Just after Adrienne Rich died, I found her in Strong Words, the Bloodaxe collection of modern poets talking about modern poetry (edited by Herbert & Hollis). At a poetry reading in 1964, Rich talked about her development as a poet. In early days, she said, she had “a much more absolutist approach to the universe”.
I also felt... that a poem was an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it should say. There were occasional surprises… but control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals.
Only gradually… did I begin to feel that these poems, even the ones I liked best and in which I felt I’d said most, were queerly limited, that in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order…
I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express these materials according to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea… Instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.
This sent me back to ‘Diving into the Wreck’, a poem that seems to change, and get better, on each reading. One test of a great poem? It was written in 1972, and this time I read it against the background of Rich’s statement. The whole poem is here. Here are some extracts.
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
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.
I like the poem for the beauty, interest and magic of the description, the rich associations, and the authoritative yet also meditative tone. It’s a political poem, a powerful statement of feminism that transcends male/female differences - and its source of power is the poetry.
There’s a page of interpretations on the University of Illinois’ Modern American Poetry website.