Rich, Adrienne (1929—)
Rich, Adrienne (1929—)
One of modern-day America's most distinguished and influential poets and feminist theorists. Born Adrienne Cecile Rich in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929; eldest of two daughters of Dr. Arnold Rice Rich (a professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine) and Helen Jones Rich (a trained composer and pianist); educated at home, primarily by her mother, until the fourth grade, though her father, who had a fine library, encouraged her to both read and write poetry; attended Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, 1937–47; entered Radcliffe College in Cambridge, in 1947, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, graduated cum laude in 1951; her younger sister Cynthia graduated from Radcliffe five years later; married Alfred Haskell Conrad (an economist at Harvard), in 1953 (committed suicide 1970); lived with Michelle Cliff (1976—); children: David (b. 1955); Paul (b. 1957); Jacob (b. 1959).
Published first volume of verse, A Change of World, in the Yale Younger Poets Series (1951); received the first of many distinguished awards, a Guggenheim fellowship, to study and travel abroad (1951–52); published second volume of poetry, inspired by her travels abroad, The Diamond Cutters (1955); received a second Guggenheim fellowship (1961) and spent the year in the Netherlands with husband and children; published third volume of verse, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963); both style and content of work began to change, reflecting her conversion to an increasingly radical feminism; published two subsequent volumes of poetry (1960s), reflecting the social and political turmoil engendered by both the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam; moved to New York (1966) where her husband taught at the City College of New York while she taught writing part-time at both Columbia University and CCNY; marriage unraveled after the move to New York and Alfred Conrad committed suicide (1970); while teaching part-time at several colleges and universities and raising her sons alone, continued to write poetry, receiving the National Book Award (1974) forher seventh volume of verse, Diving into the Wreck; came out as a lesbian in Twenty-One Love Poems (1976); published first prose work Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976); entered a long-term relationship with the Jamaican-born writer and editor Michelle Cliff (1976); moved to Santa Cruz, California, with Cliff (1984), where both women continue to write about, and in support of, the outsiders and the oppressed.
Ariadne: A Play in Three Acts and Poems (Baltimore: J.H. Furst, 1939); Not I, But Death, A Play in One Act (Baltimore: J.H. Furst, 1941); A Change of World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951); The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems (NY: Harper, 1955); Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954–1962 (NY: Harper & Row, 1963; London: Chatto & Windus-Hogarth Press, 1970); Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962–1965 (NY: Norton, 1966); Selected Poems (London: Chatto & Windus-Hogarth Press, 1967); Leaflets: Poems, 1965–1968 (NY: Norton, 1969); The Will to Change (NY: Norton, 1971); Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971–1972 (NY: Norton, 1973); Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974 (NY: Norton, 1975); Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (NY: Norton, 1976); Twenty-One Love Poems (Emeryville, CA: Effie's Press, 1976); The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977 (NY: Norton, 1978); On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (NY: Norton, 1979); A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978–1981 (NY: Norton, 1981); Sources (Woodside, CA: Heyeck Press, 1983); The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950–1984 (NY: Norton, 1984); Your Native Land, Your Life (NY: Norton, 1986); Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (NY: Norton, 1986); Time's Power: Poems 1985–1988 (NY: Norton, 1989); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 (NY: Norton, 1991); Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews, and Criticism (edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, NY: Norton, 1993); Collected Early Poems, 1950–1970 (NY: Norton, 1993); What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (NY: Norton, 1993); Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991–1995 (NY: Norton, 1995); Midnight Salvage: Poems, 1995–1998 (1999); (essays) Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001).
One of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, and one of the most remarkable persons of our age, Adrienne Rich continues to read her poetry to audiences that number in the thousands. Both her poetry and her prose works are required reading in many college and university courses in literature, women's studies, feminism and feminist theory. In addition, Rich has been a social and political activist since the early 1960s, championing pacifism, the environment, abortion rights, and equal rights for all—gay or straight, male or female, white, black, brown or Asian, able or disabled. Rich has long sought, in her writings and in her life, alternatives to patriarchal capitalism, which system she believes is not just anti-woman, but anti-human at its core, and destructive of the environment.
Rich is also an educator, lecturer, and editor, and a recipient of numerous awards, prizes and honorary degrees. Over a period of 50 years she has also traveled widely in the United States, in Europe, in Central America and elsewhere. Yet only those who have met Rich face to face or have read her poems written since the late 1970s are aware that she is physically disabled and in constant pain. When barely out of college she developed rheumatoid arthritis and has faced several operations for the crippling disease since the early 1980s. Until the 1980s, Rich spoke of pain only in general terms in her verse, but in Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems (1986) she became very specific:
I feel signified with pain
from my breastbone through my left shoulder down
through my elbow into my wrist is a thread of pain.
Rich has also written about another acute pain—the suicide of her husband Dr. Alfred Conrad in October 1970. In Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971–1972 (1973), she wrote of the coming 20th anniversary of their marriage in 1953:
Next year it would have been twenty years and you are wastefully dead.
In The Washington Post, Elizabeth Kastor (June 8, 1993) described Rich as "a small woman and the hunched back, the cane she leans on, the hands gnarled by rheumatoid arthritis all somehow make her look smaller…. She walks without bending her left leg, swinging it along in a slow arc with each pace, and the few steps up to the lectern seem to require an act of physical will."
She was born Adrienne Cecile Rich in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929, the eldest of two daughters of Dr. Arnold Rice Rich, a professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine, and Helen Jones Rich , a trained composer and pianist. Her father, who
treated her like a son, introduced her to the major poets from the 16th to the first half of the 20th century when she was still a child. Rich began writing verse at the age of five. Some of her poems and two plays were published by the time she was twelve. It is not surprising, then, that Rich received early recognition for her verse. Her first volume of poems, A Change of World (1951), showed considerable originality though the poems were also influenced by earlier, mostly male, poets such as Donne, Keats, Longfellow, Yeats, and such contemporaries as Thomas, Stevens, Frost, McNeice, and Auden. In elegant, well-crafted and mostly rhymed verse, Rich sought "detachment from the self and its emotions," believing then, as did W.H. Auden, that "without detachment no art is possible." Auden was so impressed with Rich's poetry that he chose A Change of World to receive the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1951, the same year she graduated from Radcliffe College.
Rich's aim of universality and self-detachment continued in her second volume of verse, The Diamond Cutters (1955). However, by 1963, when her third volume of verse, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law appeared, Rich had undergone a real "change of world." Having married Alfred H. Conrad, an economist teaching at Harvard, and given birth to three sons—David, Paul, and Jacob (born in 1955, 1957, and 1959), Rich eschewed universality as a "white male voice" and began to write in a woman's voice and about women's lives. Both her own experience as wife and mother, and the revival of feminism, triggered the change and convinced Rich that with detachment no art was possible.
I loved the sound, the music of poetry from the very beginning. It seemed a way of finding out about life. Things could be said in poems that could be said in no other way.
In her earliest poems, Rich paid homage to largely male poets, but as her feminist awareness increased she wrote more and more about women in general, as well as about specific women. Beginning in the 1970s, Rich acknowledged her debt to and admiration for such women poets as Anne Bradstreet , Emily Dickinson , H.D. (Hilda Doolittle ), Muriel Rukeyser , Sylvia Plath , Anne Sexton and others. She also dedicated a poem to Emily Carr , a very fine Canadian artist of the first half of the 20th century little known outside her country. One of Rich's most haunting poems is dedicated to Ethel Rosenberg who, at the height of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s, was convicted, along with her husband Julius, of conspiracy to commit espionage. Despite a chorus of protest in the United States and abroad, they were electrocuted in mid-1953.
Since the 1960s and continuing to this day, Rich's poetry has also addressed the major issues and problems of the last 50 years: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, abortion rights, homophobia, violence against women and disastrous wars from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. In addition, she has long protested our hostility to left-wing revolutionary movements in Cuba, Chile, and Nicaragua. Rich passionately believes that poetry is powerful, that it can change us for the better and lead us to create a world where true equality, love, social and economic justice, and peace will prevail.
Rich laments that only in the United States is poetry viewed as a luxury read by a small elite, rather than as a necessity of life. She notes that everywhere else in the world—Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America—political poetry is viewed as normal and is honored by non-authoritarian governments and condemned by authoritarian regimes. Poets in other countries are often appointed to diplomatic posts and/or elected to the legislature, something that rarely happens in the United States.
The Clinton administration did seek to honor Rich in 1997, but she refused to accept the National Medal for the Arts because of her disapproval of many of our government's policies here and abroad. Earlier, in 1974, Rich refused to accept the National Book Award unless and until two other nominees, the poet Audre Lorde and the novelist Alice Walker , were also honored. The three accepted the award in the name of all women and donated the cash prize to the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers.
