Rich’s Life And Career–by Deborah Pope Essay, Research Paper
There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so
many areas of the contemporary women’s movement as the poet and theorist Adrienne Rich.
Over the years, hers has become one of the most eloquent, provocative voices on the
politics of sexuality, race, language, power, and women’s culture. There is scarcely an
anthology of feminist writings that does not contain her work or specifically engage her
ideas, a women’s studies course that does not read her essays, or a poetry collection that
does not include her work or that of the next generation of poets steeped in her example.
In nineteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays–On Lies, Secrets and
Silence (1979), Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), and What Is Found There:
Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)–the ground-breaking study of motherhood, Of
Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), the editing of
influential lesbian-feminist journals, and a lifetime of activism and visibility, the work
of Adrienne Rich has persistently resonated at the heart of contemporary feminism and its
resistance to racism, militarism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.
Rich was born 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two daughters of Arnold
Rich, a doctor and pathology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Helen Jones Rich,
a gifted pianist and composer who had given up a possible professional musical career to
raise a family. In her long autobiographical poem "Sources" (1983) and the essay
"Split at the Root" (Blood, Bread and Poetry), Rich recalls her
growing-up years as overtly dominated by the intellectual presence and demands of her
father, while covertly marked by the submerged tensions and silences arising from the
conflicts between the religious and cultural heritage of her father’s Jewish background
and her mother’s southern Protestantism. Her relationship with her father was one of
strong identification and desire for approval, yet it was adversarial in many ways. Under
his tutelage Rich first began to write poetry, conforming to his standards well past her
early successes and publications.
In 1951, Rich graduated from Radcliffe, and also won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets
Prize for her first book, A Change of World. W. H. Auden, the judge of the award,
wrote a preface for the book that acquired eventual notoriety for its classic tones of
male condescension and paternalism to female artists. Yet, the preface accurately
describes Rich’s elegant technique, chiseled formalism, and restrained emotional content.
Rich’s early poems clearly announced in theme and style their debt to Frost, Yeats,
Stevens, and Auden himself, and received their high acclaim on the basis of that fidelity.
In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, and moved to Cambridge,
Massachusetts, where she bore three sons in the next five years. As her journal entries
from these years reveal, this was an emotionally and artistically difficult period; she
was struggling with conflicts over the prescribed roles of womanhood versus those of
artistry, over tensions between sexual and creative roles, love, and anger. Yet, in the
late fifties and early sixties, these were issues she could not easily name to herself;
indeed, they were feelings for which she felt guilty, even "monstrous," and for
which there was as yet no wider cultural recognition, much less insight or analysis.
Rich’s third book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), which was eight years
in the writing, stands as a watershed in her poetic development. For the first time, in
language freer and more intimate and contextual, she situates her materials and emotions
against themes of language, boundaries, resistance, escape, and moments of life-altering
choice. As the poem "The Roofwalker" states, "A life I didn’t choose/chose
me," while "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" rhetorically asserts that
the safety of enclosures and illusions must be abandoned for the claims of a risky but
The critical reaction to Snapshots was negative, with objections to its bitter
tone and the shift away from her hallmarks of formalism and emotional control. Tellingly,
feeling she had "flunked," Rich wrote Necessities of Life (1966) with a
focus on death as the sign of how occluded and erased she felt when her own sense of
coming into her rightful subject matter and voice was denied. Necessities, personally
and poetically, was less a retreat than a pause. Coinciding with her personal and poetic
evolution was the tremendous force of the historical moment. Rich’s earlier, inchoate
feelings of personal conflict, sexual alienation, and cultural oppression were finding
increasing articulation in the larger social/political currents gathering force throughout
the sixties, from the civil rights movements to the antiwar movement, to the emergent
Rich moved to New York in 1966, when her husband took a teaching position at City
College. She taught in the SEEK program, a remedial English program for poor, black, and
third world students entering college, which was raising highly political questions about
the collision of cultural codes of expression and the relation of language to power,
issues that have consistently been addressed in Rich’s work. She was also strongly
impressed during this time by the work of James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir. Though
Rich and her husband were both involved in movements for social justice, it was to the
women’s movement that Rich gave her strongest allegiance. In its investigation of sexual
politics, its linkage, as Rich phrased it, of "Vietnam and the lovers’ bed," she
located her grounding for issues of language, sexuality, oppression, and power that
infused all the movements for liberation from a male-dominated world.
Rich’s poetry has clearly recorded, imagined, and forecast her personal and political
journeys with searing power. In 1956, she began dating her poems to underscore their
existence within a context, and to argue against the idea that poetry existed separately
from the poet’s life. Stylistically, she began to draw on contemporary rhythms and images,
especially those derived from the cinematic techniques of jump cuts and collage. Leaflets
(1969), The Will to Change (1971), and Diving into the Wreck (1973)
demonstrate a progressive coming to power as Rich contends against the desolation
patriarchy enacts on literal and psychic landscape. Intimately connected with this
struggle for empowerment and action is the deepening of her determination "to write
directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience." In the poem
"Tear Gas," she asserts "The will to change begins in the body not in the
mind/My politics is in my body." Yet this tactic has not led Rich to a poetry that is
in a way confessional. Rich’s voice is most characteristically the voice of witness,
oracle, or mythologizer, the seer with the burden of "verbal privilege" and the
weight of moral imagination, who speaks for the speechless, records for the forgotten,
invents anew at the site of erasure of women’s lives.
With each subsequent volume–Twenty-One Love Poems (1976), A Wild Patience
Has Taken Me This Far (1981), The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New
(1984), Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time’s Power (1989), and most
recently An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)–Rich has confirmed and
radicalized her fusion of political commitment and poetic vision. In her urging women to
"revision" and to be "disloyal," she has engaged ever-wider
experiences of women across cultures, history, and ethnicity, addressing themes of verbal
privilege, mate violence, and lesbian identity.
Over the years, Rich has taught at Swarthmore, Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell,
San Jose State and Stanford University. Since 1976, she has lived with the writer and
editor Michelle Cliff. She is active in movements for gay and lesbian rights, reproductive
freedom, and for the progressive Jewish movement New Jewish Agenda. In 1981, she received
the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay Task Force. Her poetry has been
honored with the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck (which she
accepted jointly with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde in the name of all women who are
silenced), two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Brandeis
Creative Arts Medal, the Common Wealth Award, the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime
Achievement, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the
Art of Poetry.
From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.
Copyright ? 1995 by Oxford University Press.