haydar writes,"Ironically, the population that spends millions on beauty products, plastic surgery, and self-help guides is the same one that takes pity on me for being so "helpless" and "oppressed."

Miracle Ice Cream
by Adrienne Rich

Miracle's truck comes down the little avenue,
Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls,
and, yes, you can feel happy
with one piece of your heart.

Take what's still given: in a room's rich shadow
a woman's breasts swinging lightly as she bends.
Early now the pearl of dusk dissolves.
Late, you sit weighing the evening news,
fast-food miracles, ghostly revolutions,
the rest of your heart.


 “There is no private life which is not determined by a wider public life” 
                                                               —George Eliot (Rich Diving Into the Wreck 1 )

I highly recommend you listen to the audio link (Click on the title of the poem).
Diving into the Wreck
by Adrienne Rich

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
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
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
will begin.

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
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
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 away 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
in which
our names do not appear.

Click here for more information on Adrienne Rich from Poets.org: 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.

Adrienne Rich dies at home in Santa Cruz 2012 at the age of 82 New York Times Obituary

                                            Adrienne Rich
"Until we know the assumptions we are drenched in, we cannot know ourselves." 
"We...together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in culture, often at a great personal cost and in great pain..." 
From Rich's acceptance speech for the National Book Award (Diving Into The Wreck).

Here are what others have said about "Diving into the Wreck" ...

Ruth Whitman
I believe that "Diving into the Wreck" is one of the great poems of our time. It is a poem of disaster, with a willingness to look into it deeply and steadily, to learn whatever dreadful information it contains, to accept it, to be part of it, not as victim, but as survivor.
From Harvard Magazine (1975)

Margaret Atwood
The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a "half-destroyed instrument." As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest--the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the "I" and the "You," the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful--is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through.

Diving into the Wreck is one of those rare [poems] that forces you to decide not just what you think about it, but what you think about yourself. It is a book that takes risks, and it forces the reader to take them also"
From The New York Times Book Review (1973).

                                     Katherine E. Merk
"...Rich begins a symbolic quest to determine the ways in which “wider public life” shapes her private experiences. The title poem metaphorically evokes this quest, as the speaker dons diving gear to explore the wreck of literary history.  The diver searches through the ruins for the “book of myths / in which / our names do not appear” (Rich Diving 24).  She wishes to expose the patriarchal framework she sees underwriting history, society, and the literary tradition—the “book of myths” which silences female voices and influence....Rich writes that the “true nature of poetry” can be found in this drive to communicate and connect through a common language."

From Katherine E. Merk, The Silent Dialogue, The College of Williams and Mary (2010)

                                The Poetry Archive (UK)

"Her concerns have been questions of language and history, the denial and claiming of power, the action of poetic imagination in change. This can be seen in her own poetic career, as an early period of polite dissent blooms into a powerful voice that strives to unpick the mythologies and mystifications that allow unjust systems of power to continue. This voice is most famously exemplified in 'Diving Into the Wreck', where the speaker, made androgynous in diving gear, goes underwater to hunt "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth", and identifies with those drowned and silenced as much as the diver who finds them and can, must, report back to the world above." —Poetry Archive (Click here for Rich reading her work)
What emotion or significance does the scene itself convey? What does it contribute as a metaphor for personal discovery?
The speaker identifies several objects in the process of "diving into the wreck." What is the literal significance of the objects? What do they convey as metaphors for instruments of a personal journey?
What is the tone of the language in the first four stanzas? How does it change? How do you know?
What happens to the speaker when she or he reaches the wreck? What is the meaning of the androgynous imagery?
While the poem is undoubtedly about a process of discovery, it is also about the myths that shape, or even cause, the wreck. What are these myths? Why does the poet/speaker carry a book of myths? In what ways are words maps? What does the metaphor suggest about the nature of words? What does the metaphor suggest about the potential of poetry? How does this poem ultimately serve a purpose? serve as a map? serve as a myth?

New Historicist Timeline:

1960—Kennedy Elected (narrowly beats Nixon)

1963—Kennedy Assassinated

1963— Martin Luther King leads a march in Washington and Delivers “I Have A Dream” speech.

1964—Gulf of Tonkin (North Vietnamese PT boats alledgedly fire on USS Maddox).

1965— The first American troops arrive in Danang, Vietnam. U.S. Troops reach approximately 200,000.

1965—Continued escalation of troops and war

1968—General Westmoreland requests 206,000 more troops

1968—Martin Luther King, Jr. Assasinated

1968—Robert Kennedy (U.S. Senator) is Assassinated

1968—Richard Nixon is elected president. (Campaign theme: Law and Order)

1969-—Nixon orders bombing of Cambodia/ My Lai Massacre reported in U.S. Newpapers)

Massive Anti-war demonstration in DC

1970— National Guardsmen open fire on college protestors at Kent State (Ohio). Four students are killed.

1970— U.S. Troop deployment falls to 280,000.

1972—Responding to charges by Democratic presidential candidates (election year), Nixon again reduces troops by 70, 000.

1972—Bombing of Hanoi

1972—Watergate Scandal (Nixon Aides Caught Inside Democratic National Committee Headquarters/Illegal Wiretaps Discovered)

1974—Diving Into the Wreck Wins the National Book Award

1974—Nixon Resigns

Click on this link to learn more about writing and thinking about poetry from our friends at The OWL

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