Adrienne Rich died in 2012, and boy, were we sad to lose this awesome lady. Rich was one of those major twentieth-century intellectuals who seemed to have a hand in everything: she was a poet, a critic, a scholar, a really important feminist, and an activist for women's and LGBT issues. (And you thought you were busy!) In her spare time, she published a whole bunch of books of poetry, and won all kinds of literary awards.
One of these awards was the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize, awarded by none other than W.H. Auden himself. Rich won this prize for her first published book of poetry, A Change of World (1951), a collection that featured—yep, you guessed it—"Aunt Jennifer's Tigers."
The poem is one of Rich's earlier poems, but it reflects a core theme that would occur in Rich's work throughout her writing life: her unwavering support for women's rights. In fact, Rich was known as much for her activism on behalf of women's rights as for her poetry. Her National Book Award acceptance speech is just one moment in a lifetime of making poetry political.
When she received the award 1974, she called up writers Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept the award with her, on behalf of all women and not just women writers. Rich, Walker, and Lorde dedicated the award to women everywhere—women who had been silenced, who hadn't been given the opportunity to speak in their male-dominated society.
While this cause may not seem like as big a deal today, at the time of this award, the world was a very different place, especially for women. (And also for corduroy—the '70s was a great decade for corduroy.) So Adrienne Rich's brave act of sharing her award with two other writers, and dedicating it to all women everywhere, was a super-important political act.
The same kind of protest and gesture of solidarity can be found in "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers." On the surface, it may seem short and sweet. It's only twelve lines long, it has rhyming couplets, and… it's about needlepoint. But don't be fooled: this poem packs a serious punch. In just three short stanzas it presents us with the life of a disempowered woman and offers a vision of her future immortality through art. Now that's pretty cool, if we do say so ourselves.
Are you a woman? We're guessing that about 50% of you out there have your hands up. But if you said no, here's a follow-up: Do you have a mom? A grandma? A beloved aunt? A sweet girlfriend? Okay, good. Now we've got all of your attention.
That's good, because women's issues affect all people—not just women. A poem like "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" knows this. The poem is not written for an audience of women. It's addressed to us all. We all have a (symbolic) Aunt Jennifer: a woman whom we admire, but who has perhaps been held back in life because of her gender. Adrienne Rich wrote the poem in 1951, which was a time in which there were much fewer options for women in terms of careers and family planning. Financial independence for women was also rare. "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," in just twelve lines, tells the story of, and imagines an immortal future for one of these 1950s women with small opportunities and big dreams. When we read the poem, we get a glimpse into the lives of the Aunt Jennifers of the world, and a glimpse into the ways that gender affects us all.