Study Guide

Power

By Adrienne Rich

Power Introduction

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?

"Power."

(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.

What is Power About and 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.

Power Resources

Websites

Rockin' Rich
The Poetry Foundation has a comprehensive rundown of her life and her work.

Some Critics Weigh in on "Power"
Do you agree or disagree?

Marie Curie
Here's a brief but informative bio on the kick-butt physicist and chemist.

Zombie Marie Curie
No, we're not kidding about this.

Video

Marie Curie in a Silent Video
Check out the great lady at work in her lab in 1923 (yes, 1923). Just imagine trying to do lab work in a long-sleeved dress.

A Tribute to Rich's Life and Work
Democracy Now brings us a great introduction to Rich's poetry and activism.

Adrienne Rich Herself
Watch and listen as the poet does her thing.

Audio

Rich Reads Her Poem "Diving Into the Wreck"
It's not to be missed.

An NPR Interview with Rich
Shmoop highly recommends this one if you're digging Adrienne.

Images

Marie Curie
Thinking some deep thoughts, don't you think?

Marie and her Man Pierre
Power couple ain't the half of it.

What are you thinking, Adrienne?
We hope good thoughts.

Articles & Interviews

An Interview with Rich
This one's got it all—her thoughts on poetry, dealing with the critics, and the women's' movement.

Books

The Dream of a Common Language
Check out "Power" in its original context, and hey, check out some other poems while you're at it.

Collected Early Poems
Read a whole bunch of Rich's work here.

On Secrets, Lies, and Silence
Got a hankering for some feminist prose? Adrienne's essays are a great place to start.