Adrienne Rich Rich, Adrienne (Vol. 125) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Adrienne Rich 1929–

American poet, essayist, and drama writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Rich's career through 1998. See also Adrienne Rich Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 6, 7, 11.

An important poet of the post-World War II era, Rich writes highly crafted lyrics which explore socially relevant topics—including feminism and lesbianism—and criticize patriarchal societies and institutions. She also is an influential essayist whose prose works have advanced theories of feminist criticism. As an early proponent of societal changes that reflect the values and goals of women, Rich articulates one of the most profound poetic statements of the feminist movement in the United States. Her development of a relaxed form of free verse combined with formal diction has been seen by many critics as revolutionary and distinctive in American poetry. "Adrienne Rich's poetry has always raised important, difficult questions about the cultural uses of poetry and the ideology of poetic and critical tradition," according to Alice Templeton. "For over forty years her work has provided the occasion for critics to comment on the art of poetry, its political significance, the character of poetic tradition, and the value of poetry as a critical and creative cultural activity."

Biographical Information

Born May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, Maryland, Rich was home-schooled until the fourth grade, but she showed an early interest in writing and availed herself of her father's extensive Victorian literature collection. Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, the same year she published her first poetry collection, A Change of World, which garnered the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. She accepted a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 and traveled to England and throughout Europe. When she returned the next year, she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad. Upon the birth of her first son in 1955 Rich published her second poetry collection, The Diamond Cutters, but by 1959, Rich was the mother of three sons and had little time for writing. However, the publication of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law in 1963 marked her poetic breakthrough to national prominence, particularly because of its overt delineation of female themes. In 1966 Rich moved with her family to New York City, where she became active in the civil rights and anti-war movements. During that time she pro-duced the poetry collections Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). By 1969 she was estranged from her husband, who committed suicide the following year. During the early 1970s Rich devoted much time to the women's liberation movement and gradually identified herself as a radical feminist. She won the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck (1973), but she refused it as an individual and instead accepted it on behalf of women whose voices were silenced. Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976, at which time she advocated a female separatist philosophy in her subsequent poetry collections Twenty-one Love Poems (1977), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981). She displayed a similar philosophy in The Fact of a Doorframe (1984), as well as in the essays collected in Of Woman Born (1976) and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1979). During the 1980s Rich broadened her audience by addressing such diverse issues as poverty, violence, and racism in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), and Time's Power (1988). Throughout her writing career Rich has honed her feminist, lesbian aesthetic by lecturing at American universities, most notably as professor of English and feminist studies at Stanford University from 1986 to 1992. Since then Rich has received numerous accolades, including the Robert Frost Silver Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry and the William Whithead Award of the Gay and Lesbian Publishing Triangle for Life-time Achievement in Letters. Following her award-winning poetry collections An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) and Dark Fields of the Republic (1995). Rich also earned a 1997 National Medal of the Arts, but declined the award stating that "the very meaning of art is incompatible with the cynical politics of [President Clinton's] Administration."

