Adrienne Rich

1929–2012
Adrienne RichColleen McKay

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly radical in both its free-verse form and feminist and political content. Rich’s metamorphosis was noted by Carol Muske in the New York Times Book Review; Muske wrote that Rich began as a "polite copyist of Yeats and Auden, wife and mother. She has progressed in life (and in her poems …) from young widow and disenchanted formalist, to spiritual and rhetorical convalescent, to feminist leader...and doyenne of a newly-defined female literature."
 
Beginning with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963), Rich’s work has explored issues of identity, sexuality and politics; her formally ambitious poetics have reflected her continued search for social justice, her role in the anti-war movement, and her radical feminism. Utilizing speech cadences, enjambment and irregular line and stanza lengths, Rich’s open forms have sought to include ostensibly “non-poetic” language into poetry. Best known for her politically-engaged verse from the tumultuous Vietnam-war period, Rich’s collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) won the National Book Award; Rich, however, accepted it with fellow-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women. A noted writer of prose, Rich’s numerous essay collections, including A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society (2009) also secured her place as one of America’s preeminent feminist thinkers. In addition to the National Book Award, Rich received numerous awards and commendations for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. She made headlines in 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts for political reasons. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote in a letter published in the New York Times “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”
 
Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother was a former concert pianist. Rich’s upbringing was dominated by the intellectual ambitions her father had for her, and Rich excelled at academics, gaining her degree from Radcliffe University. In 1953 she married Alfred Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard. She had three children with him, but their relationship began to fray in the 1960s as Rich became politically aware—she later stated that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” Rich’s work of the 1960s and ‘70s begins to show the signs of that radicalization. Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich’s collections from this period include Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971), all of which feature looser lines and radical political content. David Zuger, in Poet and Critic, described the changes in Rich's work: "The twenty-year-old author of painstaking, decorous poems that are eager to 'maturely' accept the world they are given becomes a ... poet of prophetic intensity and 'visionary anger' bitterly unable to feel at home in a world 'that gives no room / to be what we dreamt of being.'"

Conrad died in 1970 and six years later Rich moved in with her long-term partner Michelle Cliff. That same year she published her controversial, influential collection of essays Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience (1976). The volume, following on the heels of her masterpiece Diving Into the Wreck, ensured Rich’s place in the feminist pantheon. Rich was criticized by some for her harsh depictions of men; however, the work she produced during this period is often seen as her finest. In Ms. Erica Jong noted that "Rich is one of the few poets who can deal with political issues in her poems without letting them degenerate into social realism." Focusing on the title poem, Jong also denies that Rich is anti-male. A portion of the poem reads: "And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams black, the merman in his armored body. / We circle silently / about the wreck. / We dive into the hold. / I am she: I am he." Jong commented, "This stranger-poet-survivor carries 'a book of myths' in which her/his 'names do not appear.' These are the old myths ... that perpetuate the battle between the sexes. Implicit in Rich's image of the androgyne is the idea that we must write new myths, create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm but heal it."

Rich's prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their erudite, lucid, and poetic treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979), furthers her feminist aesthetic and contains one of Rich's most-noted essays, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which Rich clarifies the need for female self-definition. Publishing a new collection every few years, in 2009 Rich released A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society. Rich again explored the intersection of poetry and the political in essays and reviews. San Francisco Gate contributor Michael Roth noted that in the book “Rich continues to refuse to separate the artistic from the political, and she articulates in powerful ways how a truly radical political agenda can draw upon an aesthetic vision.”
 
Rich’s poetry has maintained its overtly political, feminist edge throughout the decades since the Vietnam War and the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. In collections like Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time's Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1988), and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991 (1991), Rich begins to address the Jewish heritage that she was forced to hide during her early life. Throughout all three books, Rich uses personal experience, first-person narratives, and rich and varied language. Rich’s later poetry engages both the personal and political in ambitious ways. Though Midnight Salvage, Poems, 1995-1998 (1999) is a quieter collection that focuses on “the quest for personal happiness,” according to Rafael Campo who reviewed the volume for the Progressive, it also circles “the problem of defining 'happiness'—in an American society that continues to exploit its most defenseless citizens, and in the face of a larger world where contempt for human rights leads to nightmare." Such an emphasis on the social conditions of private lives has been a mainstay in Rich’s later work, which often explores the influence of contemporary world events. The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004 (2004), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, attempts to capture the myriad events that have defined the beginning of the twenty-first century. The predominantly short prose poems in The School among the Ruins are free verse meditations on "the displacement of exiles, the encroachment of modernity on human dignity, and the effects of America's war against terror on the stateside psyche," noted Meghan O'Rourke in Artforum. Although O'Rourke felt the collection veered too much into "rhetoric," other critics found the juxtaposition of cell-phone and television dialogue stunningly effective.
 
