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by Adrienne Rich

Power Introduction

In A Nutshell

Adrienne Rich was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Marie Curie was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Put these two together and what do you get?


(Which is pretty stinkin' powerful, if we do say so ourselves.)

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) wrote "Power" in 1974, right smack dab in the middle of the second-wave feminist movement. Rich was a poet, a teacher, a critic, a scholar, and an activist for women's and LGBT rights. She was an all-around awesome lady who made politics part of her creative work.

Rich's poem "Power" is all about the famous scientist Marie Curie (born 1867). She was a two-time Nobel Prize winner and discoverer of radium, radioactivity, and a whole bunch of other super important science-y stuff. She was, simply put, rad, especially when you consider the fact that she was a scientist in a time that few women even got college degrees. She won Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics, making her the only person ever to win Nobels in two different fields, and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, period. Tragically, Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, caused by her years-long exposure to radiation. Her life's worked essentially killed her.

Rich takes on this tragedy in "Power," and thinks both about Curie's unique position as a woman scientist, but mostly about the sad irony that her powerful work brought about her untimely death. It's a short poem, but it packs a whole lot of power into its 17 lines.


Why Should I Care?

Marie Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium—you know, those pesky little elements on the Periodic Table? She contributed to the development of the X-ray (and invented mobile X-rays that were used to save an estimated million lives during World War I). Her discoveries shaped, if not downright created, 20th-century science. Without Madame Curie, who knows what science would look like today?

Oh, and did we mention that Marie Curie was a woman? That she's kind of a feminist icon? That she's one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century (a century that was not always all that friendly to women)?

"Power" takes on the complexity—and the poignant tragedy—of Curie's life. Her life's work eventually killed her, as she succumbed to radiation poisoning. But Curie refused to admit that it was the radiation that made her sick, that the same thing that gave her power ultimately brought about her death. So many complicated issues and feelings, right? That's what makes "Power" such an awesome poem; it doesn't shy away from the hard stuff, and it embraces the many sides to Marie. We think you should, too.

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