‘Diving into the Wreck’ is one of Adrienne Rich’s most famous and commonly read poems. It was published in 1973 in a collection bearing the same name. The extended metaphor at the heart of this poem defines most of Rich’s oeuvre. She uses the image of a woman preparing for a deep-sea dive and the exploration of a shipwreck to speak on the fight for women’s liberation. But, at the same time, there are so many images within the lines of ‘Diving into the Wreck,’ readers will likely stumble upon alternative or additional interpretations. Poems do not need to be confined to one reading or one true “meaning”.
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Summary of Diving into the Wreck
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker, who addresses her life through the first-person perspective, describes preparing for a dive. She read the book that informed her about the history of the wreck, put on all her equipment, which included her camera and knife. She was alone there, investigating the ocean. She climbs down the ladder into the water and she compares herself to a bug. The speaker again emphasizes the fact that there’s no one there to help her, to let her know she’s touched the water, or to speak a word of encouragement.
As she descends, the air changes and she worries about the oxygen in her mask. She uses a metaphor to compare the sea to a story, one that investigating its complexities is something that one does not need strength to complete. She explains how she came to this place to see the wreck first hand. The myths and stories about it are no longer enough to satisfy her. She is “mermaid and “merman” while under the water, she says. Both figures move around the ship and dive inside. She makes several more statements about herself and concludes with another reference to the “book of myths… in which / our names do not appear”.
You can read the full poem Diving into the Wreck here.
Themes in Diving into the Wreck
‘Diving into the Wreck’ is filled with important themes that are crucial to the poem’s overall meaning. These include women’s rights and the oppression of women, as well as exploration/discovery. The latter two are more obvious, perhaps than the former two. But, with detailed reading, and an understanding of Rich’s other work, her allusions to the fight for women’s right is quite clear within the text.
This poem can, and really should be read as an extended metaphor about the way that women have been treated throughout history. Their lives and accomplishments have been ignored and in some cases erased. The book of myths that Rich refers to several times in the poem is a symbol of old-fashioned beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. The stories in the book have shaped women’s history and pushed their accomplishments out of common knowledge. The book and what it contains has denied many women the chance to pursue the things that would’ve made them the happiest. Since the speaker knows that the book can’t be and shouldn’t be trusted, she’s diving into the ocean herself. She’s seeking out the unknown parts of women’s history. When the diver, in her solitude, gets to the wreck, she discovers that there is damage, but it’s still beautiful. There is a whole world of women’s history, along with queer history, that’s waiting to be discovered. The concluding images of the male and female merged together suggest the latter.
Structure and Form of Diving into the Wreck
‘Diving into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich is a ten stanza poem that is separated into stanzas of varying lengths. They range from around seven lines to around twelve. Rich wrote this poem in free verse, meaning that it does not make use of a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means that the poet was not constrained to the rules of meter and the lines flow freely, and sometimes unpredictably. But, despite there, there are a few moments of half-rhyme in the piece. For example, “this” and “his” in stanza one. Additionally, Rich sometimes repeats words at the end of multiple lines. This can help create a feeling of rhyme. For example, “power” and “power” in stanza four.
Literary Devices in Diving into the Wreck
Rich makes use of several literary devices in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. These include but are not limited to examples of similes, enjambment, caesurae, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, is a formal technique concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “some sundry” at the end of stanza two and “black” and “blacking” in stanza four.
There are also examples of caesurae, another formal technique, in the lines of ‘Diving into the Wreck’. For example, lines two and three of stanza eight. They read: “And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body”. Enjambment is another important literary device. There are numerous examples of this technique throughout the poem. For instance, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as one, two, and three of the tenth stanza.
Lastly, readers should be on the lookout for similes in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. There is one good example in stanza three. It reads: “I crawl like an insect down the ladder”.
Analysis of Diving into the Wreck
First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by describing how she prepared to dive down into the wreck. She packed everything that she needed, after reading the “book of myths”. The book is one of the most important symbols in the poem. It is used to represent historical knowledge about women’s rights and society’s rules about how women are meant to behave. The book is filled with “myths” because these are, or should be, things of the past. Things that should not define anyone.
After stating this, she goes into detail about everything that she’s bringing down with her into the ocean. She has a knife, a camera, her black rubber flippers, and an “awkward mask”. Each of these items adds to the overall atmosphere of the moment. She has made sure that there is nothing she’s forgetting. This might be her one chance to see the “wreck” with her own eyes.
About halfway through the stanza, Rich alludes to Jacques Cousteau, the famed French scientist who invented to aqualung and traveled the oceans making films and exploring what no one had before. She tells the reader that she is not like Cousteau. She doesn’t have his support. There’s no one there encouraging her or helping her. As a woman, doing something that women aren’t traditionally supposed to do, she is on her own. This is not the only time that Rich’s speaker emphasizes her solitude.
There is a ladder.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.
