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 (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). These works focus on the relationship between private and public life and openly reject patriarchal culture and language. Diving into the Wreck, Rich's second major transitional work, stands as a radical feminist critique of contemporary society. Many of the poems in this volume assert the importance of reinventing cultural standards in feminist terms and focus on the need for women to achieve self-definition. Her next collections, The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), are considered lyrical celebrations of the accomplishments of women. In these works Rich examines the lives of historical female figures as well as the everyday experiences of ordinary women. In Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time's Power (1989), and An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Rich addresses new issues—such as her Jewish heritage and the effects of the Holocaust on her life and work—while continuing to develop feminist ideals. In her most recent collections of poetry, Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), Midnight Salvage (1999), and Fox (2001), Rich focuses on "the interfold of personal and public experience."
In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976)—a volume of essays frequently considered her most forceful statement of radical feminism—Rich discusses the alienation and anger that she contends women experience in their roles as mothers in a patriarchal society. A second collection of essays, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979), contains prose that furthers her feminist aesthetic, including her most noted essay, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which Rich clarifies the need for female self-actualization. In Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986) Rich continues to explore issues of lesbianism while focusing on such topics as racial identity and racism. In What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) Rich argues for the importance of poetry as a "social art" throughout human experience. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001) collects some of Rich's best-known essays and adds several new works to her canon.
Since the publication of Diving into the Wreck, most critics have analyzed Rich's work as an artistic expression of feminist politics. While many reviewers have praised her ability to write effectively in numerous verse forms, others have faulted the content of her poems as didactic. Critical commentary on Rich's work has reflected the polemics of her verse; critics who adhere to Rich's politics frequently commend her poems unconditionally, while those who disagree with her radical feminism disavow her work. Additionally, there has been no conclusive appraisal of her canon as Rich continually revises her views and asserts her new approaches to contemporary issues. Most critics concur, however, that Rich's intelligent and innovative portrayals of women have contributed significantly to the feminist movement.