Adrienne Rich: “Diving into the Wreck”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

I suppose you could say that Adrienne Rich’s iconic poem “Diving into the Wreck” is about scuba diving, but that’s like saying Homer’s Odyssey is about a trip.

Sure the narrator is a diver. She – or he – “put[s] on / the body-armor of black rubber / the absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask” and prepares to descend.

But the narrator is not a typical diver. For one thing, the narrator is alone, no one on deck to supervise or assist with the dive. Even the ladder that goes down the side of the schooner would go unnoticed to the unknowing eye. As the narrator says, this is no Jacques Cousteau expedition.

The narrator, however, is intrepid and steps down the ladder, “[r]ung after rung” until the ocean “begin[s].” Leaving behind the familiar world of oxygen, “the blue light / the clear atoms / of our human air,” the narrator goes deep into an unknown world.

In the blue, then green, then black water, the narrator quickly realizes that “the sea is not a question of power,” that she or he will “have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element.”

Soon, the narrator reaches the destination: the wreck. The narrator tells us at the start that she or he has “read the book of myths, / and loaded the camera.” The narrator is ready to “explore the wreck” and uses “the words,” perhaps from the “book of myths,” to find and investigate the wreck.

By the time the narrator has made it to the wreck, the reader has come to understand that this is no ordinary dive, no run-of-the-mill journey. No, this is a plunge into the human psyche, perhaps even into what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

The narrator says, “This is the place”: “I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.” “The thing I came for,” says the narrator, “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.”

What parts of the collective unconscious, the human psyche are accessible to this diver? Can she – or he – move beyond the word maps others have left behind in the book of myths? Will she or he be able to see the wreck, not just the story or record of the wreck that others have left behind? It is the original contact with the actual world that the diver seeks.

By this point, the reader realizes that the diver represents everyone, all who dare to plunge beneath the surface of experience. The narrator speaks in the singular first person (“I”) and the plural first person (“We”), in the feminine third person (“she”), and in the masculine third person (“he”).

Near the end of the poem, the idea of the diver as stand-in for all searchers becomes clear when the narrator says, “We circle silently / about the wreck / we dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he[.]”

The poem concludes:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

What is the wreck? Who is the diver? What is the book of myths? What is the damage that was done, and what are the treasures that prevail? Much ink has been spilled speculating on what Rich “means” in this poem. For a sampling of how various readers, writers, and critics have interpreted this poem, visit the Modern American Poetry website. An especially powerful and personal reflection on the poem is offered by poet Rigoberto Gonzáles; he wrote the essay on the occasion of Rich’s death in 2012.

To my mind, the poem is an invocation and an invitation to exploration. Yes, the diver goes alone, and she or he confronts the wreck on its own terms. But in that final stanza when the narrator says, “We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage / the one who find our way back to this scene,” I believe that Rich is heralding others who have had the courage to dive down five miles or more (as Herman Melville said of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and that she is beckoning other seekers to join the journey into the depths.

When Adrienne Rich published this poem in 1973 in a collection of the same title, women’s voices were suppressed in the literary world. The next year, her book won the National Book Award (along with Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America). Rich, however, refused to accept the award as an individual and instead accepted it with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker in the name of all unknown women writers. Much as Walker called for the recognition of African American women creators in her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Rich was calling for the literary world to make room for more women’s voices. As Rich said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

Learn more about Rich at Modern American Poetry, at the Poetry Foundation, and at the Jewish Women’s Archive. The New York Times obituary – “Adrienne Rich, Influential Feminist Poet, Dies at 82” – is insightful. More resources can be found on the Modern American Poetry website.

If you’re ready to explore this poem in its entirety, you can read it online at If you’re interested in the entire book from which it comes, considered by many to be Rich’s masterpiece, you’ll want to have your own hard copy. A new volume – Collected Poems: 1950-2012 – is due out in June 2016. (Hint: time to preorder!)

Listen:Listen to Adrienne Rich read her most influential poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”



Image Credit: Adrienne Rich in 1980, used by permission from