An important poet of the post-World War II era, Rich is praised for her lyrical and highly crafted poems in which she explores a variety of socially relevant subjects, including feminism and lesbianism. Rich is also an influential essayist whose numerous prose works have advanced theories of feminist criticism. An early proponent of societal change that reflects the values and goals of women, Rich is credited with articulating one of the most profound poetic statements of the feminist movement.
Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Dr. Arnold Rich, a respected pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and Helen Rich, a classical pianist and composer. According to the educational beliefs of her father, Rich was schooled at home under the tutelage of her mother until the fourth grade. She showed an early interest in writing and was encouraged by her father to peruse his extensive collection of Victorian literature. Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, and her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. The following year Rich won a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to Europe and England. In 1953 she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad, and the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rich gave birth to a son in 1955 and that same year saw the publication of her second poetry collection, The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems. By 1959 Rich was the mother of three sons and had little time for writing. Though she wrote sporadically when her children were young, Rich was unhappy with the quality of work she produced. In 1963, however, she published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a collection of poems drawn from the fragments of writing she had compiled over eight years. This volume is widely considered her breakthrough work because of its overt delineation of female themes. In 1966 Rich and her family moved to New York City, where she became involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. By 1969 she had become estranged from her husband, who committed suicide the following year. During the early 1970s Rich devoted much of her time to the women's movement and began identifying herself as a radical feminist. In 1973 her eighth poetry collection, Diving into the Wreck, won the National Book Award. Defying what she perceived to be the patriarchal organization on which the competition was founded, Rich refused the award as an individual; however, she accepted it collectively with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. In 1979 she moved to Montague, Massachusetts, with Michelle Cliff, a distinguished Caribbean-American fiction and essay writer, where the two coedited the lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom. In 1997 she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award. Also that year, Rich was awarded a National Medal for the Arts, to be presented at a ceremony by President Bill Clinton; Rich refused to accept the award, criticizing public policies and governmental priorities as a whole. She wrote a short essay explaining her actions, which was published in the Los Angeles Times books section on August 3, 1997. Rich currently lives in northern California.
Rich's poetry is generally divided into discrete phases that reflect the evolutionary nature of her canon. The highly crafted verse structures and portrayal of such themes as alienation and loss in her first two collections, A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters, evince Rich's early affinities with modernist poets. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, considered her first transitional work, Rich departed from the formalism of her earlier volumes by employing free verse and overtly portraying women's themes. Rich began the next phase of her poetic career with the collections Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets
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- Critical Essays