Adrienne Rich (born 1929) perhaps more than any other contemporary poet crystallized in her work and life the deeply complex, awakening consciousness of modern women.
The daughter of Arnold Rich, a professor of medicine, and Helen, a trained composer and pianist, Adrienne Rich described her early upbringing as "white and middle-class … full of books, with a father who encouraged me to read and write." From her father's well-stocked library she was reading such writers as Rosetti, Swinburne, Tennyson, Keats, and Blake before officially attending grade school. In fact, since both her parents believed that they could educate their children better than a public school, neither she nor her sister was sent to class until fourth grade. However, by the time Rich graduated from high school she was writing concise and carefully constructed poetry.
In 1951, the year Rich turned 22 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe College, A Change of World was published. Chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award, it was praised for "its competent craftsman-ship, elegance and simple and precise phrasing." Rich herself stated years later that being praised for meeting traditional standards gave her the courage to break the rules in her more mature work.
Rich won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952 and began studying in Europe and England. In 1953 she married Alfred H. Conrad, a Harvard economist, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two years later she gave birth to her first child, David, and saw the publication of her second volume, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, which received the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award.
In 1957 and 1959 two more sons, Paul and Jacob, were born, and Rich, burdened already under the demands of motherhood, grew even more frightened by the sense that she was losing her grip on her art and her self. Those early years of motherhood are described with unflinching honesty and vivid detail in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision," an essay in which she chronicles her anger, fatigue, and frustration as a young mother who feared she had failed both as a woman and as a poet.
Despite her fears Rich did continue to write, publishing Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law in 1963 and Necessities of Life, which won the National Book Award, in 1966. By then Rich's metamorphosis from housewife to active feminist was underway, and many of her new poems were illustrating that change. Gone were the traditional rhymed stanzas and the detached tone. In their place a new, bolder language asserted itself, signalling a new and bolder Rich who was no longer reluctant to deal with personal issues or to express her outrage over social and political conditions. Poetry had become for her a means of changing people's ideas and attitudes about themselves and their world.
In the late 1960s Rich moved to New York City with her husband and began teaching at Swarthmore College, at the graduate school of Columbia University, and then in the open admissions program at the City College of New York. In 1969 Leaflets, a collection of poems about the political turmoil of the 1960s, was published, and Rich's reputation as an activist poet was established.
Throughout the 1970s Rich's work continued to reflect her deepening commitment to feminism, to nature, and to social involvement. Her collections The Will To Change (1971), Diving into the Wreck (1973), and The Dream of a Common Language (1978) all deal in some sense with these themes. Most critics agree, however, that the title poem "Diving into the Wreck" transcends any easy thematic labeling because of its sheer artistic beauty and metaphorical brilliance.
Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published in 1976, revealed another side of the poet. An historical and political study of immense scope, the book confirmed her ability as a competent scholar and researcher.
As Rich's confidence in her own abilities as a powerful poet and woman grew her poems became more open, sensual, and lyrical. In Twenty-One Love Poems she proved she was not afraid to express in clear, direct images her erotic love for another woman, and in "The Floating Poem, Unnumbered," her bold celebration of lovemaking becomes a tribute to her artistic honesty.
Your travelled generous thighs between which my whole face has come and come- the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue has found there- the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth- … Whatever happens, this is.
In 1979 Rich saw the publication of her next major work, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, including Emily Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Sexton, Jane Eyre, motherhood, education, and writing. The work not only illustrates Rich's talents as a literary critic but also outlines her personal and poetic development and reemphasized the belief so central to her artistic philosophy that the poet is a seer who must speak a common language for those "who do not have the gift." Hers was the ancient concept of the poet and the ideal toward which she gave all her creative energy. In 1986 she won the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $25,000 award believed to be the largest given to U.S. poets. In 1994 she was named a MacArthur Fellow. In 1997 Rich made headlines when she rejected a National Medal for the Arts. When growing numbers of people are being marginalized, impoverished, scapegoated and beleaguered, I don't feel I can accept an award from the government pursing these policies, Rich said, in the July 15, 1997 edition of The News Journal (Wilmington, DE).
In her varied roles as wife, mother, teacher, poet, radical feminist, lesbian, political activist, and essayist she explored those experiences that contributed to her growth as a woman and artist. In all her work, from her earliest collection of poetry, A Change of World (1951), to her later efforts as a political feminist determined to reject a suppressive patriarchal culture, the richness of her vision, her creativity, and her willingness to experiment with controversial themes are evident. But it was her ability to sense the shifting ideas, perceptions, and experiences of American women and to give them shape in language at once original and stark that transformed her into a popular and powerful poet.
An excellent source of commentary for a wide perspective on Rich's work is Adrienne Rich's Poetry (1975), edited by Barbara and Albert Gelpi. In addition to a selection of her poems and essays, this critical edition contains essays by several major writers, including W. H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Erica Jong, Nancy Milford, and Robert Boyers. Judith McDaniel's Reconstituting the World: The Poetry and Vision of Adrienne Rich (1979) is a full-length study of the poet's work. The New York Review of Books (March 20, 1975) features an informative interview entitled "Susan Sontag and Adrienne Rich: Exchange on Feminism," and The New Woman's Survival Sourcebook (1975), edited by Susan Rennie and Karen Grimstead, offers a dialogue between Adrienne Rich and Robin Morgan on poetry and women's culture. Both interviews reveal Rich as an informed and spirited conversationalist. Other sources of critical analysis are Robert Boyers' "On Adrienne Rich: Intelligence and Will," Salmagundi 22-23 (Spring-Summer 1973); Albert Gelpi, "Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change," in American Poetry Since 1960, edited by Robert B. Shaw (Cheadle, U.K., 1973); Randall Jarrell, "New Books in Review," Yale Review 46 (September 1956); David Kalstone, Five Temperaments (1977); Alicia Ostrike, "Her Cargo: Adrienne Rich and the Common Language," American Poetry Review 8 (July-August 1979); and Helen Vendler, "Ghostlier Demarcations, Keener Sounds," Parnassus 2 (Fall-Winter 1973). A recent work is Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991 - 1995. □
RICH, ADRIENNE (1929– ), U.S. poet. Rich was the daughter of a Jewish father who distanced himself from Judaism, and a gentile mother. Her Jewishness, and her response to it, inform much of the poignancy of her poems about claiming a heritage. No less importantly, her poetry is often bound up with her father, patriarchal authority, and her lesbianism. A revolt against, as well as a feminist reading of, a Judaism that is male-dominated, gives Rich's poetry a characteristic strength, compassion, and large embrace. In "Yom Kippur 1984," she reflects: "Am I writing merely about privilege/ about drifting from the center, drawn to edges.…" Rich, often writing about the shared experiences of females and about historical women, began her career with tightly controlled poetry which brought her early recognition by critics and other poets. Her first book of verse, A Change of World (1951), was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship followed (1952–53). The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955) won the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America. She was also awarded the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry (1960); another Guggenheim Fellowship (1961–62); and a Bollingen Foundation grant for translation of Dutch poetry (1962). In 1994, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
Rich married an economist, had three sons, and served as Phi Beta Kappa poet at William and Mary College, at Swarthmore College, and at Harvard College. After Rich and her family moved to New York City in 1966, she grew active in protests against the war in Vietnam. Rich's poetry became radicalized as well, moving away from the precise blank verse that had been her trademark to freer meters. Leaflets (1969) expressed her new conviction that the goal of poetry should be to illuminate the moment, rather than to be worked over for posterity.
In 1970 Rich's husband died and she became increasingly involved in the radical feminist movement. She won the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America in 1971 and served as the Fanny Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Literature at Brandeis University in 1972–73. When she was awarded a National Book Award for her 1973 book of verse, Diving into the Wreck, she refused to accept the award as an individual, and instead accepted it in the name of all women. Her books of poetry include Poems: Selected and New (1975) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981). Of special interest is Rich's volume of poetry Your Native Land, Your Life (1986) which speaks about her Jewish identity. Her An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 was published in 1991; her Collected Early Poems, 1950–1970 in 1993; The School Among the Ruins: Poems, 2000–2004 in 2004. She has written several volumes of essays, among them On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1996–1978 (1979); Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (1986); and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993).
J.R. Cooper (ed.), Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-visions, 1951–81 (1984), J. Perrault, Writing Selves: Contemporary Feminist Autobiography (1995); A. Templeton, The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich's Feminist Poetics (1994).
[Sylvia Barack Fishman /
Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]