Rich’s Life And Career–by Deborah Pope Essay, Research Paper

Deborah Pope

There is no writer of comparable influence and achievement in so

many areas of the contemporary women’s movement as the poet and theorist Adrienne Rich.

Over the years, hers has become one of the most eloquent, provocative voices on the

politics of sexuality, race, language, power, and women’s culture. There is scarcely an

anthology of feminist writings that does not contain her work or specifically engage her

ideas, a women’s studies course that does not read her essays, or a poetry collection that

does not include her work or that of the next generation of poets steeped in her example.

In nineteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays–On Lies, Secrets and

Silence (1979), Blood, Bread and Poetry (1986), and What Is Found There:

Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)–the ground-breaking study of motherhood, Of

Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), the editing of

influential lesbian-feminist journals, and a lifetime of activism and visibility, the work

of Adrienne Rich has persistently resonated at the heart of contemporary feminism and its

resistance to racism, militarism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism.

Rich was born 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two daughters of Arnold

Rich, a doctor and pathology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Helen Jones Rich,

a gifted pianist and composer who had given up a possible professional musical career to

raise a family. In her long autobiographical poem "Sources" (1983) and the essay

"Split at the Root" (Blood, Bread and Poetry), Rich recalls her

growing-up years as overtly dominated by the intellectual presence and demands of her

father, while covertly marked by the submerged tensions and silences arising from the

conflicts between the religious and cultural heritage of her father’s Jewish background

and her mother’s southern Protestantism. Her relationship with her father was one of

strong identification and desire for approval, yet it was adversarial in many ways. Under

his tutelage Rich first began to write poetry, conforming to his standards well past her

early successes and publications.

In 1951, Rich graduated from Radcliffe, and also won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets

Prize for her first book, A Change of World. W. H. Auden, the judge of the award,

wrote a preface for the book that acquired eventual notoriety for its classic tones of

male condescension and paternalism to female artists. Yet, the preface accurately

describes Rich’s elegant technique, chiseled formalism, and restrained emotional content.

Rich’s early poems clearly announced in theme and style their debt to Frost, Yeats,

Stevens, and Auden himself, and received their high acclaim on the basis of that fidelity.

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, and moved to Cambridge,

Massachusetts, where she bore three sons in the next five years. As her journal entries

from these years reveal, this was an emotionally and artistically difficult period; she

was struggling with conflicts over the prescribed roles of womanhood versus those of

artistry, over tensions between sexual and creative roles, love, and anger. Yet, in the

late fifties and early sixties, these were issues she could not easily name to herself;

indeed, they were feelings for which she felt guilty, even "monstrous," and for

which there was as yet no wider cultural recognition, much less insight or analysis.

Rich’s third book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), which was eight years

in the writing, stands as a watershed in her poetic development. For the first time, in

language freer and more intimate and contextual, she situates her materials and emotions

against themes of language, boundaries, resistance, escape, and moments of life-altering

choice. As the poem "The Roofwalker" states, "A life I didn’t choose/chose

me," while "Prospective Immigrants Please Note" rhetorically asserts that

the safety of enclosures and illusions must be abandoned for the claims of a risky but

liberating reality.

The critical reaction to Snapshots was negative, with objections to its bitter

tone and the shift away from her hallmarks of formalism and emotional control. Tellingly,

feeling she had "flunked," Rich wrote Necessities of Life (1966) with a

focus on death as the sign of how occluded and erased she felt when her own sense of

coming into her rightful subject matter and voice was denied. Necessities, personally

and poetically, was less a retreat than a pause. Coinciding with her personal and poetic

evolution was the tremendous force of the historical moment. Rich’s earlier, inchoate

feelings of personal conflict, sexual alienation, and cultural oppression were finding

increasing articulation in the larger social/political currents gathering force throughout

the sixties, from the civil rights movements to the antiwar movement, to the emergent

women’s movement.

Rich moved to New York in 1966, when her husband took a teaching position at City

College. She taught in the SEEK program, a remedial English program for poor, black, and

third world students entering college, which was raising highly political questions about

the collision of cultural codes of expression and the relation of language to power,

issues that have consistently been addressed in Rich’s work. She was also strongly

impressed during this time by the work of James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir. Though

Rich and her husband were both involved in movements for social justice, it was to the

women’s movement that Rich gave her strongest allegiance. In its investigation of sexual

politics, its linkage, as Rich phrased it, of "Vietnam and the lovers’ bed," she

located her grounding for issues of language, sexuality, oppression, and power that

infused all the movements for liberation from a male-dominated world.

Rich’s poetry has clearly recorded, imagined, and forecast her personal and political

journeys with searing power. In 1956, she began dating her poems to underscore their

existence within a context, and to argue against the idea that poetry existed separately

from the poet’s life. Stylistically, she began to draw on contemporary rhythms and images,

especially those derived from the cinematic techniques of jump cuts and collage. Leaflets

(1969), The Will to Change (1971), and Diving into the Wreck (1973)

demonstrate a progressive coming to power as Rich contends against the desolation

patriarchy enacts on literal and psychic landscape. Intimately connected with this

struggle for empowerment and action is the deepening of her determination "to write

directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience." In the poem

"Tear Gas," she asserts "The will to change begins in the body not in the

mind/My politics is in my body." Yet this tactic has not led Rich to a poetry that is

in a way confessional. Rich’s voice is most characteristically the voice of witness,

oracle, or mythologizer, the seer with the burden of "verbal privilege" and the

weight of moral imagination, who speaks for the speechless, records for the forgotten,

invents anew at the site of erasure of women’s lives.

With each subsequent volume–Twenty-One Love Poems (1976), A Wild Patience

Has Taken Me This Far (1981), The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New

(1984), Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time’s Power (1989), and most

recently An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)–Rich has confirmed and

radicalized her fusion of political commitment and poetic vision. In her urging women to

"revision" and to be "disloyal," she has engaged ever-wider

experiences of women across cultures, history, and ethnicity, addressing themes of verbal

privilege, mate violence, and lesbian identity.

Over the years, Rich has taught at Swarthmore, Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell,

San Jose State and Stanford University. Since 1976, she has lived with the writer and

editor Michelle Cliff. She is active in movements for gay and lesbian rights, reproductive

freedom, and for the progressive Jewish movement New Jewish Agenda. In 1981, she received

the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay Task Force. Her poetry has been

honored with the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck (which she

accepted jointly with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde in the name of all women who are

silenced), two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Brandeis

Creative Arts Medal, the Common Wealth Award, the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime

Achievement, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the

Art of Poetry.

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.

Copyright ? 1995 by Oxford University Press.

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