By Anna Jaffray
Born 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, Adrienne Rich is remembered as a pioneer of feminism, lesbianism, and progressive activism through her poetry and prose. She was highly regarded in literary and activist circles. Awards such as the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship decorate this woman’s lifetime of works.
Rich was inspired early on by the male poets in her father’s extensive poetry collection, giving her firm tradition to stand on as she developed her own voice throughout her adolescence and into her college years. She attended Radcliff College in the late 1940s and was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for A Change of World in 1951, the year she graduated.
Out of college, Rich married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad in 1953. The two had three children in the following seven years of their marriage. Immediately following Rich’s exit from the collegiate world, she busted onto the literary scene as a poet to be reckoned with. Her work would undergo multiple transformations in the following decades – from following a tradition, to her rebellion against the myth of conventional gender roles.
With the rest of the world, Rich underwent this transformation during the 1960s. After having her three sons, she wrote several collections, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Leaflets (1969), which gained controversial attention. Rich’s poems began to transform from classic, meter to free verse as their content also became emboldened.
As Rich underwent her creative transformation, her personal life took a sharp turn. After leaving her husband of 17 years in 1970, he committed suicide. This traumatizing event pushed Rich’s work into a darker, deeper level of societal and personal reflection.
Rich is also credited with bringing women’s and lesbian’s oppression to center stage in her poetry. As a woman, lesbian, and a Jew, Rich was constantly grappling with issues surrounding her own marginalization and identity politics.
Whether literal or enigmatic, Rich’s work remains heavy with layers of meaning and metaphor. In “Diving into the Wreck“ (1973), Rich parallels the “his-tory” of “man-kind” to a myth of shipwreck, while “her-story” is depicted as a drowned face looking up to the sunlight amongst the wreck. Rich describes the plight of women’s battle for recognition in this stanza,
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass.
Rich began to show evidence of her activism and feminist ideology in her early work, such as in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” (1951). Rich often describes womanhood as something initially controlled and copied from centuries of male-domination, yet as fierce and unshakable as a tiger. Here she describes Aunt Jennifer‘s burden,
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
Rich went on to receive more awards for her various works. In 1974, she won the National Book Award for the collection, Diving into the Wreck. Rich symbolically shared the award that year with Allen Ginsberg, a gay poet and pioneer of gay rights. According to poets.org, Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women, sharing it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
In 1976, Rich came out as a lesbian. Her work from then on involved considerations of love between women as she experienced the late realization of her own sexuality. Still considered a taboo, Rich continued to make massive strides against the status quo, producing Twenty-one Love Poems, a collection of poems about lesbian love. Rich’s work not only focused on the marginalization of her own identities as a woman and lesbian, but also dealt with her Jewish identity, war, and racism in the era of American Civil Rights.
Rich refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997 due to her firm disagreement with the policies and government of President Bill Clinton. According to poets.org, she said, “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.”
Rich died on March 27th of this year at the age of 82 from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. She is survived by her partner of over 30 years, writer Michelle Cliff, her three sons, her sister Cynthia Rich, and her two grandchildren.