demanding that poetry be committed to necessary change, and that it be recognized as coming out of and connecting to its cultural moment and that moment's true history. Rich began to date her poems in 1956 to emphasize this last point. In her poem "North American Time" (1983) she writes:
Poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history. One line typed twenty years ago can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
And in "Poetry I" (1985) she imagines "someone young in anger" asking "Can you remember? when we thought / the poets taught how to live?" Rich brings that urgent purpose and commitment into her poetry.
Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, "white and middle-class into a house full of books, with a father who encouraged me to read and write" as she put it in her influential essay "When We Dead Awaken" (1971). But she records in that essay that "for about twenty years" she wrote to please "a particular man," and that her early style was formed by male poets: she lists Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stevens, and Yeats as poets from whom she learned to craft poetry. This was the canon of mainly white male writers that Rich, along with writers and critics associated with the feminist movement, was to question in the 1960s.
Rich's first book, A Change of World, appeared in 1951, the same year that she graduated with a BA from Radcliffe. The book was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award, and published with an introduction by Auden. In 1952-3 she traveled in Europe on a Guggenheim Foundation award, and was first afflicted with the rheumatoid arthritis for which she since has had a number of operations. In 1953 she married Alfred H. Conrad, a Harvard economist, and they resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until 1966. By 1959 the couple had three children.
A Change of World and Rich's second volume, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955), were in a formal, distanced vein, a "formal order" that she argued later came at the expense of suppressing or omitting "certain disturbing elements" from the poems. They were poems, she would say later, that were "about experiences" rather than being experiences themselves. Nevertheless there were poems that sometimes indicated something of Rich's future themes. "An Unsaid Word" describes learning the silent support expected in marriage to "her man." "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" contrasts the energy and vitality of a tapestry's tiger figures with the quiet, oppressed acquiescence in marriage of their creator, the poem illustrating the split between the woman artist and her art that later becomes a major theme. The poem concludes:
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.
This earlier work was recognized by a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1960, and a second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961-2, among other awards. But major changes occurred in Rich's life and poetry in the 1960s, marked by the publication of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law in 1963, and Necessities of Life in 1966. The title poem of the 1963 collection, which Rich has identified as an important transition and which took her two years to write, seeks to recover the voice of women and women writers in history marginalized by the attitudes represented in some of the poem's quotations and allusions. "Time is male / and in his cups drinks to the fair" - but behind such male "gallantry" across history is a mocking attitude towards the intellectual and creative potential of women. The poem also marks a move towards a loosening of the formal structure of the work in the earlier two books. In the same volume, "A Marriage in the 'Sixties" documents a couple growing apart yet bound together by habit and shared memories. "A life I didn't choose / chose me" she writes in "The Roofwalker," the final poem of the volume, a poem dedicated to Denise Levertov, also a poet, wife, and mother.
In 1966 the family moved to New York when Alfred Conrad accepted a teaching post at City College. Rich and her husband began to be increasingly active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Rich also began a teaching career which was to take her to Swarthmore, Columbia, City College in New York, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, Scripps, San José State, and finally Stanford - from which she retired in 1993.
The title poem of the 1966 volume, "Necessities of Life," begins with a statement about remaking, reconnecting with a true self: "Piece by piece I seem / to re-enter the world." Another poem in this collection, "I Am in Danger - Sir - ," quotes from and praises the "single-mindedness" of Emily Dickinson, who "chose to have it out at last / on your own premises." Leaflets: Poems 1965-1968 (1969) continued this direction of her verse. In this volume "Orion," as Rich has observed, articulates what she had come to see as the false choice between "womanly, maternal love" and "egotism - a force directed by men into creation, achievement." "Planetarium" from her 1971 volume The Will to Change draws attention to the scientific achievements of Caroline Herschel, sister of the better-known eighteenth-century astronomer William. In 1970 Rich left her husband, who later in the year committed suicide, an event which enters into a number of later poems. By 1971
she was increasingly identifying with the women's movement. In 1974, when she received the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck, she accepted it not as an individual but jointly with fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde for all women who are silenced. In 1976 she affirmed herself a lesbian in the sequence of sonnets "Twenty-One Love Poems" and in that year began living with Jamaican American writer Michelle Cliff. Her prose essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980) argued that expression of the lesbian experience and achievement had been systematically silenced, as ten years earlier "When We Dead Awaken" had argued the claim for women and women's creativity generally. The fifth poem of "Twenty-One Love Poems" looks at the result of this silencing:
the ghosts - their hands clasped for centuries -
of artists dying in childbirth, wise-women charred at the stake, centuries of books unwritten piled behind these shelves;
and we still have to stare into the absence of men who would not, women who could not, speak to our life - this still unexcavated hole called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world.
Rich's poetry continued to address her own involvement in and alienation from particular aspects of contemporary culture; the series of personal pressures on identity and heritage that come from her identities of being white, a woman, a lesbian, a poet, and Jewish - issues sometimes examined in poems of sexual frankness. But following Diving into the Wreck (1973) the wideranging roles of history and historical memory become increasingly important. One of Rich's aims became, as in "Planetarium," to bring the achievement and the buried voices of women in history to the fore, as a way for women to rediscover and reassert a marginalized heritage and to articulate the cultural forces that still contributed to such marginalization in the present. "For Ethel Rosenberg" (1980) examines the victimization of the woman executed with her husband in 1953 for "conspiracy to commit espionage." The potential power of women is celebrated in the poem "Power" (1974) on Marie Curie, reprinted in her 1978 collection The Dream of a Common Language:
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
She rewrites John Donne, one of the early influences on her work, in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" (1970), and closes "From an Old House in America" with an echo of one of his famous sermons: "Any woman's death diminishes me." In her poems' undermining of imprisoning conventions she has acknowledged the influence of film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, an influence perhaps most overtly seen in the poem sequence "Shooting Script" (1970).
Rich has pointed to the importance of her move to the west coast, to Santa Cruz, in 1984 as bringing her closer to many cultures that had previously seemed far away. The move further expanded the range of history brought in to her examination of present social forces. "I am bent on fathoming what it means to love my country" Rich writes in "An Atlas of the Difficult World" - the title poem of her important 1991 volume. This poem includes extracts from the prison letters of Black Panther leader George Jackson, the author of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, which record Jackson's attempt to educate himself, and the psychological and physical desperation brought on by the brutalizing routine of the prison system. Jackson, shot in a prison uprising at San Quentin in 1971, questions in a quotation within Rich's poem, whether "the world and its affairs / are run as well as they possibly can be, that I am governed / by wise and judicious men' -which is what he is told to believe - "if when I leave the instructor's presence and encounter / the exact opposite ... / is it not reasonable / that I should become perplexed?" The questioning, the refusal to accept the dictates of "the instructor," is also Rich's constant aim.
Adrienne Rich has been the recipient of many honors and awards, including honorary doctorates from across the nation, many of the leading poetry awards, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She is a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and by 2001 had published nearly 20 volumes of poetry, including Fox: Poems 1998-2000 in 2001. She has co-edited Sinister Wisdom, a lesbian/feminist journal, and was a founding editor of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990. Her important prose is collected in Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1986), Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986), What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993), and Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001). Perhaps the most influential of contemporary poets, she continues to be an active and highly visible campaigner for gay rights, reproductive rights, the progressive Jewish movement, and national and international social justice.
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