Rich, Adrienne Cecile

views updated

RICH, Adrienne Cecile

(b. 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland), feminist theorist, writer, and poet whose work during the 1960s evolved from formal modernism to radical feminism.

Rich grew up in Baltimore, the elder of two daughters of Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor, and Helen Jones Rich, a composer and pianist, and was educated at home until the fourth grade. Interested in writing from an early age, she immersed herself in her father's library of Victorian writers. In 1951 Rich graduated from Radcliffe College and published her first poetry collection, A Change of World, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Until that time, Rich's reading had consisted mainly of male poets, and she often used a male persona or wrote with a tone of ironic detachment characteristic of male poets she admired. One of those poets, W. H. Auden, wrote in his introduction to the volume that her poems "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." In Writing like a Woman (1983), Alicia Ostriker commented that Rich's early reviewers approved of the "good girl" qualities of her poetry, which reflected a sense of caution and propriety.

Upon receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, Rich traveled in England and Europe. On 26 June 1953 she married Alfred H. Conrad, a Harvard University economist. She had her first son and published her second poetry collection, The Diamond Cutters, in 1955. By 1959 she had three sons and was balancing her roles as writer, wife, and mother. She did not publish another collection until 1963, when Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law appeared. The book examines the roles of women in relationship to men, women, and social institutions and beliefs. Rich wrote in her 1971 essay, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision," that she underwent a transformation when she wrote Snapshots, writing "in a longer, looser mode than I'd ever trusted myself with before. It was extraordinary relief to write that poem."

The title poem describes a young woman's anger and frustration at the limitations placed on her by a male-dominated society. This collection marked a change from formal, traditional poems to the use of free verse and feminist themes. Instead of using stanzas, Rich relied on fragments and segments of various lengths. She also dropped the initial capital letter in each line and used limited rhyme and the cadences of speech instead of more formal meter, thus giving her poems more force and freshness. The themes that eventually would be seen as characteristic of Rich—her interest in history and political issues, the separateness of individuals, and the importance of relationship—began to appear in these poems. Rich later observed, however, that these visible changes did not go deep enough. In On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), she wrote, "I hadn't found the courage yet to do without authorities, or even to use the pronoun 'I'—the woman in the poem is always 'she.'"

In 1966 Rich and her family moved to New York City, where Rich became involved with the growing civil rights and antiwar movements and began reading more widely in women's literature and history. She also taught and gave poetry readings and lectures, activities that brought her into prominence as a feminist activist and thinker. During this period she published three poetry collections, Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). These works are overtly confrontational and antipatriarchal, expressing her personal and political dissatisfaction with a male-run society and a woman's place in it. Rich's commitment to feminism, now a central part of her work, was also a central part of her life. She believed that her role as a poet was to instigate, to question, to challenge society—the poet as revolutionary.

Rich's husband, from whom she had become estranged, committed suicide in 1970. Rich has never discussed his suicide, referring to it only obliquely in her writing. Rich's freedom from marriage seemed to allow her a greater involvement in the women's movement. She had become increasingly interested in feminist ideas and identified herself as a radical feminist when she won the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck (1973). In 1976 she "came out" as a lesbian, identifying with female separatists, who wished to live a life without men. The rest of the 1970s were a prolific time, during which she produced Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), as well as the essays in Of Woman Born (1976), and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979). In the 1980s and 1990s Rich wrote about poverty, racism, and violence. She was a professor of English and feminist studies at Stanford University from 1986 to 1992.

Rich continues to write poetry, essays, and criticism. Because of the outspoken tone of much of her work, she has generated controversy as well as praise; some critics complain of an antimale bias, while others claim that her poetry is merely a vehicle for her political views. Despite this controversy, Rich has received numerous awards, including Guggenheim Fellowships (1952, 1961), the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry (1961), a National Endowment of the Arts grant (1970), a National Book Award (1970), the Robert Frost Silver Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry from the Poetry Society of America (1992), a Lambda Book award (1992), and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1994).

In 1997 Rich earned a National Medal of the Arts but declined the award, stating that it was meaningless in the context of the "cynical politics" of President Bill Clinton's administration, which awarded the medal. Rich's keen awareness of political and social issues and her insistence on speaking for oppressed and marginalized people have made her work essential reading for those interested in feminism and the social history of the twentieth century.

Discussions of Rich's life and work appear in Barbara Charles-worth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, eds., Adrienne Rich's Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition (1975); Alicia Ostriker, Writing like a Woman(1983); and Claire Keyes, The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1986). David St. John discusses Rich in "Brightening the Landscape," Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 Feb. 1996). Rich's brief statement declining the National Medal of the Arts is in Time (21 July 1997).

Kelly Winters