A studio described as a bit of a love shack, a woman, a man, and a mysterious milkman. What do they mean? For answers, you'll need to read Adrienne Rich's "Living in Sin." Rich, who died in 2012, is one of the most famous American poets and has won virtually every poetry award that exists. She is known for her passionate political voice and her support of feminist causes, both within her poetry and in her life.
This poem, written in the 1950s and early in Rich's career as a poet, does not yet take the strong feminist stance that some of her later poetry takes, which at times deals more directly with women's rights and social and political issues that matter to women. But merely writing poetry about topics that interest women was a recent development in her poetry and in poetry in general in the 1950s when this poem came out. Specifically, the poem first appeared in the New Yorker magazine—January 23,1954. Check it out!
In Rich's earliest poetry she made an effort to reflect earlier and more famous poets in her writing style. The problem? All of these poets were men! "Living in Sin" begins to break away from this model, though. It's about a disappointed woman in a dull relationship that doesn't live up to her expectations or hopes, and it is written from the perspective of (shocker!) a woman.
But notice that the speaker of the poem is an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, speaking about a woman in the third person. At the time Rich wrote this poem, while she was beginning to break away from a style that mimicked that of her male predecessors, she was still not comfortable speaking in the voice of a woman, and instead spoke about women in the third person.
Still, by 1977 she had famously published a collection called Twenty-One Love Poems, in which she unapologetically used the first person voice to speak of a romantic relationship between two women. And so, "Living in Sin" represents an important step in her journey to achieving her artistic breakthrough.
Sure, it might not seem like such a radical idea today, when more and more couples are living together before or even instead of getting married. But, living with your partner outside of wedlock was totally unacceptable in the 1950s, when Adrienne Rich published this poem. Like many "unacceptable" things, though, it was also very exciting! (Think about how often you've wanted to do something just because it was forbidden.) That's why they call it "living in sin."
But the irony of this poem is that the title leads us to expect a description of a very exciting and steamy relationship, only to let us down with a description of the ordinary tasks of keeping up a dirty apartment and a not-so-special relationship. We all hate to admit it, but sometimes when we do those things just because they're forbidden, the excitement just doesn't measure up to our expectations. (Remember that party you weren't allowed to go to that ended up being totally boring?) That's what happens to the woman in this poem, who discovers that living with her partner isn't actually so dreamy—or steamy. In the end, it seems the real "sin" is not living with her partner out of wedlock; it's staying in a loveless relationship.