Major Works

Rich's poetry is often divided into discrete phases that reflect the evolutionary nature of her art as well as the changing consciousness of women in general during the latter half of the twentieth century. The formal lyric structures and representations of alienation and loss in A Change of World and The Diamond Cutters evince Rich's early affinities with modernist poets. The poetry of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, considered her first transitional work, departs from the formalism of her previous art by using free verse and speaking to women's themes. The title poem, for instance, expresses a young woman's anger and frustration at her banal, limited existence in a male-dominated society. Necessities of Life, Leaflets, and The Will to Change comprise the second phase of Rich's career. Confrontational in tone, these works focus on the relationship between private and public life, openly reject patriarchal culture and language, and reflect her growing dissatisfaction with contemporary society and her increasingly complex personal and political beliefs. These works also feature Rich's experiments with various means of communication as alternatives to traditional poetic methods; for example, "Images for Godard" and "Shooting Script" incorporate such techniques of New Wave filmmakers as rapid successions of images, freeze frames, and jump cuts. Diving into the Wreck, Rich's second major transitional work—considered by many as her finest collection—stands as a radical feminist critique of contemporary society. Many of these poems assert the importance of reinventing cultural standards in feminist terms and point to women's need for self-determination. The poems of The Dream of a Common Language, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, and The Fact of a Doorframe lend a historical perspective to the idea of "woman" and celebrate the accomplishments of women both individually and collectively. They represent, for instance, the achievements and hardships of such historical figures as Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, and Ethel Rosenberg as well as Rich's own grandmothers. Other poems, such as "For Julia in Nebraska," "The Spirit of Place," and the sequence Twenty-one Love Poems, emphasize the value of a distinct community of women and frankly present lesbian sexuality and relationships. Although subsequent works expand Rich's feminist ideals, they also address new issues. The long sequence "Sources" in Your Native Land, Your Life, for example, confronts the poet's Jewish heritage and the effect of the Holocaust on her life and work. "Living Memory" from Time's Power focuses on the consequences of time and aging and also meditates on the poet's bond to the American landscape. Through first-person narratives and dogmatic language, the poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World concern such themes as poverty, the Persian Gulf War, and the exploitation of minorities and women in terms of Rich's own personal experiences. Dark Fields of the Republic continues to broaden the poet's themes, focusing on the promise and failure of the American dream, class and gender struggles, and racial inequality. Rich's prose work explores similar feminist concerns. Of Woman Born studies the contemporary concept of motherhood, while On Lies, Secrets, and Silence furthers Rich's feminist aesthetic, most notably in "When We Dead Awaken," which clarifies Rich's call for female self-determination. Blood, Bread, and Poetry examines lesbian issues and addresses questions of racial identity and racism. The essays of What Is Found There (1993) contain meditations on politics, poetry, and poets in relation to larger themes of social, ecological, and political crises of the United States.

Critical Reception

Rich's poetry has not always been described as "feminist," especially her early poems. W. H. Auden, for instance, in his foreword to A Change of World, found that her poems "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak directly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs." Since the publication of Diving into the Wreck, however, most critics have analyzed Rich's writings as artistic expressions of feminist politics. Although many reviewers have admired her formal versatility, others have complained about the didactic tone of her work or have perceived an anti-male bias. Critical commentary has reflected the polemics of her poetry: critics who adhere to Rich's politics often commend her work unconditionally, while those who dissent from her radical feminism usually disavow her writings. A conclusive appraisal of Rich's canon has remained elusive, despite several attempts since the early 1990s—a testament perhaps of the poet's continuous revision of her views and approaches to contemporary issues. Nonetheless, the general consensus among critics recognizes Rich's intelligent, imaginative, and innovative portrayals of women in her poetry as significant contributions to the feminist movement. "There is no one whose poetry has spoken more eloquently for the oppressed and marginalized in America, no one who has more compassionately charted the course of individual suffering across the horrifying and impersonal growth of recent history," David St. John has said, adding that Rich's works "continue to be essential writings in the ongoing feminist struggle in [the United States] and throughout the world."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ariadne: A Play in Three Acts and Poems (drama and poetry) 1939
Not I, But Death, A Play in One Act (drama) 1941
A Change of World (poetry) 1951
The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems (poetry) 1955
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954–1962 (poetry) 1963; revised edition, 1983
Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962–1965 (poetry) 1966
Selected Poems (poetry) 1967
Leaflets: Poems, 1965–1968 (poetry) 1969
The Will to Change: Poems, 1968–1970 (poetry) 1971
Diving into the Wreck: Poems, 1971–1972 (poetry) 1973
Poems: Selected and New, 1950–1974 (poetry) 1975
Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (essays) 1976
Twenty-One Love Poems (poetry) 1976
Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying (essay) 1977
The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977 (poetry) 1978
On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (essays) 1979
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (essay) 1980
A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978–1981 (poetry) 1981
The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950–1984 (poetry) 1984
Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (essays) 1986
Your Native Land, Your Life (poetry) 1986
Time's Power: Poems, 1985–1988 (poetry) 1989
An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988–1991 (poetry) 1991
Collected Early Poems, 1950–1970 (poetry) 1993
What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (prose) 1993
Dark Fields of the Republic (poetry) 1995

∗This work includes Twenty-One Love Poems.

†This work includes the chapbook "Sources," which was first published in 1983.

Kevin McGuirk (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Philoctetes Radicalized: 'Twenty-one love Poems and the Lyric Career of Adrienne Rich," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 61-87.

[In the following essay, McGuirk situates Twenty-one Love Poems in "a context of poetics as ideology," exposing "the ideological limitations of a poetic mode" and theorizing a method of "reading lyric in general and Rich's lyric in particular."]

