The main theme of the poem is the isolation of the individual from the community. The meaning of "we," the meaning of "you," is lost in the obsessive focus on the "I." The meaning of community, of looking out for one's fellow human, has been lost, and the individual is turned only towards herself, towards her own "personal" space and concerns. This only leads to isolation and estrangement in society. The poet describes it as "silly, ironic, terrible" which is what isolation and detachment from fellow humans is. Nevertheless, as humans, we ought to learn from the past, and the past is there to remind us that standing alone in front of the ocean leaves one vulnerable.
"The Personal is Political"
The argument that the "personal is political," which was perhaps the defining slogan of second-wave feminism (of which Rich is a crucial part) is an implicit and ambiguous background for the poem. The meaning of that argument is that there is an undeniable connection between the personal experience of women and their political and social position. One cannot understand one's personal problems without understanding their social context; conversely, one cannot understand political problems—or effect political change—without considering how they relate to individuals' personal lives.
In this light, the poem can be seen as a call for women to unite and to not lose the sense of compassion for each other's experience. The claim in the poem that personal life is "the only life we could bear witness to" illustrates this theme, and its complexity. On the one hand, focusing only on personal issues prevents individuals from witnessing, understanding, and potentially transforming collective life. On the other hand, it is only through "bearing witness to" one's individual life that collective change will become possible.
The poet begins with the speaker imagining people from the future looking back at her contemporary moment with an attitude of judgment. From this alone, we can see her view that history judges people's actions (and failures to act), and that people have a direct effect on the arc of history. The main argument of the poem is that she and others (the "we" of the poem) have not done enough to stave off "the dark birds of history." Because of their narrow focus on their own lives, they have failed to look at the forces that have affected and exploited others, and thus failed to fight them. This makes everyone more vulnerable. History's long arc, then, is directly affected by those who live through it. Everyone has a responsibility to struggle collectively for a better future.
In Those Years Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In Those Years is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.