Rich’s 2007 collection Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth was her twenty-fourth; however, since the mid-50s, Rich has conceived of her poetry as a long process, rather than a series of separate books. Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth continues to use open forms, including notebook-like fragments. The book as whole, noted Lee Sharkey in the Beloit Poetry Journal, is concerned with “dissolution and disappearance…The Rich persona who for half a century has been engaged in a continual process of undoing her own certainties owns up to how those certainties have blinded her.” Layering images and utilizing a stripped-down line help contribute to “the new, still more difficult perspective she has achieved,” Sharkey noted, though Rich “allows no point of resolution in the poem beyond juxtaposed images of cultural, environmental, and personal dissolution.”

Through over sixty years of public introspection and examination of society and self, Adrienne Rich has chronicled her journey in poetry and prose. "I began as an American optimist," she commented in Credo of a Passionate Skeptic, "albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War...I became an American Skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation's leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing."

 

(Updated 2012)

Career

Poet and writer. Conductor of workshop, YM-YWHA Poetry Center, New York, NY, 1966-67; visiting lecturer, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, 1967-69; adjunct professor in writing division, Columbia University, Graduate School of the Arts, New York, NY, 1967-69; City College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, lecturer in SEEK English program, 1968-70, instructor in creative writing program, 1970-71, assistant professor of English, 1971-72, and 1974-75; Fannie Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Literature, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 1972-73; Lucy Martin Donnelly fellow, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, 1975; professor of English, Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 1976-78; A. D. White Professor-at-Large, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 1982-85; Clark Lecturer and distinguished visiting professor, Scripps College, Claremont, CA, 1983, 1984; visiting professor, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, 1984-96; Burgess Lecturer, Pacific Oaks College, Pasadena, CA, 1986; professor of English and feminist studies, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 1986-92; Marjorie Kovler visiting fellow, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1989; National Director, The National Writers' Voice Project, 1992—. Member of advisory board, Boston Woman's Fund, National Writers Union, Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa and New Jewish Agenda.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • A Change of World, with foreword by W.H. Auden, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1951.
  • Poems, Oxford University Poetry Society (New York, NY), 1952.
  • The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1955.
  • Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954-1962, Harper (New York, NY), 1963, revised edition, Norton (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Necessities of Life, Norton (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Selected Poems, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1967.
  • Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968, Norton (New York, NY), 1969.
  • The Will to Change: Poems, 1968-1970, Norton (New York, NY), 1971.
  • Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971-1972, Norton (New York, NY), 1973.
  • Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974, Norton (New York, NY), 1974.
  • Twenty-one Love Poems, Effie's Press (Emeryville, CA), 1977.
  • The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977, Norton (New York, NY), 1978.
  • A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978-1981, Norton (New York, NY), 1981.
  • Sources, Heyeck Press (Woodside, CA), 1983.
  • The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984, Norton (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Your Native Land, Your Life, Norton (New York, NY), 1986.
  • Time's Power: Poems, 1985-1988, Norton (New York, NY), 1988.
  • An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Dark Fields of the Republic, 1991-1995, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Selected Poems, 1950-1995, Salmon Publishers (Knockeven, Ireland), 1996.
  • Midnight Salvage: Poems, 1995-1998, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Fox: Poems, 1998-2000, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
  • The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
  • Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006, Norton (New York, NY), 2007.
Also guest editor for Best American Poetry of 1996, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
PROSE
  • Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution, Norton (New York, NY), 1976, 10th anniversary edition with a revised introduction, 1986.
  • Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (pamphlet), Motheroot Publishing/ Pittsburgh Women Writers (Pittsburgh, PA), 1977.
  • On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978, Norton (New York, NY), 1979.
  • Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (pamphlet), Antelope Publications (Denver, CO), 1980.
  • Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1986, Norton (New York, NY), 1986.
  • (With Susan Morland) Birth of the Age of Women, Wild Caret (Hereford, England), 1991.
  • What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Norton (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, Norton (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Poetry and Commitment: An Essay, Norton (New York, NY), 2007.
  • A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008, Norton (New York, NY), 2009.
TRANSLATOR
  • (And editor, with Aijaz Ahmad and William Stafford) Poems by Ghalib, Hudson Review (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Mark Insingel, Reflections, Red Dust (New York, NY), 1973.
Also contributor of translations to Poets on Street Corners: Portraits of Fifteen Russian Poets, edited by Olga Carlisle, Random House (New York, NY), 1968; A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Holt (New York, NY), 1969; and Selected Poems of Mirza Ghalib, edited by Aijaz Ahmad, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1971, World Treasury of Poetry, 1996.
OTHER
  • Ariadne: A Play in Three Acts and Poems (drama), J.H. Furst (Baltimore, MD), 1939.
  • Not I, but Death: A Play in One Act (drama), J.H. Furst (Baltimore, MD), 1941.
Columnist, American Poetry Review, 1972-73. Coeditor, Sinister Wisdom, 1981-84; contributing editor, Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture; founding coeditor, Bridges: A Journal of Jewish Feminists and Our Friends, 1989-92.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Atwood, Margaret,Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1984.
  • Dickie, Margaret, Stein, Bishop & Rich: Lyrics of Love, War & Place, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1997.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Ostriker, Alicia, Writing Like a Woman, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1983.
  • Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Shaw, Robert B., editor, American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Dufour Editions (Chester Springs, PA), 1974.
  • Sielke, Sabine, Fashioning the Female Subject: The Intertextual Networking of Dickinson, Moore, and Rich, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.
  • Templeton, Alice, The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich's Feminist Poetics, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1994.
  • Werner, Craig Hansen, Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics, American Library Association (Chicago, IL), 1988.

