Adrienne Rich (2782 words)

Carol Bere (Independent Scholar - North America)
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Committed, engaged, influential, often controversial, and always courageous, Adrienne Rich has been a major voice in contemporary poetry for over five decades. Throughout a career in which she has published over sixteen volumes of poetry, and several collections of non-fiction prose, Rich has continued to pursue her concerns in her writing: the structures of society, the abuses of power, the struggles of people of conscience, the exploited, the silenced, and the relationship of the participatory drive to creativity, or to the writing of poetry. At the same time, Rich writes persuasively of intimate relationships, daily life, and explores the possibilities for happiness, or, more specifically, issues of public and private happiness. She does not see these objectives of her poetry, or perhaps of poetry in general, as separate or distinct. Implicit in Rich’s writing is her effort to move beyond, or “surpass” the self, to change, make connections, integrate her poetry with events in the external world, through a voice that is at once personal and public. “I want to read, and make, poems that are out there on the edge of meaning yet can mean something to the collective”, Rich has said. (Rich, AP, 118). She has spoken of being inspired by the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) who effectively combined the poetry of verifiable facts, historical events, and what might be termed the poetry of vision, but she is clear that poetry of vision “in some way has to be embedded in the everyday life, in the concrete…I don’t want it to be an escape from that” (Interview with Muske-Dukes).

Critics of Rich claim that throughout her middle and later career she has used her poetry to promote her ideology, often at the expense of the intimacy and lyric strength of her early work. During the l970s and early 1980s, feminist writers in general tended to praise her work, while some critics (including some women critics) felt that her poetry had been compromised by slogans, catch-phrases, and constrained aesthetic standards. Rich has explained her views in interviews and in her prose collections, particularly in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry andPolitics (1993), in which she discusses the connections between the engaged, activist spirit and artistic creation, in Arts of the Possible (2001), and in the recently published essay, Poetry and Commitment (2007). Briefly, Rich has certainly acknowledged that she is a political poet, or more precisely, an engaged poet. She believes that poetic language can be liberating and contribute to social change, but has consistently maintained that she does not begin to write with a prescribed political agenda. Rich’s commitment is first to poetry, to the making of the poem; the issues may enter the poem, but, she insists, are not the “motive” for the poem (Interview with Anna McNamee). What has been a constant throughout Rich’s career is the lyric intensity of her poetry, her command of straightforward, precise language, attention to sound, the musical phrase, and to the rhythms of a line. Through a continuous probing of the possibilities of language (including an experimentation with line and typography), an ability to question the unspeakable, a complex of powerful, tangible images, Rich explores her concerns, yet looks to move beyond the self, to establish and reinforce her belief in the “connective urge and power” of poetry. The late critic David Kalstone perceptively differentiated Rich’s approach from several other poets, remarking on the “explicit demand” that her “speakers make not only to understand but to be understood”, an assessment that holds as true today (Kalstone, 142)

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Md., the first of two daughters born to a Jewish father, Arnold Rich, a doctor and professor of pathology at John Hopkins Medical School, and Helen Jones Rich, a southern Protestant mother, a gifted pianist and composer who had given up a potential professional musical career to raise a family. Rich has spoken of the strong influence and often taxing intellectual demands of her father, who determined early that she should be a poet: “His investment in my intellect and talent was …tyrannical, opinionated….but he taught me, nevertheless to believe in hard work, to mistrust easy inspiration, to write and rewrite; to feel that I was a person of the book…” (Rich, BBP, 113). And Rich’s impressive career got underway early. She graduated from Radcliffe College in l951, the same year her first collection, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden, for the Yale Younger Poets Award. With a Guggenheim Fellowship in l952-53, she traveled Europe and England, married Alfred E. Conrad, an economist at Harvard in l953, and afterward moved to Cambridge, Mass. Rich published The Diamond Cutters in l955, and between l955 and l959 gave birth to three sons. The late fifties and early sixties were a period of turmoil in the U.S., particularly on account of the growing force of the Civil Rights movement in the South, and the early stages of the anti-war movement. Yet as Rich later wrote in her landmark essay, “When we Dead Awaken”(1971), she was constrained by the pressures of motherhood, ambivalence, significant feelings of guilt, her inability to write much poetry, and to make what she felt to be the necessary connections between her life and the larger society, between the personal and the political. Rich would not publish another collection until l963, the transitional work, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, in which the title poem signals a more personal voice, a more direct interrogation of “what it is to be a thinking woman”, and a related move away from traditional forms to a free verse line.

