Adrienne Cecile Rich
1929 – 2012
Adrienne Rich, one of the best American poets of our time, is not someone who would take pride in the description, “not just a woman poet.” She has shown that, far from being a limiting or qualifying word, “woman” can be a badge of honor. It can speak of possibilities too long unexplored and passions once turned away. It can be a declaration of freedom and of power.
Adrienne Rich was born on May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Helen Elizabeth Rich, a composer and pianist, taught her at home until the fourth grade. Her father, Arnold Rich, a physician with a great love of books, encouraged Adrienne in her ambitions to be a writer. She attended Radcliffe College, where she graduated cum laude in 1951.
It was also in 1951 that Rich published her first book of poetry, A Change of World, which received immediate acclaim. Indeed, poet W.H. Auden had chosen it to be published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a great honor in itself. Two years later, Rich married economist Alfred Haskell Conrad and, within six years, had given birth to three sons. In 1955, her book The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems garnered even more positive critical attention.
Speaking of her early work, critics use such words as “formal,” “elegant,” and “controlled.” She had that combination of consummate skill and great talent—even genius—that compels the predominantly white male literary establishment to make exceptions.
“When the Civil Rights movement came along in the late fifties, early sixties,” Rich said in a 1991 interview, “and I began to hear Black voices describing and analyzing what were the concrete issues for Black people, like segregation, like racism, it came to me as a great relief. It was like finding language for something that I’d needed a language for all along. That was the first place where I heard a language to name oppression. And it was an enormous relief, even as it threw up a lot of questions for me as to where I stood with all this.”
In 1963, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954–1962 was published. Speaking in a 1994 interview with Matthew Rothschild, Rich said, “When I was putting together the manuscript of my third book ... which contains what I think of as my first overtly feminist poem, called “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” some friends of mine looked at the manuscript and said, ‘Now don’t give it this title. People will think it’s some sort of female diatribe or complaint.’ I wanted that title and I wanted that poem.” Rich’s friends were right in their predictions. Previously laudatory critics censured the book for being “too personal, too bitter.” But the poet had found an essential part of her voice. She was a not a good girl; she was a dangerous woman.
Dangerous or not, Rich was too fine a poet to be ignored. She continued to be an important figure in American poetry. She also continued to work out the issues of feminism and womanhood in her personal life. In 1966, she separated from her husband of thirteen years. When he committed suicide four years later, she was left with three adolescent boys to rear on her own. She was also deeply involved in the major political struggles of the time—the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement.
The response to Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972 reflected the tension of Rich’s position as a poet. It was unabashedly, even militantly, feminist—and it won the National Book Award. It was a hard pill for many literary men—and some women—to swallow. One of the best poets of the day was, at one and the same time, one of those loudmouthed “women’s liberationists.” And there was worse to come. Rich declined to accept the National Book Award in her own name, deploring the idea of competition among poets. Instead, she accepted it in the name of all women and donated the money to charity.
She then attacked motherhood. At any rate, she attacked the patriarchal underpinnings of our conception of motherhood. This time her medium was prose, a book entitled Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.
By this time Rich was as controversial a figure as contemporary literature has produced. Helen Vendler, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, singled out the poem “Rape” in Diving into the Wreck for particular damnation. “This poem,” she wrote, “like some others [in the book], is a deliberate refusal of the modulations of intelligence in favor of ... propaganda.” Harvard Magazine’s Ruth Whitman, on the other hand, called the title poem of the volume “one of the great poems of our time.”
In the late 1970s, another segment of the “unheard” found representation in Rich’s work as her lesbianism became a more important element in her poetic voice. The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 incorporated an earlier work, Twenty-One Love Poems. This collection was followed by A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978–1981. During the same period, Rich wrote numerous essays, addressing issues in literature and in lesbian-feminist politics. These were collected in Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 and Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979–1986
Rich and poet/novelist Michelle Cliff, who became her life companion, and with whom she lives in Santa Cruz, California, coedited a lesbian-feminist journal entitled Sinister Wisdom from 1980 to 1984. Also in 1980, Rich published Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, another prose work. Beginning in the 1980s, Rich began increasingly to speak of her Jewish heritage, as in Your Native Land, Your Life, published in 1986. In An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991, she continues this theme as it embraces the necessity of poet and citizen to remain grounded in reality, in the difficulties and struggles of the world. There is no honorable escape into “pure art.”
