Essentials: Adrienne Rich’s “The Dream of a Common Language”

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

W.W. Norton 1978

“…a whole new poetry beginning here.”

Rereading Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language is like listening to a favorite album from my youth: I’m tempted to sing along. In my teens I probably recited these poems aloud in my sister’s off-campus apartment as frequently as we played Ella in Hollywood on the turntable.

Six more volumes of classic and enduring American lyric poetry, including a Selected Poems, followed Adrienne Rich’s 1951 debut A Change of World. But the publication of Diving Into the Wreck in 1973 changed everything, signaling a new urgency, awareness, and fearlessness in her poetic voice. Rich followed this National Book Award-winning tour de force with a compilation of selected and new poems in 1974 and with her first nonfiction book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Not until 1978 did we get a new, completely original volume of verse with The Dream of a Common Language, and the wait did not disappoint. This book is the logical but unpredictable deepening of the exploration begun with Diving Into the Wreck. As Olga Broumas noted in Chrysalis at the time, Rich paradoxically enfolds the personal (“dream”) into the public (“common language”). Dream shattered the conventional dialectic approach in poetry, documenting the search for a lexicon of true connection between women even while creating one.

Rich’s work in the seventies was an antidote for the disillusionment of the Watergate generation. The Dream of a Common Language was poetry for community, poetry meant for use, poetry meant to be marked up in the margins, poetry meant to be read over the phone. After this generation’s witnessing of the prostitution of language in media and politics, readers hungered for a sense that language itself was real and that expression could be trusted. How fortunate that Rich’s poetic talent answered this call. Like the enduringly innovative recordings of Nina Simone referenced in this book’s Twenty-one Love Poems, The Dream of a Common Language is both a benchmark of its era as well as the precursor of many poetic approaches to follow—including the more politically varied content of Rich’s own work as well as the fragmentary, polytonal, and caesura-filled work of many contemporary poets publishing in journals today.

–James Cihlar

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James Cihlar is the author of the poetry book Undoing (Little Pear Press, 2008) and chapbook Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press, 2010). His new volume of poetry, Rancho Nostalgia, is forthcoming in 2013 from Dream Horse Press. His poems, interviews, essays, and stories have been published in American Poetry Review, The Awl, Coldfront, Court Green, Smartish Pace, Mary, Lambda Literary Review, Verse Daily, and Forklift, Ohio. His work appears in the anthologies American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice (New Village, 2011), Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Writers on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry, 2011), and Divining Divas (Lethe, 2012). The recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Poetry and a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, Cihlar is a Lecturer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a Visiting Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul.