- Carla Kaplan
Rich, Adrienne (16 May 1929–27 March 2012), poet, essayist, and lesbian-feminist activist, was born Adrienne Cecile Rich in Baltimore, Maryland, to Arnold Rice Rich and Helen Elizabeth Jones Rich, both southerners. Her father, a pathologist and highly regarded professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, was renowned for his work ethic and brilliant lectures, but feared for his critical, exacting standards. Her mother was a gifted pianist, piano teacher, and composer. She married late because she pursues her musical career, but then gave it up, as housewives were expected to do, to care for her family. Until she was four Adrienne had an African American nanny, as was also common in her milieu. She and her younger sister, Cynthia, were home schooled until Adrienne was nine, which was less common, but fostered both an extraordinary ability for independent work and a need for community which became a central theme of Rich’s later writing. At home both girls read widely, especially in the classics. Their father particularly valued formal, traditional poetry which she began writing as a very young child, largely to satisfy him. In a household not given to playfulness, she indulged her zeal for storytelling privately. Rich’s parents urged their daughters to work hard, aim high, and see themselves as special. That message had to be squared, however, with the model of their mother’s sacrifice to their father’s success. Adrienne tried hard to please, but she was also quick-tempered, and even when young, stubbornly insistent on her own strong sense of right and wrong.
The family’s neighborhood was white, upper middle-class, and homogenous, as was Roland Park Country school, a private, segregated, girls’ school, which Rich attended after the fourth grade. Rich was raised as a Christian, although her father was Jewish. At fifteen she learned about the Holocaust, but felt that she could not discuss it. Well-mannered, white, middle-class households mentioned neither the racism nor anti-Semitism so prevalent in the 1940s. That experience of feeling cut off from mainstream society, inhabiting irreconcilable selves “split at the root,” would later become another central theme in Rich’s exploration of American identity.
Rich’s lifelong commitment to social justice, and her fierce search for a poetry that could change the world, developed quietly at Radcliffe, where she enrolled in 1947. At Radcliffe Rich studied the traditional canon of white, male, Western writers, working exclusively with male professors and without access to many of Harvard’s best resources—even Lamont Library, an irresistible draw to a passionate reader like Rich, was then closed to women. Trained in the early days of New Criticism, and with many constraints about poetry’s proper subject matter, Rich later developed work characterized by an insistence that poems are not self-contained aesthetic objects, but embedded in their time and place, and that everything—and anything—can be illuminated by poetry’s lens.
Rich loved living in Cambridge, and she turned Radcliffe’s narrowness to advantage, thriving amidst a community of smart women. Radcliffe exposed her to radical teachers such as gay socialist F. O. Matthiessen and to modernism, and she absorbed everything that her poetry teachers, many of whom who saw her potential, could offer. College gave her the freedom to explore her Jewish heritage and the time and space to write. She graduated in 1951 with a B.A. in English. That year A Change of World, her first book of poetry, was chosen by W. H. Auden as the winner of the prestigious 1951 Yale Younger Poets Competition. Auden praised Rich’s “modesty” and her respect for poetic tradition in terms that now ring with condescension. But his approval also opened doors, such as a Guggenheim fellowship one year later. And while Rich’s early poems, like those in her second book, The Diamond Cutters (1955), are formal and decorous, early poems such as “Storm Warnings” nevertheless express Rich’s concern with how to “live in troubled regions”—a signature preoccupation of her work.
In 1953 Rich married Alfred H. Conrad (formerly Cohen), a Jewish economics professor at Harvard whose Brooklyn family offered Rich precisely the sort of Jewish cultural experience her father had avoided. Rich’s parents did not attend her Cambridge wedding. Rich and her husband settled into family life, with a summer home in Vermont (near poets Galway Kinnell and Hayden Carruth), and the birth of their three sons in 1955, 1957, and 1959. Rich published her second book to good reviews and awards. But overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood and guilty about feeling angry and depressed, she did not publish again for eight years. During this period she began translating poems from other languages, which may have been instrumental to staying connected to poetry.
In 1963 (the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique), Rich found her bearings again and began to embrace feminism. Increasingly her work explored what she called, in a 2011 Los Angeles Times interview, “the precarious solidarity of gender.” In her watershed volume Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, she allowed herself a less metered, rhymed, and regular line and experimented with writing more personally, anticipating the feminist insight that “the personal is political,” to the dismay of some of her critics. Rich began to bring anger into her poems, treating it as one of her road maps for diagnosing the culture’s ills. She collapsed the public and private. These poems also became increasingly visual, and they initiated Rich’s practice of dating all her work to situate her perspectives in history, as evolving.
