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"DIVING INTO THE WRECK" ADRI-
ENNE RICH (1973) Adrienne rich's collection Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award in 1974, marking one of the first times that a mainstream American institution recognized the achievement of radical feminist poetry. Its title poem presents, through the extended metaphor of a sea diver, an exploration of what it means to be a woman and, specifically, a woman-poet. The sea symbolizes the mind of the creative woman, and the "wreck" is its all-but-destroyed potential, which the explorer must discover and reclaim.
Around the time that Rich wrote "Diving into the Wreck," she began to identify herself explicitly as a feminist and political poet, looking more and more to her art to reinforce bonds between women and to reveal injustices as the first step toward social change. Like many of Rich's poems, "Diving" focuses more on observation and revelation than on recommending specific political action. Nevertheless the poem implies that the new knowledge the diver discovers will be put to use in altering the cultural "scene" to which she returns at the end of the poem. Because the poet seeks a truth that runs contrary to social norms, the quest on which she embarks is a dangerous one: She wears a protective suit, carries a knife, and momentarily finds herself "blacking out" as she enters the unfamiliar world of the sea. Furthermore her status as a woman puts her in an especially risky position: Unlike men— represented by Jacques "Cousteau with his / assiduous team"—this underwater explorer proceeds on her journey alone.
The diver-poet begins her quest only after "First having read the book of myths." These myths, established by custom and reinforced by language and the verbal arts, proclaim that women are inferior to men. In referring to "myth" and a "book," Rich confirms the power of literature to form self-knowledge and to determine cultural values, and the poem as a whole points to the faith she has in her own literary efforts to correct our mistaken perceptions about ourselves and the flaws in our social systems. The poet claims, "The words are purposes. / The words are maps," suggesting that conscientiously used language can guide us to a place of understanding and living that is superior to the current one. Rich again mentions at the poem's end the book of myths, this time naming it as one "in which / our"—that is, women's—"names do not appear." The world and the stories that inform it have not changed, but the poet returns, confident that she is part of a community of women, armed with a new knowledge about the ideal for them, and determined to make it a reality.
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