PERIODICALS

  • Adirondack Review, September 13, 2001, Ace Boggess, review of Fox: Poems, 1998-2000.
  • Advocate, June 22, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 7; June 19, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 97.
  • American Book Review, August, 1994, p. 16; November, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 5.
  • American Poetry Review, September-October, 1973; March-April, 1975; July-August, 1979; July-August, 1992, pp. 35-38.
  • Artforum, October-November, 2004, Meghan O'Rourke, review of The School among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004, p. 54.
  • Atlantic, June, 1978.
  • Belles Lettres, fall, 1994, p. 37.
  • Bloomsbury Review, March, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 7.
  • Booklist, January 1, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 821; March 15, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 1276; October 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Fox, p. 295; August, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The School among the Ruins, p. 1982.
  • Bookwatch, June, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 2.
  • Choice, October, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 4.
  • Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 1966; July 24, 1969; January 26, 1977.
  • Contemporary Literature, winter, 1975; winter, 1992, pp. 645-664; spring, 1993, pp. 61-87.
  • Economist, March 13, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 14.
  • Harper's, December, 1973; November, 1978.
  • Harvard Magazine, July-August, 1975; January-February, 1977.
  • Hudson Review, autumn, 1971; autumn, 1975; summer, 1992, pp. 319-330; winter, 2002, review of Fox, p. 687.
  • Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 104; March 1, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 1527.
  • Lambda Book Report, October 2001, Ruthann Robson, review of Fox, p. 25.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 1999, review ofMidnight Salvage, p. 57; September 15, 2001, review of Fox, p. 85; April 15, 2002, review of Fox, p. 90; August, 2004, Diane Scharper, review of The School among the Ruins, p. 86.
  • Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1986; June 7, 1986.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 17, 1982; March 25, 1984; April 1, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 11.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Section, August 3, 1997, Adrienne Rich, "Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts."
  • Massachusetts Review, autumn, 1983.
  • Michigan Quarterly Review, summer, 1976; winter, 1983; fall, 1996, pp. 586-607.
  • Modern Poetry Studies, autumn, 1977.
  • Monthly Review, June 2001, Adrienne Rich, "Credo of a Passionate Skeptic."
  • Ms., July, 1973; December, 1981; August 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 80.
  • Nation, July 28, 1951; October 8, 1973; July 1, 1978; December 23, 1978; June 7, 1986, pp. 797-798; October 23, 1989; November 30, 1992, pp. 673-674.
  • New Leader, May 26, 1975.
  • New Republic, November 6, 1976; December 9, 1978; June 2, 1979; January 7-14, 1985.
  • New Statesman, March 26, 1999, Adam Newey, review ofMidnight Salvage, p. 57.
  • Newsweek, October 18, 1976.
