Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Adrienne Rich

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich is a multilayered poem. The poet imbued it with many complex sexual and political innuendoes about power.


Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is one of the best-known poets of her generation. Her work is studied in universities around the world.

Notable works include 'Powerand 'Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.' 

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Readers have to be very cautious while interpreting ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ since there are certain words in the poem referring to different meanings. Those meanings make this poem more objective and interesting. The romantic plot at the beginning of the poem suddenly changes and moves into a totally new direction. The political and sexual innuendos hidden strategically in between the lines deserve more attention from the readers. Otherwise, the poem remains just a piece of incoherent versification by the maestro of the modern age.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich



’Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich is a symbolic poem about the nature of power.

In ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich the first few lines set up the plot of the poem. The poetic persona had seen a person, referred to as “you” in the poem. This “you” can be a man or woman who was walking barefoot at night. The speaker does not provide enough information about the place. She focuses solely on the person. Thereafter the poetess saw that the person halted suddenly and started to gaze at the new moon. Till now the plot is set in a way that the mood becomes romantic and something mysterious clouds our mind.

That unnamed person has returned from his/her night’s stroll and is trying to sleep. But something is disturbing the person. He/she wants to sleep but the mind is restless. The romantic set of images ends here. Now the poetess quickly shifts to something more concrete and mechanical. This section of the poem can seem absurd to the readers as Rich tells the readers about the role of verb, adverb, and noun in a sentence. But the words become meaningful to the readers when they look at the symbolic meaning behind them.

At last, Adrienne leaves the poem for the readers. She allows the readers to “diagram” the meaning of the poem in their own way.

You can read the full poem here.



Adrienne Rich herself provided the meaning of ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ in the poetry collection by the same name. She specifically focuses on the usage of the verb “to serve” in the epigraph section. Rich quotes the definitions of the word provided in Webster’s Dictionary. Literally the word “serve” has a wide range of meanings. Each meaning makes the title more diverse in reference to the subject matter of the poem.

The poetess might have meant by the title that if anywhere in the world an individual is deprived of his or her basic human rights, poetry and other art forms cannot mend such an irreparable wound. Poetry cannot soothe the mental agony of the poor girl who is molested. Poetic words cannot give inspiration to a man who is serving a sentence for the crime he has not committed. In this manner, if we link the meanings of “serve” with the title, we can visualize different images with the help of the poem.


Form and Structure

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich is a free-verse lyric. The poem is 19 lines long having uneven line lengths. Being a poem of modern literature it doesn’t have a specific rhyme scheme. The stanza division of the poem is also very unconventional. Some stanzas in the poem are extremely short, having only one line. Those short stanzas mark the major shift in the poem.

After a thorough scansion of the poem, it becomes clear to the readers that the poem is composed mostly of trochaic feet. There are spondee and pyrrhic variations appearing frequently in the poem. As an instance readers can take the third line into consideration. The first two syllables, “at the” make a pyrrhic foot and the following two syllables, “new moon’s” make a spondee. The mentioned feet occur side by side in most of the lines. There is another variation in the third stanza of the poem. The stanza is important as it contains the main idea of the poem. It may be the reason for the change of metrical composition in this specific stanza. It is composed of iambic feet.


Literary Devices

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich doesn’t display a wide range of literary devices. There are certain figures which are important in regard to the analysis of the poem. These devices, placed in significant places of the poem, make the verse more interesting and thought-provoking. Let us have a look at the literary devices used in Rich’s poem.


Lines 1–8

In the second line “long look” is an alliteration. The “l” sound repeats at the beginning of the words. In the third line, Adrienne Rich personifies the new moon. The poetess imagines that the new moon is looking like a lady’s face. The dark spots on the moon appear to be the eyelids of the lady. In the next stanza, there is an alliteration in the words “spread” and  “sleep-fallen”.

Readers can find a personal metaphor in the phrase “unslept unsleeping”. Here the abstract idea “unsleeping” appears to be a living being. Actually the poetess is referring to a person who cannot sleep somewhere in the world. Readers can sense the essence of romanticism in the usage of this word. Apart from that, the words begin with the same vowel sound. For this reason, it is an example of assonance.


Lines 9–12

In this section, the first few lines present a personification to the readers. Here Rich personifies “poetry” by investing it with the idea of serving somebody. There is another literary device present in these lines. It is an irony

Readers come across the most important line in this section. The line, “Syntax of Rendition”, is the turning point of the poem. From this point, the poem takes new colors and opens new alleys for the readers. The word, “syntax” is an instance of metonymy and the variety employed here is, “symbol for the thing symbolized”. The word “syntax” acts as a symbol of the constituent rules and regulations of a particular organization or system. “Rendition” is another symbol. It symbolizes the political detention system at the same time it refers to the pictorial representation of the words in the poem.


Lines 13–14

In the next two lines, “verb” and “adverb” are personified. Readers can treat these words as metaphors too. The word “verb” is compared to a pilot of an airplane. There is another implied comparison too. This word also represents the government or the head of the power pyramid. The mentioned interpretation becomes logical if readers refer to the historical context of the poem. By keeping this aside, if we look back to the first section of the poem and return to this section, we can find sexual insinuation hidden between the lines. Adrienne metaphorically represents the domination of male power by using the word “verb” in this section. 

In the next line, “adverb” represents the machinery of government or the middle part of the power pyramid. Power pyramid is nothing but the graphical representation of the structure of government. Keeping the subject matter of the poem in mind, readers can say that these two lines are also perfect examples of innuendos. 


