Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506
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 difficult to trace in her work, but it clearly precipitated many changes. It forced Rich to explore a new way of writing and allowed a different side of her identity to emerge in the early 1970’s. In 1973, she published Diving into the Wreck, one of her most important collections. Rich was again criticized for the personal and even militant tone of her poetry; nevertheless, Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award in 1974.
As a token of her newfound sense of shared identity with other women, Rich accepted the award on behalf of Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who were also nominated. In Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974 (1975), a retrospective selection of her previously published works as well as a number of new poems, Rich summarized her poetic career.
In the 1970’s, Rich began the process of embracing and publicizing her lesbianism. This involved not only taking a personal stand but also developing the theme of sexuality to explore broader political issues, connections that became increasingly evident in her work. An example is Twenty-one Love Poems (1976), which was reprinted as part of the important collection The Dream of a Common Language (1978), a work that contributed significantly to Rich’s poetic reputation. In this collection, Rich continued her formal experimentation while developing the theme of women’s love and commitment as a source of power. Rich also began publishing her most important prose works in the 1970’s, including Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.
In A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), Rich reached an acceptance of anger and shifted her focus to a reverence for everyday life, in which she was able to perceive the connections with all forms of life. This reconciliation with the present allowed Rich to take up the unfinished business of her past. In Sources (1983), she undertook an investigation of her repressed roots as a southern Jew, another source of personal power. Rich’s mother was not Jewish, but her father was, and yet through internalized anti-Semitism, he was proud of his ability to become assimilated into non-Jewish society, leaving a complex legacy for Rich to unravel.
In 1984, Rich left the East Coast for California. A second retrospective of her work appeared that year, titled The Fact of a Doorframe, and Sources was reprinted as part of Your Native Land, Your Life in 1986. Rich extended her investigation of the continued relevance of the past in Time’s Power (1989). She also published her collected prose writings: Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986), a collection of essays and speeches, testifies to the importance of her role as spokeswoman for the women’s movement. It contains important essays (for example, on the role of memory) that inform the reading of her poetry.
Rich experienced increased popularity in the 1990’s. An Atlas of the Difficult World was published in 1991 and is considered one of her best collections. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) is a work of nonfiction that focuses on the materialistic fascination that became widespread in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. For Rich, this is a disease of the mind which she asserts cannot be ignored. Dark Fields of the Republic (1995) revisits the theme started in An Atlas of the Difficult World of the disappointment and pain that can be associated with identifying with one’s country. Rich is demanding that her readers become politically and culturally aware. Rich also published two compilations of old and new poetry during this period: Collected Early Poems, 1950-1970 (1993) and Selected Poems, 1950-1995 (1996). In Midnight Salvage (1999), Rich revisited her cutting-edge tone, collecting poems that critically examine and interweave the malicious nature of history, one’s search for self, human longing, love, and beauty. She incorporated factual people into this compilation of longer poems, often to explore the politics of war.
Rich’s nonfiction prose collection Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001) once again reaffirmed her commitment to the country’s confused notions of culture. She sees American culture as desecrated by materialism, greedy politics, and social injustice. Rich’s Fox (2001) probed deeper into one’s understanding of history and its relationship with self. In this poetry collection, Rich was searching, longing at times, for something, and the reader senses that only she knows the answer; yet Rich highlights the fallibility of utopian ideals. Rich won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for her collection The School Among the Ruins (2004). These poems are inherently political in nature, critiquing the social and political culture of the first four years of the twenty-first century with vengeance. War, greed, lies, imperialism, and technology’s destruction of common courtesy all find a place in the pages of this book. It is perhaps Rich’s finest example of the power of language.
Rich’s literary merit is well documented. She has been awarded 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, the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. In 1997, she declined the National Medal for the Arts, unable to back down from her political agenda: “I could not 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.”
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