A woman who has the courage of her convictions, Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976, six years after her husband's suicide and when her youngest son Jacob was 17. She retains close ties with her sons, and in 1987 celebrated her 58th birthday at Jacob's home in Vermont. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977 (1978), her 11th volume of verse, included Twenty-One Love Poems (1976). In the 12th poem, Rich, recalling an early love, writes:
We were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation.
In an unnumbered piece between the 14th and 15th poems, Rich tells her beloved, "Whatever happens to us, your body will haunt mine—tender, delicate." In the poem "Transcendental Etude" in The Dream of a Common Language, dedicated to Michelle Cliff , the Jamaican-born naturalized American writer and editor with whom Rich has shared her life for over 20 years, she writes:
two women, eye to eye
measuring each other's spirit, each other's limitless desire,
a whole new poetry beginning here.
Although Rich has written essays about lesbianism, it is in her poetry that she is able to say things about women loving women that, to quote her, "could be said in no other way."
It is also in her poetry that Rich has been able to say things about other aspects of her identity. "Split at the root" is the way she has characterized herself, a once-married lesbian who is "neither Gentile nor Jew, Yankee nor Rebel." Although she was born to a Southern Protestant mother (and therefore not a Jew under Jewish law) and a totally assimilated Jewish father from the North, it was not until the 1980s that she confronted her Jewish heritage and examined the effects of the Holocaust on her own life and writing.
In 1976, Rich's first prose work, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, appeared. It proved so popular that W.W. Norton, which has published most of Rich's numerous works, issued a tenth anniversary edition in 1986. Relying on her own experience as a mother of three sons and a great deal of research, Rich argued that being a good mother is neither innate nor instinctual, but a quality that is learned only with a great deal of pain, patience and self-discipline.
In 1979, Norton published Rich's first volume of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978. The essays pay homage to the pioneer feminists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony , and to a number of women poets as well as the novelists Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf . Rich also included four essays on one of her chief concerns for over 40 years, the education of women. In addition, she returned to the subject of motherhood (and motherlessness) in three essays. In one of her two essays on lesbianism, Rich reminded her audience that "we must remember that we have been penalized, vilified, and mocked, not for hating men, but for loving women."
Her two subsequent volumes of essays, Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1986 (1986) and What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993), as the titles suggest, reiterate her lifelong concern with poetry. Her fifth and latest volume of essays, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001), also centers on creativity.
Rich has taught at some of the most prestigious colleges and universities from one end of the United States to the other. In the 1960s and 1970s she taught at Swarthmore, Columbia, New York University, the City College of New York, Brandeis and Rutgers. In the early 1980s, she also taught at Cornell. Since moving to Santa Cruz, California, in 1984, she has taught at Scripps College and Stanford University. Her longest stint of teaching has been at San José State University, from 1984 to the present. Rich has also given guest lectures at many colleges and universities and has received at least five honorary doctorates in literature, including ones from Smith College (1979), Harvard University (1990) and Swarthmore College (1992).
Finally, from 1952 to the present Rich has probably received more awards than any other American poet living or dead. She received two Guggenheim fellowships, in 1952 and 1961. She was the recipient of a Bollingen Foundation grant in 1962, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1970, the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay Task Force in 1981, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize of $25,000 in 1986, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1994, the Tanning Prize of the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and the Lannon Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
Adrienne Rich has written a great deal and a great deal has been written about her, mostly by literary critics. Although Rich's poetry and prose have been deemed too political and too polemical by some critics, female and male, the vast majority of studies of her work, which, including essays and reviews as well as monographs, number over 50, view Rich with the highest regard.
Margaret Atwood , the distinguished Canadian novelist and critic, writes in Second Words: Selected Prose: "Adrienne Rich is not just one of America's best feminist poets, or one of America's best woman poets, she is one of America's best poets." Dick Allen, a Hudson Review critic, predicts that Rich "will be read and studied for centuries to come." As we enter the new millennium Rich remains a powerful role model for us all, having accomplished so much despite considerable physical and psychic pain.
Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Gelpi, Barbara C., and Albert Gelpi, eds. Adrienne Rich's Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition. NY: Norton, 1975.
Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
Meese, Elizabeth. "Adrienne Rich" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 67. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1988.
Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971–1972. NY: Norton, 1973.
——. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950–1984. NY: Norton, 1984.
——. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. NY: Norton, 1977.
——. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978. NY: Norton, 1979.
——. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954–1962. NY: Harper & Row, 1963.
Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio