Adrienne Rich’s early poems have long been criticized for their apparent stylistic conservatism. Reconsidering Rich’s first two volumes, this essay aims to offer a new understanding of their place in her poetic development as a whole. Far from traditional forms functioning for her as mere inhibitions, stylistic constraints provided Rich with patterns she could play with and against. In turn, formal rules allowed her to think critically about different social and political limits. This article hopes to encourage a more nuanced appreciation of Rich’s formalist period, highlight its continuities with her later work, and complicate the terms though which understandings of her first poems have been oversimplified—deemed narrowly “conservative” as opposed to “radical.”

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