YOU GO GIRL! Adrienne Cecile Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012) was an American poet, essayist and feminist. She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”, and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.”
Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by renowned poet Wystan Hugh Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Rich went on to write the introduction to the published volume. She famously declined the National Medal of Arts, protesting the vote by Newt Gingrich, United States House of Representatives and Speaker, to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the elder of two sisters. Her father, renowned pathologist Arnold Rice Rich, was the Chairman of Pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her mother, Helen Elizabeth (Jones) Rich, was a concert pianist and a composer. Her father was from a Jewish family, and her mother was Southern Protestant; the girls were raised as Christians. Adrienne Rich’s early poetic influence stemmed from her father who encouraged her to read but also to write her own poetry. Her interest in literature was sparked within her father’s library where she read the work of writers such as Ibsen, Arnold, Blake, Keats, Rossetti, and Tennyson. Her father was ambitious for Adrienne and “planned to create a prodigy.” Adrienne Rich and her younger sister were home schooled by their mother until Adrienne began public education in the fourth grade. The poems Sources and After Dark document her relationship with her father, describing how she worked hard to fulfill her parents’ ambitions for her—moving into a world in which she was expected to excel.
In later years, Rich went to Roland Park Country School, which she described as a “good old fashioned girls’ school [that] gave us fine role models of single women who were intellectually impassioned.” After graduating from high school, Rich gained her college diploma at Radcliffe College, where she focused primarily on poetry and learning writing craft, encountering no women teachers at all. In 1951, her last year at college, Rich’s first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; he went on to write the introduction to the published volume. Following her graduation, Rich received a Guggenheim Fellowship, to study in Oxford for a year. Following a visit to Florence, she chose not to return to Oxford and spent her remaining time in Europe writing and exploring Italy.
Early career: 1953–75
In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University she met as an undergraduate. She said of the match: “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.” They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had three sons. In 1955 she published her second volume, The Diamond Cutters, a collection she said she wished had not been published. That year she also received the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her three children were born in 1955 (David), 1957 (Pablo) and 1959 (Jacob).
The 1960s began a period of change in Rich’s life: she received the National Institute of Arts and Letters award (1960), her second Guggenheim Fellowship to work at the Netherlands Economic Institute (1961), and the Bollingen Foundation grant for the translation of Dutch poetry (1962). In 1963, Rich published her third collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, which was a much more personal work examining her female identity, reflecting the increasing tensions she experienced as a wife and mother in the 1950s, marking a substantial change in Rich’s style and subject matter. In her 1982 essay “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity”, Rich states: “The experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” The book met with harsh reviews. She comments, “I was seen as ‘bitter’ and ‘personal’; and to be personal was to be disqualified, and that was very shaking because I’d really gone out on a limb … I realised I’d gotten slapped over the wrist, and I didn’t attempt that kind of thing again for a long time.”
Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich became involved with the New Left and became heavily involved in anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam-America War. Her collections from this period include Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971), which reflect increasingly radical political content and interest in poetic form.
From 1967 to 1969, Rich lectured at Swarthmore College and taught at Columbia University School of the Arts as an adjunct professor in the Writing Division. Additionally, in 1968, she began teaching in the SEEK program in City College of New York, a position she continued until 1975. During this time, Rich also received the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine. Increasingly militant, Rich hosted anti-war and Black Panther fundraising parties at their apartment; tensions began to split the marriage, Conrad fearing that his wife had lost her mind. The couple separated in mid-1970 and shortly afterward, in October, Conrad drove into the woods and shot himself.
In 1971, she was the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and spent the next year and a half teaching at Brandeis University as the Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, split the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry with Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America. Declining to accept it individually, Rich was joined by the two other feminist poets nominated, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, to accept it on behalf of all women “whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world.” The following year, Rich took up the position of the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellow at Bryn Mawr College.
Later life: 1976–2012
In 1976, Rich began her partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, which lasted until her death. In her controversial work Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published the same year, Rich acknowledged that, for her, lesbianism was a political as well as a personal issue, writing, “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” The pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), which was incorporated into the following year’s Dream of a Common Language (1978), marked the first direct treatment of lesbian desire and sexuality in her writing, themes which run throughout her work afterwards, especially in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) and some of her late poems in The Fact of a Doorframe (2001). In her analytical work Adrienne Rich: the moment of change, Langdell suggests these works represent a central rite of passage for the poet, as she (Rich) crossed a threshold into a newly constellated life and a “new relationship with the universe”. During this period, Rich also wrote a number of key socio-political essays, including “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, one of the first to address the theme of lesbian existence. In this essay, she asks “how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding”. Some of the essays were republished in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (1979). In integrating such pieces into her work, Rich claimed her sexuality and took a role in leadership for sexual equality.
From 1976 to 1979, Rich taught at City College as well as Rutgers University as an English Professor. In 1979, she received an honorary doctorate from Smith College and moved with Cliff to Montague, MA. Ultimately, they moved to Santa Cruz, where Rich continued her career as a professor, lecturer, poet, and essayist. Rich and Cliff took over editorship of the lesbian arts journal Sinister Wisdom (1981–1983). Rich taught and lectured at Scripps College, San Jose State University, and Stanford University during the 1980s and 1990s. From 1981 to 1987, Rich served as an A.D. White Professor-At-Large for Cornell University. Rich published several volumes in the next few years: Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986), and Time’s Power: Poems 1985–1988 (1989). She also was awarded the Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters from NYU, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry (1989).
Rich’s work with the New Jewish Agenda led to the founding of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990, a journal of which Rich served as the editor. This work coincided explored the relationship between private and public histories, especially in the case of Jewish women’s rights. Her next published piece, An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), won both the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award as well as the Poet’s Prize in 1993 and Commonwealth Award in Literature in 1991. During the 1990s Rich became an active member of numerous advisory boards such as the Boston Woman’s Fund, National Writers Union and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa. On the role of the poet, she wrote, “We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.” In July 1994, Rich won the MacArthur Fellowship and Award, specifically the “Genius Grant” for her work as a poet and writer. Also in 1992, Rich became a grandmother to Julia Arden Conrad and Charles Reddington Conrad.
In 1997, Rich declined the National Medal of Arts in protesting against the House of Representatives’ vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts as well as other policies of the Clinton Administration regarding the arts generally and literature in particular, 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… [Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”. Her next few volumes were a mix of poetry and essays: Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995–1998 (1999), The Art of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001), and Fox: Poems 1998–2000 (2001).
In the early 2000s, Rich participated in anti-war activities, protesting against the threat of war in Iraq, both through readings of her poetry and other activities. In 2002, she was appointed a chancellor of the newly augmented board of the Academy of American Poets, along with Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Jay Wright (who declined the honor, refusing to serve), Louise Gluck, Heather McHugh, Rosanna Warren, Charles Wright, Robert Creeley, and Michael Palmer. She was the winner of the 2003 Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry and applauded by the panel of judges for her “honesty at once ferocious, humane, her deep learning, and her continuous poetic exploration and awareness of multiple selves.” In October 2006, Equality Forum honored Rich’s work, featuring her as an icon of LGBT history.
Rich died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82 in her Santa Cruz, California home. Her son, Pablo Conrad, reported that her death resulted from long-term rheumatoid arthritis. Her last collection was published the year before her death. Rich was survived by her sons, two grandchildren and her partner Michelle Cliff.
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