In 1994, Rich published What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. The title is from a poem by William Carlos Williams, which states quite clearly a belief the two poets share. “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day for lack / of what is found there.” To Rich, as to Williams, poetry is a necessary thing, a source of essential nourishment and a force for change. In the book, she laments that “poetry is banned in the United States” and “under house arrest.” It has been neutralized by the assumption that it is obscure, effete and written for other poets.
Rich’s poetry is none of those things. It is rich in the beauty of language, but at the same time enormously accessible. It is filled with passion and compassion. And it is always grounded in the realities of life in this time and this country, although its very concreteness helps it to transcend the boundaries of time and place.In What Is Found There, Rich addresses the issue of Jewishness and “whiteness.” Peter Erickson in the Kenyon Review says that Rich “does not find that her Jewishness cancels or mitigates her whiteness but instead explores both as valid aspects of her identity. Although Rich’s Jewish affiliation is strongly in evidence here, she is also eloquent about the effects of her own whiteness.” She acknowledges that being white has sometimes kept her from noticing the diversity around her, or of noticing when it disappeared and the faces around her became uniformly white.
In the volume Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991–1995, Rich affirms the value of the personal, the individual, the intimate. But at the same time, she declares that “the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged / into our personal weather.”
Interspersed among the poems of the school among the ruins (2004), which depict the many and disparate realities of the early years of the twenty-first century, are references to Israel and Jewish terminology. In one poem, Rich “interviews” an Israeli soldier who regrets some of the orders he carried out; in another, she questions what we are carrying with us into the twenty-first century and answers: “Sacks of laundry/of books… Pet iguanas/oxygen tanks/The tablets of Moses.” Throughout her life, Rich has taught at a number of colleges and universities, beginning as a lecturer at Swarthmore College in 1967 and continuing through the Graduate School of the Arts of Columbia University and on to City College of the City University of New York. In 1972, she left New York to teach at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Among the other institutions where Rich carried on her work as both poet and teachers are Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, Cornell, Scripps, Pacific Oaks, and Stanford. She has also been a member of the advisory board of the Boston Woman’s Fund and New Jewish Agenda. She was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1999, having received their Tanning Award for Mastery in the Art of Poetry (the Wallace Stevens Award) in 1996.
She has been the recipient of nearly every major literary award, including the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), the Common Wealth Award in Literature (1991), the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry (1989), the Frost Silver Medal for lifetime achievement (1992), a MacArthur Fellowship (1994), the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (1999) and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (2003).
But in 1997 Rich publicly refused to accept the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s foremost award in the arts. In a letter published by the New York Times, Rich wrote to Jane Alexander, then-head of the National Endowment for the Arts: “I cannot accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”In a further letter to Alexander, she explained:
…Art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored… My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.
Upon reading Rich’s Midnight Salvage (1999), former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass wrote that what “distinguishes her art is a restless need to confront difficulty, a refusal to be easily appeased.” Rich continues to be unappeased, and she continues to write.
The school among the ruins: Poems 2000–2004 (2004); Editor of Muriel Rukeyser Selected Poems (2004); What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (2003); Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001); Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (2001); The Facts of a Doorframe: Poems 1951-2001 (2001); Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (1999); A Change of World (1951); A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978–1981 (1981); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 (1991); Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979–1986 (1986); Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980); Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991–1995 (1995); Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972 (1973); Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (1979); Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976); Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954–1962 (1963); The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955); The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 (1978); What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1994); Your Native Land, Your Life (1986).
Adrienne Rich died on March 28, 2012.
“Adrienne Cecile Rich.” In Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women (1994); Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 20; Erickson, Peter. “Singing America: From Walt Whitman to Adrienne Rich.” Kenyon Review (January 1, 1995); Hass, Robert. “Poet’s Choice.” Washington Post Book World, May 16, 1999; Rich, Adrienne. “Why I Refused the National Medal of the Arts.” Los Angeles Times Book Section (August 3, 1997); Rothschild, Matthew. “Adrienne Rich.” Progressive (January 1, 1994).
Adrienne Rich died on March 28, 2012.