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Rich's Life and Career

Deborah Pope

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 liberating reality.

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 women's movement.

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.

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