Adrienne Rich, Feminist Poet and Activist

Adrienne Rich, feminist poet

Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)  was an American poet and essayist known for her radical feminism and activism.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she was raised in a family that included a younger sister. Her father who worked as a pathologist at John Hopkins, and her mother was a classical concert pianist. It was her father who first encouraged her literary leanings.

After graduating from Roland Park Country School, Rich attended Radcliffe College (the former women’s college of Harvard University), from which she graduated in 1951.

Just before she graduated, Rich received the Yale Series of Younger Poets award for her first collection of poetry, A Change of World. The esteemed poet W.H. Auden selected Rich for the prestigious prize.

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Adrienne Rich as a young woman

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The development of a poet

Two years after receiving her diploma from Radcliffe College, Rich married Alfred H. Conrad, an economist at Harvard. Two years later, she published a collection of poems called The Diamond Cutters. In the next few years, Rich became busy with not only her writing career but with motherhood, having three children in the next six years.

It was during this time that Rich’s poetry became darker, exploring topics like racism, sexism, and the Vietnam War. She also published the poetry collections Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law in 1963, as well as Leaflets in 1969.

In these collections, Rich’s poetic style went from carefully metered poems to free verse. While her literary star was rising by leaps and bounds, she left her husband in 1970. Later that year, Alfred Conrad took his own life.

Early on in her career, The Penguin Companion to American Literature (1971) noted the evolution of her poetry:

“Her early verse is marked by a delicacy of insight, but her precocious talent has deepened and darkened in recent years. Her themes are those of personal and family relationships, and the nature of subjective life. The poems in Necessities of Life (1966) have an extraordinary brevity and compassion of feeling.”

A more radical shift took hold in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as noted by Sarah Wyman in her analysis of Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974 – 1977: 

“These poems, about and for women, envision an alternative to a patriarchal system in which men control the avenues of power and the definitions of female existence … At this point in Rich’s evolving process — separatist, radical feminist — she reserves dialogue for the shared experience of women. Although they may remain only dreams, such creative acts can bring forth new realities in the face of a damaging, male-dominated culture where women are not full participants.”

Rich started a relationship with the Caribbean-born writer Michelle Cliff in 1974. This relationship lasted until Rich’s death in 2012. For the remainder of her career, Rich wrote about lesbian sexuality and desire in a frank and direct manner.

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Adrienne Rich

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Political Activism

When Rich and her family moved to New York in the late 1960s, the poet became involved in activist causes such as racism, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Rich even signed a pledge that stated that she would not pay her taxes in order to protest the Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s, Rich gave lectures at Swarthmore College as well as the Columbia University School of the Arts. In the early 1970s, Rich was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award. She also spent some time teaching at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

In 1974, Rich received the National Book Award for Diving Into the Wreck, an honor she shared with Allen Ginsberg. Rich decided to share her award with the two other feminist poets nominated, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. In her acceptance speech, Rich accepted the National Book Award for the women who go “unheard” in a patriarchal world that often works hard to dismiss them.

In Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (1980), Carol P. Christ wrote:

“The experience of nothingness and the courage to see are at the heart of the poems in Diving into the Wreck. The ‘wreck’ into which the poet dives is the dark underside of marriage and politics in the patriarchal world. Beneath the myths of civility, love, and power wielded to protect, Rich discovers a landscape of terror.

… The tremendous power that is unleashed when women have the courage to see the nothingness of male-defined culture and relationships is further explored in other poems in Diving into the Wreck.”

With collections such as Twenty One Love Poems, Dream of a Common Language, and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Rich cemented her reputation as a poet who broke new ground in exploring the sexual attitudes of women.

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Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. . . . . . . . . .

Adrienne Rich’s Later Years

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Rich continued to gain accolades for her teaching, poetry, and activism. Rich refused the honor of the National Medal of Arts in 1997. In her official notice of refusal, she stated that she was protesting Congress’ move to shut down the National Endowment of the Arts, as well as the Clinton administration’s unfriendly moves towards the arts community in general.

From the late 1990s until her death in 2012, Rich continued to publish a mixture of poetry and nonfiction. Some of the work that came from this period include these volumes: Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995 – 1998; Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (1991); and Fox: Poems 1998 – 2000.

As she grew older, Rich’s political activism didn’t slow down. In the 2000s, she participated in protests of the impending Iraq War. She also got appointed to the board of the Academy of American Poets in 2002.

A year later, She received another literary award from Yale University, this one being the Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. During this same time period, the Equality Forum honored her for her work in the LGBTQIA+ activist movement, calling Rich an “icon”.

On March 27, 2012, the esteemed poet Adrienne Rich died at her Santa Cruz home. Rich was survived by her three children from her first marriage, two grandchildren, and her life partner Michelle Cliff.

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Adrienne Rich
An analysis of Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
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The legacy of Adrienne Rich

Rich is remembered and respected not only for her blistering poetry but for her impassioned activist activities. She was also fervently dedicated to the social justice issues of her time. She had a unique ability to blend the arts with a need to teach future generations of women and artists how to navigate a world that will often be hostile to them.

Many modern poets have taken up these battles through poetry and activism. Rich was an important trailblazer for these literary activists.

Adrienne Rich’s poetry has earned her a well-deserved place in the genre, but it must be noted that she was also a fiercely articulate essayist. Her output, though not as prodigious as that of her poetry, was impressive.

Of Woman Born (1976), for instance, is a collection that is a second-wave feminist classic. In a 2018 Paris Review essay, The Treasures That Prevail: On the Prose of Adrienne Rich, Sandra M. Gilbert wrote:

“To reread and rethink Rich’s prose as a complete oeuvre is to encounter a major public intellectual—responsible, self-questioning, and morally passionate.

For those of us who came of age during feminism’s fabled second wave in the seventies, texts like ‘When We Dead Awaken’ and ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ were key proclamations of ideas that we desperately needed to guide us on our way.

Equally important to us was the powerful blend of research, theory, and self-reflection that she produced in her landmark study Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.””

This essay, well worth reading for admirers of Adrienne Rich, sums up the poet’s legacy beautifully.

More about Adrienne Rich

On this site

Poetry Collections (Selected)

  • A Change of World (1951)
  • The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems (1955)
  • Necessities of life: Poems, 1962-1965 (1966)
  • Leaflets (1969)
  • The Will to Change: Poems 1968-1970 (1971)
  • Diving into the Wreck (1973)
  • Twenty-one Love Poems (1976)
  • The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974 – 1977) (1978)
  • A Wild Patience Has Taken Me this Far: Poems 1978-1981 (1982)
  • The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984 (1984)
  • Time’s Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1989)
  • An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (1991)
  • Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995 (1995)
  • Midnight Salvage: Poems, 1995-1998. (1999)
  • Fox: Poems 1998-2000. (2001)
  • The School Among the Ruins: Poems, 2000-2004 (2004)
  • Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2007 (2007)
  • Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (2010)

Essays and Prose (Selected)

  • Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience And Institution (1976)
  • On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966 – 1978 (1979)
  • Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (1986)
  • What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)
  • Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (1991)
  • A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008 (2009)
  • Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry (2018)

Critical studies and biographies

  • Cooper, Jane Roberta, ed. 1984. Reading Adrienne Rich: Reviews and Re-Visions, 1951-81. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth and Albert Gelpi, eds. 1993. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Keyes, Claire. 1986. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
  • Langdell, Cheri Colby. 2004.Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Martin, Wendy. 1984. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Nelson, Cary. 1981. “Meditative Aggressions: Adrienne Rich’s Recent Transactions with History.” In Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

More information and sources

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