Study Guide

Living in Sin

By Adrienne Rich

Living in Sin Introduction

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.

What is Living in Sin About and Why Should I Care?

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.

Living in Sin Resources

Websites

Biography of Adrienne Rich
Here's a biography of Adrienne Rich. You can check out some of her other poems here, too.

Modern American Adrienne
This is a reliable, rich source of info on, and poetry by, Rich.

Video

Tribute
Here's Rich's poem set to slides and music.

Tribute II
Here's a student video interpretation of "Living in Sin."

Rich Reads
Here's a cool introduction to some of her later, more political poetry.

Rich Responds
Check out this interview with Rich, in which she discusses art, relationships, and how she writes poetry. The interview is followed by a recording of her reading poetry in Chile (and speaking Spanish too!).

Audio

Rich @ UPenn
It could take you days to listen to all these recordings, but it would be well worth it! It's always really interesting to hear a poet read and discuss her own work, especially since sound and tone play such a large role in how we understand poetry. Check out readings by other contemporary authors on the same website too!

Images

Young Adrienne
Here's a sweet photo of the poet.

That's Our Adrienne
Here's a well-known photo portrait of the poet.

Artsy Tribute
Check out this image of Rich, mixed with other images.

That's One Messy Studio
Check it out!

Articles and Interviews

New Yorker Original
This is awesome sauce. Check out the poem as it first appeared in the New Yorker magazine!

Obit
Here's the New York Times obituary for this great poet, who passed away in 2012.

Books

A Change of World
Here's Rich's very first book, which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets award.

Diving Into the Wreck
This is one of Rich's most famous books.