Study Guide

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich Biography

Introduction

Taken in its entirety, Rich’s work may be viewed as what Albert Gelpi has called “a poetics of change,” a systematic attempt to explore and understand change through poetry. Rich gradually developed a poetic voice that is both personal and universal.

Her consummate works of poetry, The Will to Change, Diving into the Wreck, and The Dream of a Common Language, along with some of her prose works, are frequently quoted because they seem to express the essence of a female consciousness; many of her phrases articulate important human experiences in novel ways. Rich’s use of poetry to link abstract metaphysical questions to concrete daily life revitalizes poetry, facilitates understanding, and offers relevance to some of the unanswerable cultural questions of our time.

Adrienne Rich Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201274-Rich.jpgAdrienne Rich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 1506 words.)

Adrienne Rich Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111201274-Rich.jpgAdrienne Rich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

As a child, Adrienne Rich was encouraged to write poetry by her father. At Radcliffe College, she continued to study the formal craft of poetry as practiced and taught by male teachers. In 1951, Rich’s first volume of poetry, A Change of World, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Rich was praised as a fine poet and as a modest young woman who respected her elders. The poems in her first two collections are traditional in form, modeled on the male poets Rich studied.

At twenty-four, Rich married a Harvard professor. She had three children by the time she was thirty. The conflict between the traditional roles of mother and wife and her professional accomplishments left her frustrated. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law begins to express a woman’s point of view. Rich moved to New York City in 1966 and became involved in civil rights and antiwar campaigns. In 1969, she separated from her husband, who committed suicide in 1970. During the 1970’s, Rich became a radical feminist, active in the women’s rights movement. The collections published during these years express these political themes.

Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976, and her collection The Dream of a Common Language includes explicitly lesbian poems. In the early 1980’s, she moved to western Massachusetts with her companion, Michelle Cliff. Her essays and poetry with political themes were sometimes criticized as more didactic than artful. Rich continued to evolve politically and artistically. She moved to California, writing and teaching at Stanford University. Her books published in the 1990’s confront the relationship of poetry and politics and issues of contemporary American life. Adrienne Rich’s life and work have sought to balance the conflicting demands of poetry, which is her vocation, with the ideology of engagement that her life has brought to her art.

Adrienne Rich Biography (Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

0111201274-Rich.jpgAdrienne Rich (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Author Profile

Adrienne Rich’s poetry and essays reflect her experiences as a fairly traditional 1950’s wife and mother through her growing consciousness as a “woman-identified” feminist and lesbian. In her poems, Rich voices the conflicts, confusion, anger, and desire for wholeness felt by millions of women. In the title poem of Diving into the Wreck (1973), she describes American culture’s “book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” The collection received a National Book Award; Rich declined the award personally but accepted in the name of all women. Her other books of poetry include The Will to Change (1971), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991).

In her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re- Vision,” from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), Rich urges women to practice feminist “re-visioning” of literature, history, and myth to find the silenced experiences and voices of women. She sees the “act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes” as “an act of survival” for women. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), Rich ties this revisioning to women reclaiming ownership of their bodies. By thus learning to “think through the body, . . . [s]exuality, politics, intelligence, power, work, motherhood, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.”

Another key essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), suggests that women who have strong relationships with other women apply a wider definition of the term “lesbian” to themselves as a challenge to the patriarchal mandate of “compulsory heterosexuality.”

Bibliography

Altieri, Charles. “Self-Reflection as Action: The Recent Work of Adrienne Rich.” In Self and Sensibility in...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Adrienne Rich Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in 1929, into a white, middle-class southern family. Her Jewish father, Arnold Rice Rich, taught medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. Her southern Protestant mother, Helen Jones Rich, was trained as a composer and concert pianist but gave up her career to devote herself to her husband and two daughters. She carried out their early education at home, until the girls began to attend school in fourth grade. Her father encouraged his daughter to read and to write poetry. In his library, she found the work of such writers as Matthew Arnold, William Blake, Thomas Carlyle, John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, the year her first...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Adrienne Rich Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201274-Rich.jpgAdrienne Rich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The daughter of a gentile mother, Helen Jones, who was an accomplished pianist, and a Jewish doctor of pathology at The Johns Hopkins University, Arnold Rich, Adrienne Cecile Rich has written poetry that is important to the women’s movement in the United States and to many of the social and political changes it engendered. Her mother instilled in her a love for the lyrical and the rhythmical, and her father, acting as tutor, encouraged her to master complicated poetic meters and rhyme schemes.

Rich attended Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1951, the same year in which her first book of poetry, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award. Although she was later...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Adrienne Rich Biography (Poetry for Students)

Rich was born in 1929, in Baltimore, Maryland, to a well-to-do family. Her father was a physician, and her mother had aspirations of being a...

(The entire section is 486 words.)