Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929, the elder of two daughters. Her father, Dr. Arnold Rich, was a medical professor at John Hopkins University, and her mother, Helen Jones, was trained as a concert pianist though she abandoned this career to devote herself to her domestic responsibilities and to teach. Rich’s father, a man of science, was extremely well versed in the humanities and steeped Rich in the tradition of his favorite English poets, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John Keats. Her relationship with her father dominated both her upbringing and her subsequent poetic career.
While she was in her senior year at Radcliffe College, Rich’s first collection of poems, A Change of World (1951), was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award. These early poems reflect tight formalist lyrics and, as Auden notes, the poems focus more on modest and discretionary content than her later poems.
After graduation, Rich was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to travel in Europe. In 1953, she married Alfred Haskell Conrad, a Harvard economist six years her senior. They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where their first son, David, was born in 1955. Rich published her second book of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems, the same year. This collection, which contains a number of travel poems based on her experiences in Europe, continued the formalism denoted in A Change of World. Rich bore two more sons, Paul in 1957 and Jacob in 1959. During this time, Rich devoted herself to fulfilling the socially prescribed roles of wife and mother and allocated little energy to writing. (She describes the problems of this period of her life in “When We Dead Awaken” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, a collection of essays published in 1979.) Rich found these roles at odds with her aspirations, and this tension became a productive force in her later work.
After eight years, Rich broke her silence with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), a more personal work, in which she began to explore her identity as a woman, marking a significant new direction in her work. However, the book received much criticism for its focus on women, so in Necessities of Life (1966), Rich retreated to the more “universal” and traditional themes present in some of her earlier work.
In 1966, Rich moved to New York City, where she became involved in the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement. Her presence in the literary arena was more pronounced, as she focused on teaching, giving lectures, and offering poetry readings. Rich’s father died in early 1968 after a long illness, and in Leaflets (1969), she confronted both the personal changes taking place in her own life and the problems of American society as a whole as she grappled with the need to break with the past. Rich excelled early as a technical virtuoso in her poetry, but now she abandoned that formal expertise and experimented with fragmentation, pushing at the limits of coherence to express new poetic ideas. This experimentation resulted in The Will to Change in 1971.
This period of experimentation was interrupted by a personal loss. Rich’s marriage had deteriorated during the 1960’s, and, after the couple separated in 1970, Alfred Conrad committed suicide. Rich has seldom referred to this event publicly (one important exception is “From a Survivor” in Diving into the Wreck, 1973), consistently refusing to use the event as “a theme for poetry or tragic musings.” The impact of the loss, therefore, remains...