The period of Rich’s young family also marked the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, from which she would suffer for the rest of her life, enduring multiple surgeries. She wrote about her illness rarely, but Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), one of her most autobiographical books, notes feeling “signified” by pain—which could mean labeled, or in a larger sense, given meaning through and in terms of pain. Some have speculated that living in pain made her especially sensitive to the suffering of others. Certainly, however, her political work in the 1960s, especially after her family moved to New York in 1966, deepened her attention to violence and oppression. It also marked increasing attempts to give voice to the marginalized and silenced, and the search for a mode of empathy—“the dream of a common language,” she later called it—that would not give way to either idealization or self-congratulation. New York was a laboratory for progressive change in which poetry (along with music) played a central, not a peripheral, role. As a poet and activist, Rich became involved in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and adult education initiatives, as well as increasingly integral to the growing women’s liberation movement with its cultural explosion of bookstores, magazines, newspapers, presses, health care collectives, shelters, rape crisis centers, and clinics. “I had been looking for the Women’s Liberation Movement since the 1950s,” she later wrote (Blood, Bread, and Poetry, p. vii).
Consciousness-raising encouraged women to see all aspects of their lives as politically constructed and, hence, changeable. Rage over centuries of oppression, the exhilaration of new possibilities, and the heady joys of shared perspectives upended many lives and disrupted many marriages, including Rich’s, which ended in 1970. A few months later Alfred Conrad committed suicide. At first Rich avoided writing about his death. When she did finally address it, in Diving into the Wreck (1973) and, more directly, in Sources (1983), she did so with great tenderness, dedicating herself to working for a world in which he would have felt more at home.
In 1971 Rich wrote “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” one of her most influential essays, capturing many of the central ideas of the women’s movement. Reassessing the past, she argued there, “is an act of survival” for women. Two years later “Diving into the Wreck,” probably her most widely taught poem, used the metaphor of a deep water dive to depict the difficulties of trying to write women back into the “book of myths” which has lied about them and “in which/our names do not appear.” The diver’s resources—wetsuit, flippers, tank, mask—both constrict and enable her. She must learn, if she is to survive the trip, how to channel power and how to identify and work with others, a constant theme in Rich’s work. Awarded the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck in 1974, Rich insisted on sharing it with co-finalists Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, and accepting it on behalf of all women. In 1976 she published her controversial prose study, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, refusing to sentimentalize motherhood or ignore the larger social and historical contexts which placed undue burdens on women and shaped individual women’s lives.
Rich came out as a lesbian in 1975, around the time her sister, Cynthia, also a writer-activist, came out. She embraced her new role as a spokesperson for lesbian-feminist thought through lectures, essays, and editing. For two years she and her partner. the Jamaican writer Michell Cliff, co-edited Sinister Wisdom, one of the most important lesbian journals. But Rich remained relatively private about the beginnings of her lifelong relationship with Cliff, who was seventeen years her junior. With “Twenty-One Love Poems,” a booklet republished in The Dream of a Common Language (1978), Rich broke silences about lesbian sexuality with a powerful set of images about transformative love between women, at once erotically explicit and also suggestive of the many ways transgression can be liberatory. Identifying the “emotional and erotic energies” of “female friendship and companionship” as part of a “lesbian continuum,” Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which first appeared in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society in 1980, became one of feminism’s foundational, and most often debated, texts.
Increasing political work, and the pressures of being one of the public faces of America’s political conscience, did not keep Rich from continuing to explore personal subjects in poems that were deeply interested in almost everything—engaged, curious, uncompromising and yet somehow still open-minded. Poems about family, about identity, about nature and the search for what one early poem calls “‘difficult ordinary happiness’” continued to appear throughout the remaining decades of Rich’s career, in a crystalline voice which was always open to doubt and reflection. Topics formerly considered inappropriate for poetry—such as rape, poverty, and racial (and linguistic) privilege—also increasingly appeared in poems that attempted to map both inner and outer life as if they were battlegrounds, with minefields in all directions. Her cartography demanded both responsibility and resistance.
