Guide to Leaving Cert English 2012, Poetry

A Personal Response to the Poetry of Adrienne Rich – Jamie Tuohy

A Personal Response to the Poetry of ADRIENNE RICH – Jamie Tuohy


  • I wrote this essay in 30 minutes from memory, so naturally, it’s not going to be as succinct as all your answers will be, but it should give you an idea about structure, and hopefully will be helpful content wise.
  • In college, I’ve become used to writing academic essays, where we are told NEVER to include the first person pronoun as it takes away from the tone of your essay. In LEAVING CERT– ALWAYS USE THE FIRST PERSON PRONOUN. Especially in your PERSONAL RESPONSE.
  • The poetry question is as much about showing the examiner how you interpreted the poem and reacted to it, as it is about displaying your knowledge of the piece itself.
  • Give your opinions – go beyond the normal P.Q.E. – show the examiner that you’re thinking about what you’re writing and they’ll automatically be impressed with your literary consciousness!
  • However, this doesn’t mean you have to be a wordsmith and use lofty and highfaluting words – it is better to say it simply. I cringe when I look back on some of my Leaving Cert essays – they were so unnecessarily wordy. It just adds pomp to your writing – save your language experimentation for the composing question in Paper 1!
  • I say that this is an essay, but due to time constraints (study and all that), I haven’t really had time to make this essay as cohesive and fluid as it should be. As always, you SHOULDN’T  just learn this essay off by heart, but if you are taking some pieces from it, remember the importance of linking sentences from paragraph to paragraph (which is something that could improve this essay).
  • Always write about literature in the present tense.



“These are thing that we have learned to do who live in troubled regions”.

These are words written by Adrienne Rich in “Storm Warnings” which encapsulate the essence of her poetry. Rich’s poetry appeals to me because her poems explore concepts of both power and subjugation. Whether she is detailing the oppression of Aunt Jennifer, the destructive aspect of “Power” or commenting on the relationship between man and woman (“Living in Sin”), her ability to create a simplicity of image ensures her poems are both accessible and memorable. Rich writes from an obvious Feminist perspective, but I, as a male can still appreciate the sentiment of her work. Poems like “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room” and “From a Survivor” elicit a variety of emotions in me, ranging from anger to hope and this is what lends credibility to her pieces. Her poems are honest, human and real. On one hand, they’re deeply personal, but on the other, they are commentaries and reflections on society and this juxtaposition of the personal and the public is what makes Adrienne Rich such a fantastic and appealing writer.

In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Rich writes about the oppression felt by a woman constrained by marriage. It is a powerful poem, albeit a bleak view of married life which left me feeling an immense sense of sympathy for Aunt Jennifer. She longs to be like the tigers that “prance across the screen” with “chivalric certainty”, however she can’t and is trapped because she “fears the men beneath the trees”. In my opinion, the tigers represent an aspiration for Aunt Jennifer – these powerful and fearless creatures are the antithesis to Jennifer who is suppressed and obedient. By sewing the shapes of the tigers, she escapes from her trouble, but this escapism is only in her imagination as “the massive weight of uncle’s wedding band sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand”. Jennifer can never be as carefree as the tigers and her wedding band is a poignant reminder of her unhappy marriage which is characterised by a lack of freedom and power.

Rich frequently uses tone to set the backdrop of her poem and I think that is displayed to perfection in “The Uncle Speaks in the Drawing Room”. Immediately, his tone of condescension is perceptible, as the uncle speaks of the threat a “sullen mob” poses to society. However, his primary concern lies solely with himself as he is only worried about what a rebellion from such people would do to his position. He says “lead in times like these to fear for crystal vase and chandelier”. These are metonyms of the upper-class which is an echelon of society to which the uncle is a part of. The poem made an impact on me because even though Rich is writing from the uncle’s point of view, there is an underlying sardonic tone to everything he says. Rich is ridiculing his pretension and is expressing her concerns for society through the uncle’s selfish snobbery. I get the impression that she is also making a social commentary on the imbalance of power and the injustice in the distinction of classes. The uncle tries to distance himself from the “follies” of a lower class, which highlights his arrogant demeanour.

I feel that “Living in Sin” is relatable to all relationships. It speaks to the idea that men and women fall into roles when they become comfortable with each other. This poem is a departure from the pedantic form of the preceding two poems, as Rich was developing her own style as writer, rather than following the strict form instructed to her by her father. In this poem, the couple Rich write of are not married, but the imbalance of power and inequality between men and women is unquestionably present. “Living in Sin” is closer to conversational speech rhythms and in it; Rich adopts a stream of consciousness. Like much of her poetry, this poem garnered a great deal of sympathy in me for Rich’s female subject, as she is condemned to the relentless rigour of household duty, while her partner “shrugs” and “scratches his beard”. The woman’s partner is apathetic towards her and his laissez-faire and chauvinistic attitude presents the reader with a grim and uninspiring view of domestic life.

When I first read “From a Survivor”, I was shocked at what I initially thought was an apathetic tone from Rich. I felt uncomfortable reading this because it seemed as if Rich was gloating on her husband who she says is “wastefully dead”. However, after a second reading, the sentiment of this poem expresses something quite different. Rather than a bitter message to her dead husband, “From a Survivor” becomes a touching tribute to him, in which she expresses the necessity for positivity in the midst of turmoil. She uses beautiful, painterly language to create vivid images of regret, but also scenes of hope. Rich says “I live not as a leap, but a succession of brief movements, each one making possible the next”. This is a fantastic line and I feel it is the epitome of hope. Rich will continue to live her life as happily as she can, not out of a lack of compassion, but because it’s the only thing she can do to survive.

“Power” is my favourite poem by Adrienne Rich. Once again, she details the necessity for equality between men and women. She uses the famous scientist Marie Curie as her subject. Curie died from the “element she purified” – a tragic example of the destructive aspect of power itself. I think that Curie “denied her wounds” because admitting them was a sign of weakness. I believe Rich is saying that women feel inferior to men and feel like they have something to prove to them. It is particularly poignant in this case because Curie saw suffering as a necessary self-sacrifice for science. It is a curious twist of logic that Curie died from the very thing that brought her fame.

“Storm Warnings” is a chillingly accurate poem that deals with the inevitable passing of time – a theme which is both universal and relatable. It is enriched with appealing lines that also showcase the inevitability of death. She says “time in the hand is not control of time”. I find this line effective because it highlights the fact that we are mastered by nature and regardless of the age we are, we are powerless and essentially controlled by time. There is an undercurrent of fear in Rich’s voice when this line is spoken, as if this realisation only becomes concrete of evident to her when she writes this line. All she can do is “draw the curtains as the sky goes black and set a match to candles sheltered in glass”. The potential threat of the storm is juxtaposed with the frailty of glass. She is hiding from her problems because that is all she can do – the glass will eventually shatter. This is a poem which is full of relevance – ageing, death and fear are things we all have to experience in our lives, whether we like it or not.

Adrienne Rich is one of the most prolific poets in the English language and her mastery of her craft is evident through her poems, which are honest, accurate and at times haunting and chilling. Whether she is commenting on her own inability to control time or even on the imbalance of power in society, her lyrical and imaginative descriptions make her poems enticing, powerful and highly thought provoking. Her ability to allow me to become engrossed by the words in front of me and be transported into the world of the poem, in my opinion makes Adrienne Rich one of the greatest poems in English literature.


Jamie Tuohy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s