Citizen of Poetry, Adrienne Rich mapped the continent we make poems on. She was a fearless explorer of her own consciousness and identity, and a clear-eyed and eloquent cartographer of women’s lives, drawing out what is given and what is self-created in language that is both direct and deeply resonant. Her work expressed a great deal of anger at the injustice and violence in the world, but while her poems were often politically engaged, they were also deeply personal. The ideas and images her poems carry are always larger than the immediate situation to which they might refer, echoing between the realms of the individual and society and beyond.
Childhood and College:
Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore in May 1929, elder daughter of two. Her father was a Johns Hopkins Professor of Medicine, and her mother had been a concert pianist before marriage. With her father’s encouragement, Adrienne read through his library of the classic poets (noticing that all of them were men), and began at a very young age to write poetry of her own. She was home-schooled by her mother until 4th grade, attended a private girls’ school and after graduation went to Radcliffe College (the women’s affiliate of Harvard University). Her first book of poems, A Change of World, was published during her senior year of college (1951) and selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. These early poems are much more conventional, formal and contained than the exploratory free verse she has become known for. After her bachelor’s degree, Rich went to Oxford University on a Guggenheim Fellowship, then left Oxford and spent the rest of the year writing poetry and travelling through Italy.
Marriage and Motherhood in the 1950s:
When she returned from Europe in 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist she had met during her undergraduate days. Her comment about the decision to wed: “I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family. I wanted what I saw as a full woman’s life, whatever was possible.” By the end of the decade, she was the mother of three young sons, stifled in a traditional marriage and painfully ambivalent about the demands of motherhood. During this period, her sense of herself as a writer suffered and her poems became thin and derivative—she later said of The Diamond Cutters, her second collection published in 1955, that it should not have been published.
Change and Crisis in the 1960s:
With the turning of the decade, Rich’s life and work began to change. Her third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, appeared in 1963 and abandoned conventional form and topic for a radical, personal investigation of female identity—it was greeted with stinging criticism. In 1966, she and her family moved to New York City, where she became an activist in the anti-war, feminist and civil rights movements, and the tensions between husband and wife grew. Her increasing political engagement is reflected in the titles of her books during this period: Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). In 1970, Adrienne Rich and Alfred Conrad separated, and several months later Conrad went up to their summer house in Vermont, walked into the woods and shot himself.
The Second Half of a Life:
Her husband’s suicide was devastating, but the end of the marriage was also freeing for Adrienne Rich. She began to acknowledge her own lesbian identity, and in 1973 she published the forceful and intrepid Diving into the Wreck
, for which she was given the National Book Award the next year (shared with Allen Ginsberg
). In 1976, she met and fell in love with Michelle Cliff, a novelist and editor born in Jamaica, with whom she was to spend the rest of her life. The couple moved to the West Coast, and Rich’s work as a poet, teacher, social philosopher, feminist and peace activist continued for more than 30 years. She was physically a tiny woman, and suffered the debility of rheumatoid arthritis for many years, but she was a towering intellect, ferociously courageous and clear-throated in facing both the outer world’s injustices and her own personal frailties. She died at her home in Santa Cruz, California on March 27, 2012.
Reading and Listening to Rich Online: