The Historical Context of “In Those Years”

In Adrienne Rich’s 1991 poem “In Those Years,” she often repeats the words “I” and “we.” This is seen in the first stanza of the poem when she writes “in those years, people will say, we lost track / of the meaning of we, of you / we found ourselves reduced to I / and the whole thing became / silly, ironic, terrible.” The shift of going from “we” to “I” signifies a shift away from people working together as a collective unit to being separated individuals. The second verse continues the shift between this collective life and a personal one through the lines “but the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged / into our personal weather.” The birds seem to represent unrest within their personal lives, and the use of the term “personal weather” represents personal problems or turmoil. The poem continues with “they were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinons drove / along the shore, through the rags of fog / where we stood, saying I.” The use of a flock of birds attacking separated people signifies a united force against a fragmented one. The last line stands out because it shows Rich reflecting on this individualism of “saying I” while reflecting on it from the once again united “we.” Throughout the poem, Rich is describing this personal life while using the word “we” when talking about the separated people during the poem – this seems to mean that at some point between “those years” that she is reflecting on and when she is writing the poem, the personal life of these people has once again moved together as they use “we,” giving the poem two timelines.
In relation to queer studies, this writing can represent the danger of queer people not working as a collective community against different forms of oppression. At the time that this poem was published the AIDs epidemic was raging, and so was blatant homophobia from both the public as well as the government as research and treatment went underfunded and queer people were openly attacked. This poem could be a reflection on an oppressed group of people who had been fragmented and shows how separating from being a community caused more harm than good. When they are attacked by the “dark birds of history,” this could possibly be a reminder of the long history of horrific treatment to queer people, and it shows that they were unable to face this problem alone and at some point once again needed each other. The birds could also be the larger danger of oppression or violence against queer people and serves as an external danger rather than the internal one of fragmentation. When she is reflecting in the first stanza and calls the years of separation “silly and ironic,” it may be because she has reflected on how important unity is and how ironic it was for a community of people bound by sexuality and gender identity to be separated even though so much of sexuality is based on relations with other queer people. This is a poem seems to represent the importance of community especially when people within it are being threatened.

2 thoughts on “The Historical Context of “In Those Years””

  1. Hi!
    I love this close reading of “In Those Years” and how you compare the use of “I” and “we” pronouns. I think Rich uses pronouns carefully and intentionally in all of the poems we have read by her but it is especially interesting to examine the shift from “we” to “I” as you mentioned. It is crazy to think how impactful fear is that it can divide people who are otherwise so united. I honestly believe that this poem could be relevant to many of the events and separating of groups during the pandemic. It seems as though fear still separates us all at times when we need to stay united the most. As you say in your last line a united community is so important especially when being threatened.

  2. I love how the historical context fits so neatly into this post and the poem itself. I think Adrienne Rich as a poet is very deliberate about her metaphors and references, and likes to position her work in context of historical events. This poem I think did a great job of encapsulating it, as you’ve outlined quite nicely. Given that this is also one of her more recent poems (written in the 90s, and many of the other ones we read for class dated decades previous) she’s also had the chance to examine how queer history has evolved over the years and incorporate that into this poem, while also positioning it amongst one of the biggest crises in the queer community.

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