Lines 15–19

In this section readers may encounter personification again in the lines, “verb force-feeds noun/ submerges the subject/ noun is choking/ verb disgraced goes on doing”. The parts of speech namely verb and noun are personified. There is no doubt with the words being metaphors. Here the poetess compares “verb” to a human being who is trying to feed “noun”. In this way, Rich personifies “noun”. As in a sentence, the noun doesn’t play a significant role in comparison to a verb, the person presented here in the guise of “noun” plays a subjugated part. In this line, the dominance of “verb” displays the authority of those in power on their subjects or “nouns”. Readers can find consonance in the phrase “force-feeds”.

In the last line, the word “sentence” is again a metaphor of the whole process mentioned by the poetess in the previous lines. “Sentence” can also be a symbolic reference to judicial punishment.


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–3

Saw you walking barefoot


at the new moon’s eyelid

In the first three lines of ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ Adrienne Rich paints a romantic picture of an unknown person. The solitary figure at the beginning of the poem was walking alone in one moonlit night. The poetess saw him/her silently gazing at the “new moon’s eyelid”. The imagery in the first stanza of the poem primarily seems romantic to the readers.

After a thorough analysis of the text, the essence of romanticism fades away. There is a sense of mysticism at the same time pessimism at the heart of that unnamed person. He/she looked at the moon for a long time but his/her heart had not leaped up with joy. It was rather silent. Such gazing at the moon evokes a state of hopelessness. The spontaneity of natural emotions is missing from the eyes of the person. For this reason, Rich abruptly leaves the depiction of the image in the middle and gives the paintbrush to the readers.


Lines 4–8

later spread



The next stanza of the poem shows indoor imagery to the readers. In the previous section, the person was outside walking barefoot and seeing the nocturnal moon. Now he/she had come inside to sleep. The poetess says that the person was “asleep but not oblivious”. He/she was rather in a state of mental agitation. Something was disturbing and could allow him/her to sleep. The poetic persona provides a reason for such a mental condition of the person. Rich tries to say that someone related to the person could not sleep “elsewhere”.

It can also be a reference to the “mind” of the person. He/she was trying to sleep but something deep inside the mind was interrupting him/her constantly. The “unslept unsleeping” can also be a reference to the state of mind of another person. Rich is trying to say that there can be a person whose state of affairs is worse than the person in the poem. The romantic night might give a soothing sensation to a person whose mind is unaffected by the troubles of life. But somewhere in this huge world, there can be a person for whom every day seems like a curse. For that person, this romantic night is nothing but a passing dream. The beauty of the night only intensifies the pain and heightens the agony.


Lines 9–14

Tonight I think


adverb modifies action

This section of the poem, ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich contains the essence of the poem. This section casts light on the subject matter of the poem and illuminates our interpretation. At first Rich remarks, “Tonight I think/ no poetry/ will serve”. Let’s focus on the importance of this line. The poetess makes her stand clear by this line that it is solely her personal thinking. She doesn’t know about others but as an artist she believes, if anywhere in the world a person is deprived of his/her “right to life”, poetry or similar artistic representations cannot pacify his/her mental affliction.

In the next line, Adrienne presents the syntax or the arrangement of wordplay in congruence with the definitions of “rendition”. This line can be a reference to the association of images that Rich is going to use in the upcoming lines. It can also be a hint to the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency, USA) “Extraordinary Rendition and Secret Detention“. No matter what, if we stick to the scheme of the poem, we can unravel other meanings too.

In the next two lines, Rich portrays two aspects of “power” by personifying the words “verb” and “adverb”. “Verb” symbolizes power and authority. On the other hand, “adverb” is the physical counterpart of authority. If we adhere to the theory of feminism, we can get a better conception of the significance of the words used in the poem. The poetess impregnates the idea of male dominance into the word “verb”. “Adverb” portrays its physical manifestation.


Lines 15–19

verb force-feeds noun


now diagram the sentence

In the last section of the poem, Adrienne Rich goes on to sketch the nature of power. Here the poetess tries to say that those who are in authority know well how to show their dominance over their “nouns” or “subjects”. They forcefully make them obey their orders. In the process, a powerless commoner feels submerged or choked for the deprivation of individual liberty. According to Rich, the powerful men do not stop here. They feel disgraced by seeing the weak trembling and crumbling under their orders. They think that continuing what they are doing with their subjects, will make them as well others more obedient to their regulations.

At last Adrienne Rich concludes the poem by inviting the readers to visualize the images provided in her text. She uses the word “sentence” in a rhetorical manner. It sounds a little technical at first but the imagination behind the word makes Rich’s poetic intention clear to the readers.


Historical Context

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich was originally written in 2007 and first published on 17th January 2011. The poetry collection in which the poem was published has the same name.

The historical context of the poem helps us to get another interpretation of the poem. According to The Paris Review’s article on her poetry collection, the word “rendition” in the poem is actually a reference to the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition and Secret Detention. Extraordinary rendition is the US government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another with the purpose of circumventing the former country’s laws on interrogation, detention, and torture. After the attacks against the United States of September 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency built this secret extraordinary rendition to safeguard the sovereignty of the nation.

That’s why the line, “Syntax of rendition” in the poem is an implied reference to that secret detention program. And the title ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ suggests that no poetry can serve to alleviate such inhumane acts. Now readers can naturally understand the pun or paronomasia hidden strategically between the lines of the poem.


Similar Poetry

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ by Adrienne Rich contains a hint to the male dominance over a woman and a woman’s lifelong subjection. Readers can find the echo of the poem in the following works.

You can read about Top 10 Adrienne Rich Poems here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.

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