There is little question that Rich’s career has been characterized by several shifts: from early recognition as a remarkably talented poet, writing in more traditional forms to the use of increasingly open, more experimental forms, reflecting responses to substantial changes in her own life and deeper engagement with the concerns of the time — in broad terms, from good daughter, to marriage, motherhood, lesbianism, reclaimant of her Jewish roots, outspoken feminist, and long-term political activist. Rich began dating her poems by year in l956 as a way to indicate that her life — and her work — was essentially a continuing process, an evolution, and in her remarkably productive career, she continues to explore the relevant questions of the times. The operative words for Rich appear to be “will”, “change”, “transformation”, “power”, and “connect.”

Rich’s move to New York in l966 with her husband, who was offered a teaching position at City College, was a major step forward in her life and career. Within the next couple of years, Rich became active in anti-war protests, taught at Columbia University, and in the City College’s SEEK program for underprivileged students for most the l968-75 period. (Rich would continue to teach at several major U.S. universities for many years.) Early books such as Necessities of Life (1966) and Leaflets (1969), The Will to Change (1971), and several essays in journals indicates Rich’s increasing engagement with the shifting political, social, and sexual currents of the time. She was also undergoing major upheavals in her personal life, separating from her husband, Alfred Conrad, who tragically committed suicide in October l970.

Diving into the Wreck: Poems (l973), for which Rich shared the National Book Award with Allen Ginsberg, is a more complex, forceful, even risky work than its predecessors. Here, Rich introduces the metaphor which underpins much of her later work – the poet as explorer, one who probes her psychic underworld, searching for discoveries, for understanding, for some form of truth. The wreck Rich addresses in the strong title poem, and which is inferred throughout the collection, is the mosaic of antiquated, outdated myths that have overshadowed the lives of men and women. Rich looks for what might be referred to as the reality or truth of relationships, “the thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” Rich’s anger occasionally overpowers some of the poetry, but the most effective poems in the collection are innovative, allusive, visionary, and fearless. With Dream of a Common Language: Poems (1978), one of Rich’s strongest works, exploration, cartography, and dreams — probing the unconscious — are the operative metaphors. Rich looks to move beyond or outside of history, of traditional of relationships, questions the ability of existing forms of language to make this leap, and writes in a relatively straightforward, ideally new language that, if I take Rich correctly, will (or can) empower women at the same time. In the opening poem, “Power”, the reference to Madam Curie, who died denying that “her wounds came from the same source as her power”, opens out to implicate the lives of many women. In the centerpiece of the collection, the sequence “Twenty-One Love Poems”, which are addressed to a loved one, Rich again extends the notion of power, here, the power implicit in the love of a woman for another woman. Finally, in “Transcendental Etude” – the concluding and most beautifully written poem in the collection – Rich moves from the personal to the more public, from the difficulties of personal transformation to a new way of being in the world for women in general. Rich speaks as a visionary, one who has “dreamed” a new language: “two women, eye to eye/ measuring each other’s spirit, each other’s/ limitless desire,/ a whole new poetry beginning here.” (Rich has lived with the writer, Michelle Cliff, since l976.)

Shifts in Rich’s approach to her poetry became evident about the mid- to late l980s. Neither her political commitment nor her belief in the power of poetry as a communal art, a significant connection between individuals and cultures, lessened. And while she still considered herself a feminist (and still does), she recognized the fault lines in the movement, the monolithic nature of feminism in the U.S., and the “breach in a lot of silences….about lesbians, the truths of black women’s lives, of Latino women’s lives”, and others (Interview with McNamee). But disillusioned by what she referred to in the early l990s as “a time of great denial and a growing tendency toward…fascistic dismantling of democratic impulses and institutions…I was feeling this urgency to speak about it” (Interview with Filreis) .In what might be viewed as the next grouping of Rich’s volumes – An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), Dark Fields of the Republic (1995), Midnight Salvage (1999), Fox: Poems (2001), The School Among the Ruins: Poems (2004), and Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems (2007), Rich questions the mood and what it is like to be in the U.S. at this time from a variety of perspectives – whether powerless or powerful, whether privileged or not –, and “how the conditions of the public world impinged on our own private lives, as I believe they do” (Interview with Freeman).

