Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and feminist called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century.” She is credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.”
Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich encouraged her to read and writer her own poetry, and she was influenced by the works of Ibsen, Arnold, Blake, Keats, Rossetti, and Tennyson which she found in her father’s library. Rich was home schooled until the fourth grade, as her father was determined to “create a prodigy.” Her relationship with her father would later become the basis of the poems Sources and After Dark. After graduating high school, Rich continued her education at Radcliffe College, where she studied poetry and writing. In 1951, the year she graduated, Rich’s first collection of poetry entitled A Change of World was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.
In 1953, Rich married and two years later she published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, about which Randall Jarrell wrote: “The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” During the 1960’s, Rich struggled with the traditional role expected of her as a wife and mother and would later say that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” Her work became more political and confrontation, dealing with themes including women’s role in society, civil rights and the Vietnam war. Her poetry style changed to reflect the new direction of its content, and she utilised free verse instead of metric patterns. Rich began hosting anti-war and Black Panther fundraising parties at her apartment, and her activism increase the tensions in an already shaky marriage, leading to her separating from her husband.
By 1970, Rich had left her husband for good to commit herself to social activism. Three years later, she released Diving into the Wreck, a poetry collection that won the National Book Award the following year. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women, including her fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. In 1976, Rich cemented her place as a feminist author when she published a collection of essays entitled Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, exploring the issues many women face as a wife and mother. Around the same time, she came out as a lesbian and her writing began to reflect this, in 1978 she expressed her desire as a lesbian and her sexuality for the first time in Dream of a Common Language (1978). Rich then began living with her partner, novelist and editor Michelle Cliff.
Rich continued to publish new collections of poetry and essays every few years, including On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979) and A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, in which she explores the intersection of poetry and the political in essays and reviews. She also wrote a number of socio-political essays, including ”Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence“, one of the first to address the theme of lesbian existence.
In 1990, Rich began to celebrate her Jewish heritage, and worked with the New Jewish Agenda on Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends as editor. The journal explored the relationship between private and public histories, focusing on Jewish women’s rights. During the rest of the decade, Rich became involved with the Boston Woman’s Fund, National Writers Union and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa as well as being a member on a number of other advisory boards. In the early 2000’s, she protested against the war in Iraq both through her writing and various other activities.
Rich continued to write up until her death in 2012, with her last collection published a year before her death. She received a number of awards during her lifetime, including the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement (for gay or lesbian writing); National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry; Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. In 1997, Rich refused the National Medal of Arts in protest 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 2006, she was honoured by Equality Forum as an icon of LGBT history. Margalit Fox of The New York Times summed up Rich’s contribution to poetry, stating that Rich “accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ did in prose.”