The second stanza begins with a short line “There is a ladder”. It’s easy to imagine the speaker standing at the rails of her schooner, looking down at the water preparing to descend. Perhaps she’s slightly apprehensive as she takes the time to consider the ladder and who uses it. It hangs “innocently” on the side of the boat. Everyone knows what its for and who has used it. If “we” didn’t know, then it would just appear like “maritime floss / some sundry equipment”.
I go down.
Rung after rung and still
The third stanza begins similarly to the second. She goes down the ladder. She decides, in an instant, that she’s ready. The poet uses repetition to emphasize how long it feels to the speaker as she descends. She has trouble with her flippers on the rungs and compares herself to an insect as she climbs. There is no one there, she reminds the reader, to help her. No one to say “you’re almost there” or that the “ocean” is about to “begin”. This is an undertaking that she is committed to without assistance.
First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
in the deep element.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Diving into the Wreck,’ she’s in the water. The “air,” around her, meaning the water, is “blue” and then it starts to change colors. It becomes “green” and then “black”. She thinks at first this means that she’s blacking out but its only the transition into this new world, one where she’s going to see firsthand women’s history in all its tragedy and beauty. No matter what she experiences, her oxygen continues to pump. Readers should take note of the fact that there is only one example of punctuation in this entire stanza. This creates the feeling of a stream of consciousness style narrative in these lines as the diver takes note of the experience.
The speaker also emphasizes the difficulty of this journey. It’s not one that requires strength, but it does require adapting to a new world.
And now: it is easy to forget
you breathe differently down here.
The fifth stanza is one of the shorter stanzas in this poem. It begins with an example of a caesura and goes on to describe how easy it is for the speaker to “forget / what [she] came for”. She feels more comfortable and confident now. She’s becoming one with the world around her and starting to understand those who have “always / lived here”. There is a good example of alliteration in these lines with “between,” “beside,” and “breathe”. The imagery in these lines is beautiful, she’s simply but effectively describing what it’s like to be there in this alien world.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
She reminds herself in the sixth and seventh stanzas what she’s there for. She “came to explore the wreck”. She’s looking to uncover the truth of women’s history and the “damage that was done” to the metaphorical ship. There are “treasures,” she knows, that will “prevail” despite the tragedy. It’s at the end of this stanza that she arrives at the place she was looking for, the shipwreck. She uses words like “stroke” and “flank” to describe her movements around the ship. The speaker is moving gently as if this ship is a living thing that she needs to be gentle with.
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
among the tentative haunters.
There is a good example of enjambment between the end of the sixth stanza and the beginning of the seventh. The “thing” that the speaker came for is the “thing itself,” not the myth. She’s looking for what’s real, what’s tangible, not the story that men wrote about the “thing”.
Similar to the previous stanza, the speaker notes the “face” of the thing looking towards the sun. There is evidence of damage to the ship, as one would expect. The flanks show off the “ribs of disaster”. They curve in their “assertion” of their own life. But, there is still beauty there. The wreck is not a disaster. She can explore and seek out evidence of a history unwritten.
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
I am she: I am he
The eighth stanza is one of the more beautiful in ‘Diving into the Wreck’. In it, the speaker describes herself as a man and woman, she’s a “merman” and a “mermaid”. Together, as male and female, “We cycle silently”. With this stanza, the poet also alludes to her interest in uncovering queer history, another entire world that’s been erased. She is also pushing at the boundaries of what gender is and is not. In the last line of this stanza, this is quite evident with the phrase “I am she: I am he”.
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
The line picks up in the ninth stanza, “she” and “he” is the one whose “drowned face sleeps with open eyes,” still awake, still alive, and able to convey life. The speaker is becoming one with the dead men and women on the ship. It’s a depressing, but also a beautiful scene. Inside the ship, the objects are in disarray. Some are destroyed, much has been left to rot. It doesn’t suggest that there is too much hope to be found there.
We are, I am, you are
our names do not appear.
In the final stanza of ‘Diving into the Wreck,’ the speaker moves away from the metaphorical ship and broadly describes the scene. She uses second and third-person pronouns to address everyone, “you” and “we”. Everyone is “the one” who finds their way “back to this scene” carrying the camera and boo of myths. While elements of the experience have been depressing, they have also been enlightening. It was the journey she was looking for.
The last lines emphasize the nature of the “book of myths”. In it, “our names do not appear”. This line strongly suggests that those she’s speaking directly to are those whose lives have been written out of history. The women and queer men and women, whose accomplishments and personal histories are lost.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Diving into the Wreck’ should also consider reading some of Rich’s other popular poems. These include ‘Power, ‘Living in Sin,’ and ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’. The first of this shortlist is likely her best known. In it, Rich writes a eulogy to the scientist Marie Curie while encouraging the reader to better understand her and her accomplishments. Additionally, readers might be interested in the work of Carol Ann Duffy. For example, her poems ‘Mrs. Midas’ and ‘Havisham’ from her collection The World’s Wife.