Personal or local references are necessarily integrated with broader political concerns in these collections. In Dark Fields of the Republic, Rich adopts a more “global position” speaking of war, political memory, and personal memories. In “Movement”, the powerful second section of “Inscriptions”, with its memorable questions, “When does a life bend toward freedom? grasp its direction?”/ How do you know you’re not circling in pale dreams, nostalgia/stagnation”, Rich implies (as she does in many of the poems of this period) the necessity for recognizing differences, reaching out beyond ourselves, and re-imagining or re-visioning the possibilities of a different America. Yet even in her more seemingly personal poems, Rich always looks outward, attempting to make connections, to encourage a response. In “Terza Rima”, Rich’s memorable thirteen-part sequence in Fox, she again integrates the public and private, political upheaval and close personal relationships, speaking in a voice that is at once personal and public. In her powerful effort to modernize Dante’s poetic form, Rich is both guide and novice, participant and witness, as she sets out her ironic portrait of hell, watching “ourselves as giants/on screen-surround in the parking lot.” Yet past and present coalesce for Rich as she reconsiders her life, remembers a time when “I thought I was/ stronger…/ …thought I could be forever// will-ful my sail filled/…my blades/flashing clean into the ice.” In The School Among the Ruins, Rich implicates U.S. politics in the title poem, with its nod to Yeats’s “Among School Children”, referencing specific places of U.S. engagement such as Beirut, Baghdad, and Kabul, and, in chillingly straightforward language, captures the immediacy and the horrors of war in descriptions of the schoolroom where “children sleep/ in the classrooms teacher rolled close.” The prose poem, “Usonian Journals 2000” opens with Rich’s comment, “A country I was born and lived in undergoes rapid and flagrant change”, and in a series of journal entries Rich questions the artist’s sense of displacement, indicts technology, the media, and Usonian speech, where “male, female voices alike pitched fastforward commercial, one timbre, tempo, intonation.”

Critics often address the “politics” of Rich’s poetry, overlooking the fact that she is first and foremost a poet, and that her poetry and her politics of engagement cannot be separated. Rich has always had enormous command of technique, attention to the music of the line, and a strong awareness of the power of language to persuade, comfort, and renew, but during this period, as her political consciousness has evolved, Rich’s poetic process has become more diverse, as she has attempted to discover the adequate poetic response to the major political, historical, and social developments in the U.S. Longer poems, sequences, which allow for greater exploration of moods, ideas, and improvisation, fragmented lines, jump cuts, references to the influences of film, photography, and music — particularly jazz — have become integral to Rich’s poetic enterprise. Rich’s most recent collection, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth (2007), is perhaps one of her most varied in mood and structure, and comprises poems closely structured on couplets, tercets, brief sequences, the play on the blues in “Rhyme”, Rich’s experimentation with the sestina form in “Behind the Motel” — although technically not a sestina — the theatre of past and present voices in “Letters Censored/ Shredded/ Returned to Sender/ or Judged Unfit to Send”, and the fragments of “Draft #2006.”

Adrienne Rich has won almost every award for writing including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for poetry, the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Common Wealth Award, the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. Rich also famously turned down the opportunity to receive the National Medal for the Arts in l997 stating that “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” (Letter to J. Alexander). The School Among the Ruins was honored with The National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004, and, in 2006, she was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. Yet in her late seventies, the poet who described herself in an earlier sequence, “Sources” (l983), as the woman “with a mission, not to win prizes, but to change the course of history”, continues to publish poetry and essays, to speak out on critical issues, to “keep the dialogue going.” Asked by a BBC interviewer in 2006 whether she was an optimist, Rich said she related to the phrase of Italian philosopher and revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (Interview with McNamee).

Works Cited

Bere, Carol. “The Road Taken: Adrienne Rich in the l990s.” The Literary Review, Summer 2000, 550-560.
- - -. “Poetry in Motion.” Review of two books by Adrienne Rich: Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001) and Fox: Poems 1998-2000. Washington Post Book World, November 11, 2001.
Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Rich, Adrienne. Interview with Al Filreis, director, Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, April 18-l9, 2005.
- - -. Interview with John Freeman, Times Online, December 6, 2006:
- - -. Interview with Anna McNamee. BBC, July 12, 2006.
- - -. Interview with Carol Muske-Dukes. Lannan Foundation. September 29, l999.
- - -. Letter to Jane Alexander. Chairman, The National Endowment for the Arts, July 3, 1997.
- - -. “Poetry and the Public Sphere.” In Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
- - -. “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” In Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Citation: Bere, Carol. "Adrienne Rich". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 November 2007 [, accessed 09 December 2022.]

3762 Adrienne Rich 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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