As Rich’s poetic lines became freer and more open, reliant on the cadences of speech, enjambment, and the incorporation of other voices, her poems also remained in dialogue with a rich array of other poets—from Emily Dickinson to Mirza Gahlib—as well as an equally rich array of established and sometimes ancient poetic forms from many different regions and traditions. One reason that Rich was able to be both a voice of feminism—read by thousands of readers who read little other poetry—and also a poet’s poet, almost universally admired by other writers, is that her work has consistently remained as committed to complexity as to detailing—and fighting—oppression.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and into the next two decades as well, while teaching, editing, translating, and moving (in 1984) from the east coast to Santa Cruz, California, Rich continued to try and expand the limits of the possible by imagining the many important insights lost to official history. Into her work she wove the voices of diverse figures from Marie Curie to mountain climber Elvira Shatayev, from astronomer Caroline Herschel to a pregnant woman jailed for murder, and from Ethel Rosenberg to Rebecca Wright and Claudia Brenner, two lesbians shot on the Appalachian trail. Her 1996 edition of The Best American Poetry, entirely unlike any previous edition of that anthology, won accolades from many for expanding the poetic canon, although a few cavilers, such as Harold Bloom, complained. Rich worked with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews Against Genocide, New Jewish Agenda, and the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. She supported Palestine and opposed the Gulf and Iraq wars. In 1985 she traveled to Nicaragua and met with the Sandinistas. In 1997 she declined the National Medal for the Arts, protesting the nation’s racial and economic disparities and the Clinton administration’s willingness to weaken the National Endowment for the Arts.
During her lifetime Adrienne Rich taught at many colleges and universities, including Brandeis, Columbia, City College of CUNY, Cornell, Rutgers, Scripps, San Jose State, Stanford, Swarthmore, and the University of Chicago, and received numerous honorary degrees. She received almost every honor and award available to poets, including: National Institute of Arts and Letters award, Shelly Award from the Poetry Society of America, Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, Frost Medal, Wallace Stevens Award, Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, Commonwealth Award, National Book Award, Dorothea Tanning Prize of the Academy of American Poets, and in 1994 a MacArthur “genius” award.
Through all the challenges of fighting for recognition, and the many splits in her personal life, Rich refused to give up on a commitment to connection: with nature, with history, and with other people. Her poetry is both demanding and accessible, characterized by signature preoccupations that recur, with deepening complexity over the years, such as the sources of identity and power, the cruelty at the heart of much beauty, the surprise of sudden moments of grace, and the “criminal joy,” as she once put it, of poetry and language. She refused to minimize differences between people. Nor would she accept isolation as our destiny. Again and again her work reaches out to a reader who will engage it, asking for the “wild patience” to connect. “Honor” is not now a fashionable notion. But Rich restored and revitalized that archaic term to express a profound conviction that we are accountable to one another, and to the planet. That she did connect is amply demonstrated by the many readers who testify that Rich changed their lives, and by the range of readers reached by her work. At the time of her death in Santa Cruz at the age of eighty-two, nearly a million copies of her books (twenty-five books of poetry and seven books of prose) had been sold.
Adrienne Rich’s papers are at The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, as are the papers of her mother and her sister, along with those of Cynthia’s partner, Barbara Macdonald. Numerous volumes have collected Rich’s poetry and prose, along with criticism and reviews. Especially valuable, though both now very dated, are Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose (1975; revised ed., 1993) and Jane Roberta Cooper, ed. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951–1981 (1984). In 2005 Amy Sickels published a short biography of Adrienne Rich in the Chelsea House series on Gay and Lesbian Writers. Critical books include Paula Bennett, My Life as a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich and Female Creativity (1990); Claire Keyes, The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich (1986); Cheri Colby Langdell, Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change (2004); Wendy Martin, An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich (1984); and Liz Yorke, Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body (1997). Along with dozens of essays, many of Rich’s interviews can be located online. A particularly useful critical website can be found at the Modern American Poetry (MAPS) project: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/index.htm. A special issue of Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal was devoted to Rich in 1998 (27, no. 4). An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 28 Mar. 2012.
- Matthiessen, F. O. (1902-1950), educator, literary critic, and scholar
- Auden, W. H. (21 February 1907–29 September 1973), poet
- Carruth, Hayden (1862-1932), writer
- Friedan, Betty (1921-2006), writer and feminist activist
- Lorde, Audre (1934-1992), poet, essayist, and feminist
- Dickinson, Emily (1830-1886), poet
- Rosenberg, Ethel (1915-1953), accused spies