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Adrienne Rich

Necessities of Life

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Renowned American poet Adrienne Rich’s “Necessities of Life” was published in 1966 as a part of a collection of the same name. While this poem is not Rich’s most well-known, it embodies an important moment in her trajectory as an artist and activist. In the poem, she reflects on her art and her life while in the midst of a radical change that would revolutionize her later works. Most scholarly thought positions the speaker of this poem as the poet herself. Originally published as “Thirty-Three,” a reference to Rich's age, the poem is an introspective reflection on her evolution as an artist and woman.

An important figure in second-wave feminism, both in literary and activist terms, Rich was most influential through her choice of subject and theme. This poem, written in the confessional genre, makes typically personal and private experiences into the political and public. In this way, the poem is a form of activism.

Poet Biography

Adrienne Rich was an American poet, feminist essayist, and activist with a career that spanned seven decades.

Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1929. Her father was Jewish and her mother Southern Protestant; Rich and her younger sister were raised Christian. Her father, a renowned pathologist, wanted Rich to be a prodigy and encouraged her to read and write poetry. The drive to fulfill her parents’ ambitions and to achieve greatness informs her poetry throughout her career.

Rich attended Radcliffe College, the all-women's institution affiliated with the then all-male Harvard University. In 1951, during her last year at university, her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by world-famous poet W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, a Harvard University economics professor, and eventually had three sons.

During the 1960s, Rich became involved in the New Left and anti-war, civil right, and feminist activism. Her collection Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, published in 1963, marked a shift towards more personal writing that examined her female identity and the tensions of being a wife and mother. Necessities of Life, published a few year later, reflects Rich's increasing radicalization and a shift away from strict adherence to the rules of poetry. During Rich’s increasing radicalization, her marriage collapsed. Shortly after separation, her former husband died by suicide.

Rich's 1973 work Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award for Poetry. Rather than accept the award by herself, she had fellow nominees and feminist poets Alice Walker and Audre Lorde accept it with her on behalf of all women.

In 1976, Rich began a domestic partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff that lasted the rest of her life. The year she published her most controversial and most well-known collection of essays, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. The work positions lesbianism as a personal and political issue.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, Rich started to write more about her Jewish heritage. She worked with the New Jewish Agenda to found Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends. Her activism also extended to joining many advisory boards to support gender and racial equality around the globe.

In July 1994, Rich won the MacArthur Fellowship and Award, also known as the ‘Genius Grant’, for her poetry and writing. In 1997, Rich famously declined the National Medal of Arts as an act of protest against the House of Representatives’ vote to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and other Clinton Administration policies regarding art and literature. Rich died on March 27, 2012.

Poem Text

Rich, Adrienne. “Necessities of Life.” 1966. Voetica Poetry.

Summary

Rich describes transforming from a constrained to a liberated self through the extensive use of metaphors.

In the first nine stanzas, the speaker looks back on her early life and career. She envisions herself as a thumbtack in a painting to describe being forced to conform as a woman and artist. This experience disorients her. In an effort to meet expectations and mimic perceived greatness, she loses her identity and her sense of self is fractured.

The tenth stanza marks the moment of the speaker’s revelation. Here at nearly the exact midpoint of the poem, she reflects on how she “learned to make myself / unappetizing” (Lines 21-22). In this way, she defends herself from the onslaught of others and is able to refashion herself.

The speaker describes her new liberated and self-actualized self. Switching from metaphors focusing on art and artists to those of the natural and domestic world, she defines herself on her own terms. In the last ten stanzas, the speaker compares herself to a “dry bulb” (Line 22)—the root of a plan that could still flower, but right now is unappealing and thus left alone. Rather than the frantic pace of beginning of the poem, this section unfolds more slowly, her life moving like “an eel” (Line 37) and making her feel so complete that she seems as “solid / as a cabbage-head” (Lines 37-38). She now only aspires to be “middling-perfect” (Line 35) while focusing on “the bare necessities” (Line 33). Her life now matches her ambitions, rather than society’s.

Rich concludes the poem with an image of decidedly feminine domesticity. The speaker has “invitations” (Line 38) that allow her to “inhabit the world” (Line 36), joining a group of “old women knitting, breathless / to tell their tales” (Lines 42-43). Now, she can participate in artistic creation within an all-female community rather than being trapped into trying to replicate the artistic interests of men.

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