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.
Further Reading on Adrienne Rich
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.