  • New Yorker, November 3, 1951; April 25, 1994, p. 111.
  • New York Review of Books, May 7, 1970; October 4, 1973; September 30, 1976; December 17, 1981; November 21, 1991, pp. 50-56.
  • New York Times, May 13, 1951; August 25, 1973.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1966; May 23, 1971; December 30, 1973; April 27, 1975; October 10, 1976; June 11, 1978; April 22, 1979; December 9, 1981; December 20, 1981; January 7, 1985; January 20, 1985; December 8, 1991, p. 7; November 7, 1993, p. 7; April 21, 1996, pp. 32-33.
  • Off Our Backs, January, 2002, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 51.
  • Parnassus, fall-winter, 1973; spring-summer, 1979.
  • Partisan Review, winter, 1978.
  • Poet and Critic, Volume 9, number 2, 1976; Volume 10, number 2, 1978.
  • Poetry, February, 1955; July, 1963; March, 1970; February, 1976; August, 1992, pp. 284-304; April 1999, "The Best American Poetry, 1996."
  • Prairie Schooner, summer, 1978.
  • Progressive, January, 1994, Matthew Rothschild, "Adrienne Rich: 'I Happen to Think Poetry Makes a Huge Difference'"; July, 1999, Rafael Campo, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 43; January, 2002, review of Fox, p. 40.
  • Publishers Weekly, March 26, 2001, review of Arts of the Possible, p. 83; August 6, 2001, review of Fox, p. 86; November 1, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 55.
  • Radcliffe Quarterly, summer, 2001, Wendy Mnookin, review of Arts of the Possible.
  • Salmagundi, spring-summer, 1973; spring-summer, 1979.
  • San Francisco Magazine, January, 1999, Dana Gioia, review of Midnight Salvage.
  • Saturday Review, December 18, 1971; November 13, 1976.
  • Southern Review, April, 1969; summer, 1999, review of Southern Midnight, p. 621.
  • Southwest Review, autumn, 1975.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 23, 1967; June 9, 1972; April 20, 1973; November 12, 1982; July 20, 1984; July 8, 1994, p. 9.
  • Village Voice, November 8, 1976.
  • Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1981.
  • Washington Post Book World, December 23, 1973; November 14, 1976; December 5, 1976; December 3, 1978; May 6, 1979; May 20, 1982; November 11, 2001, review of Fox, p. 295.
  • Women's Review of Books, December, 1983; April, 1987, pp. 5-6; March, 1990, pp. 12-13.
  • World Literature Today, winter, 1979; autumn, 2000, Sandra Cookson, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 821; summer-autumn, 2002, B.A. St. Andrews, review of Arts of the Possible, p73.
  • Yale Review, autumn, 1956; autumn, 1978; April, 1999, review of Midnight Salvage, p. 175.

ONLINE

  • American Poems, http:/ / www.americanpoems.com/ (June 2, 2003), "Adrienne Rich."
  • Dana Gioia Online, http:// www.danagioia.com/ (January, 1999), review of Midnight Salvage.
  • Metro Active, http:// www.metroactive.com/ (June 6, 2003), Traci Hukill, "Adrienne Rich Explores Horror and Hope in Midnight Salvage. "
  • Norton Poets Online, http:// www.nortonpoets.com/ (June 2, 2003).
  • St. Martin's Press, http:// www.bedfordstmartins.com/ (June 2, 2003).*

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LIFE SPAN 1929–2012

Adrienne Rich

Biography

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly . . .

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