As Willard Spiegelman points out, among the major poets of the English language in this half century, Adrienne Rich is alone in making of lyric a medium adequate to the task of propounding a politics. The Dream of a Common Language (1978), a watershed...

(The entire section is 7787 words.)

Elissa Greenwald (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dream of a Common Language: Vietnam Poetry as Reformation of Language and Feeling in the Poems of Adrienne Rich," in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 97-102.

[Below, Greenwald explains the effect of Rich's feminist consciousness in her poetry of the Vietnam era, highlighting her empathy with "the Enemy" and her appeal for a subjective version of the truth about war.]

The presence of the Vietnam War in the poetry of Adrienne Rich must be considered in the context of her own presence at peace demonstrations and protests against the war throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, and her continuing leadership in the antiwar, feminist,...

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Alice Templeton (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Contradictions: Tracking Adrienne Rich's Poetry," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, 1993, pp. 333-40.

[In the following essay, Templeton provides an overview of the major trends and themes of criticism in Rich's poetry.]

Adrienne Rich's poetry has always raised important, difficult questions about the cultural uses of poetry and the ideology of poetic and critical tradition. For over forty years her work has provided the occasion for critics to comment on the art of poetry, its political significance, the character of poetic tradition, and the value of poetry as a critical and creative cultural activity. Ranging in tone from...

(The entire section is 2911 words.)

Langdon Hammer (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Art and AIDS; or, How Will Culture Cure You?," in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 3, Winter, 1995, pp. 103-18.

[In the essay below, Hammer meditates on various aspects of the relation between "culture" and "AIDS"—between aesthetics and sexuality—by comparing Rich's "In Memoriam: D. K." and James Merrill's "Farewell Performance."]

This essay will address the question in my title through a reading of two poems. One is by Adrienne Rich, the other by James Merrill; both are elegies for the literary critic David Kalstone. In each case, Kalstone's death in 1986 from AIDS-related causes provokes a troubled meditation on the relation between culture and AIDS. Culture...

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Betty S. Flowers (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wrestling with the Mother and Father: 'His' and 'Her' in Adrienne Rich," in Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life, edited by Nancy Owen Nelson, University of North Texas Press, 1995, pp. 54-63.

[Below, Flowers ponders the significance of Rich's substitution of the "experiential, subjective, personal" feminine pronoun she for the "analytical, objective, universal" masculine pronoun he in her poem "Afterward," elucidating the consequence in relation to both feminist criticism specifically and literary criticism in general.]

On a summer Texas day twenty years ago, a footnote to a poem shifted the geography of my mind....

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David St. John (review date 25 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brightening the Landscape," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 25, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following glowing review of Dark Fields of the Republic, St. John admires Rich's poetic style for its blending of personal details with broad public concerns.]

During the past 40 years as a poet, essayist and political activist, Adrienne Rich has stood as a reminder of what an engaged political life coupled with a supreme poetic gift can offer to a starved culture. Given the bleak landscape of what seems to be our national political and social agenda, Rich's new collection of poems takes on a prescient resonance.

It would be hard to overstate...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 21 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetic Anger," in The New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, pp. 32-3.

[In the review below, Donoghue faults the themes and tone of Dark Fields of the Republic, claiming that "each of the poems is interesting mainly because [Rich] wrote it."]

Adrienne Rich publishes a new volume of her poetry every three or four years and, less frequently, books of prose on major concerns, especially themes ad feminam. Her readers treasure these books, I imagine, as a series of journals or notebooks, leaflets—evidence of Ms. Rich's desiring, thinking and feeling, her distinctive ways of being alive. As she wrote in The Dream of a Common...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

Sylvia Henneberg (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rich's 'Autumn Equinox,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 169-72.

[In the following essay, Henneberg identifies the feminine and masculine positions in the early poem "Autumn Equinox" in terms of the primary concerns of Rich's later poetry: "the dream and the limitations of a common language."]

Adrienne Rich's semiautobiographical narrative poem "Autumn Equinox" (1955) anticipates two central concerns of her "coming-out" volume of poetry. The Dream of a Common Language (1978), and her subsequent poetry: the dream and the limitations of a common language.

"Autumn Equinox" presents a middle-aged female speaker...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


"Thanks Anyway." Time (21 July 1997): 83.

Brief notice that Rich declined the 1997 National Medal of the Arts because "the very meaning of art is incompatible with the cynical politics of [Clinton's] Administration."

(The entire section is 75 words.)