'Our Whole Life' by Adrienne Rich

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1969Our whole life a translationthe permissible fibsand now a knot of lieseating at itself to get undoneWords bitten thru words~~meanings burnt-off like paintunder the blowtorchAll those dead lettersrendered into the oppressor's languageTrying to tell the doctor where it hurtslike the Algerianwho waled form his village, burninghis whole body a could of painand there are no words for thisexcept himself

Editor 1 Interpretation

Our Whole Life by Adrienne Rich: A Deeper Dive

Adrienne Rich is widely considered as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, and her collection of poems, “Our Whole Life,” is a testament to her unique and powerful voice in the literary world. With this collection, Rich explores the intricacies of human emotions, relationships, and political activism.

In this literary criticism and interpretation, we’ll take a closer look at “Our Whole Life,” analyzing its themes, motifs, and literary devices. Through this deeper dive, we hope to gain a better understanding of Rich’s work and the significance it holds in today’s world.

The Themes of “Our Whole Life”

“Our Whole Life” is a collection of poems that explores a range of themes, including feminism, politics, love, and death. Rich’s poems often center around her personal experiences, but they also speak to broader societal issues, making her work relevant to readers of all backgrounds and experiences.

One of the most prominent themes in “Our Whole Life” is feminism. Rich was a vocal feminist and her poems reflect this perspective. In “Planetarium,” for example, Rich uses the metaphor of a planetarium to explore the lack of representation of women in history:

A woman in the shape of a monster the women who do not fit inside the world go wandering in the shape of a woman

This poem speaks to the erasure of women’s history and the struggles that women face in patriarchal societies. It’s a powerful indictment of the ways in which women are marginalized and silenced, and a call to action for women to claim their own identities and stories.

Another theme in “Our Whole Life” is politics. Rich was a vocal activist, and her poems often address political issues of the day. In “North American Time,” Rich reflects on the political landscape of the 1980s, a time marked by Cold War tensions and the Reagan administration:

I am in danger here and this is my country the boundaries do not close, the fragile geography of the soul does not care

Rich’s poem speaks to the idea that politics is personal, and that the actions of those in power can have a profound impact on individuals. It’s a reminder that we all have a responsibility to engage with and challenge the political systems that shape our world.

Love and death are also major themes in “Our Whole Life.” Rich’s poems explore the complexities of human relationships, including the pain of loss and the joy of connection. In “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” Rich reflects on the death of a close friend:

The one who loved you who wanted to live was worn away by years, the bad dream, the broken heart, that deep down abrasion in the heart

This poem speaks to the universality of grief and the ways in which we are all touched by loss. It’s a powerful reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing the connections we have while we can.

The Literary Devices of “Our Whole Life”

Rich’s use of literary devices in “Our Whole Life” is masterful, and adds to the richness and complexity of her poetry. One of the most prominent devices in her work is metaphor. Rich uses metaphor to explore complex ideas and emotions, often drawing on the natural world for inspiration. In “Diving into the Wreck,” she uses the metaphor of a diving expedition to explore the process of self-discovery:

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.

This metaphor speaks to the idea that the journey of self-discovery can be both painful and illuminating, and that it requires courage and perseverance.

Another literary device that Rich employs in “Our Whole Life” is repetition. Rich uses repetition to create a sense of rhythm and momentum in her poems. In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” she repeats the phrase “terrified hands” to emphasize the fear and constraint that Aunt Jennifer feels in her life:

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen, Bright topaz denizens of a world of green. They do not fear the men beneath the tree; They pace in sleek chivalric certainty. Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needle hard to pull. The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand. When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.

This repetition creates a sense of tension and urgency in the poem, and underscores the theme of constraint that runs throughout Rich’s work.


“Our Whole Life” is a powerful collection of poems that speaks to the complexities of the human experience. Through her exploration of themes like feminism, politics, love, and death, Rich offers a nuanced and empathetic view of the world around us. Her use of literary devices like metaphor and repetition adds to the richness and complexity of her poetry, making it a joy to read and contemplate.

As we reflect on Rich’s work today, it’s clear that her voice and perspective are more relevant than ever. Her poems speak to the struggles and challenges that we face in our own lives and in the world around us, offering comfort, hope, and inspiration in equal measure. In “Our Whole Life,” Rich has left us a legacy of wisdom and insight that will continue to resonate for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Our Whole Life: An Analysis of Adrienne Rich's Masterpiece

Adrienne Rich, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, once said, "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence." This statement perfectly encapsulates the essence of her poem, "Poetry Our Whole Life." In this masterpiece, Rich explores the significance of poetry in our lives and how it shapes our understanding of the world around us. Through her powerful words, she urges us to embrace poetry as an essential part of our existence.

The poem begins with the lines, "The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives." Here, Rich establishes the importance of perception and how it influences our actions. The "quality of light" refers to the lens through which we view our lives, and this lens is shaped by poetry. Rich argues that poetry is not just a form of entertainment or a means of self-expression, but it is a tool that helps us understand the world and ourselves better.

Rich goes on to say, "At its deepest and most powerful, poetry speaks our common humanity." Here, she highlights the universality of poetry and how it connects us as human beings. Poetry has the power to transcend boundaries of race, gender, and culture, and it can bring people together in a way that nothing else can. Rich believes that poetry is a language that we all speak, and it is through this language that we can understand each other better.

The poem then takes a more personal turn as Rich reflects on her own experiences with poetry. She says, "I am thinking of the poet who told me her work was like taking a corkscrew to her own flesh; of the poet who told me he had been taught not to cry, who cried before my eyes." Here, Rich acknowledges the emotional depth of poetry and how it can be a cathartic experience for both the writer and the reader. Poetry has the power to evoke strong emotions and to help us process our feelings in a way that is both healing and transformative.

Rich then goes on to say, "I am thinking of the poet who measured his maturity against his son's, marking each inch with a verse." Here, she highlights the role of poetry in our personal growth and development. Poetry can be a tool for self-reflection and self-discovery, and it can help us measure our progress in life. Through poetry, we can document our experiences and reflect on our journey, and this can help us gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.

The poem then takes a more political turn as Rich reflects on the role of poetry in social change. She says, "I am thinking of the poet who told me her work was a weapon, and I believed her; of the poet who told me his work was a shield, and I believed him." Here, Rich acknowledges the power of poetry to effect change in the world. Poetry can be a tool for activism and social justice, and it can help us challenge the status quo and bring about meaningful change.

Rich then concludes the poem with the lines, "For poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives." Here, she sums up the essence of her message: poetry is a vital part of our existence, and it helps us make sense of the world around us. Through poetry, we can give voice to the voiceless, and we can express our deepest hopes and fears. Poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity, and it is through poetry that we can truly understand ourselves and each other.

In conclusion, "Poetry Our Whole Life" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the significance of poetry in our lives. Through her words, Adrienne Rich urges us to embrace poetry as an essential part of our existence and to recognize its power to transform us and the world around us. This poem is a testament to the enduring legacy of Rich's work and a reminder of the importance of poetry in our lives.

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