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Adrienne Rich is praised for lyrical and highly crafted poems in which she explores a variety of socially relevant subjects, including feminism and lesbianism, and criticizes patriarchal societies where women traditionally assume secondary status to men. An early proponent of societal changes that reflect the values and goals of women, Rich is credited with articulating one of the strongest poetic statements of the modern feminist movement.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poetic Frustration Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Dr. Arnold Rich, a respected pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and his wife Helen, a trained concert pianist and composer. In accordance with the educational beliefs of her father, Rich was educated at home under the tutelage of her mother until the fourth grade. She showed an early interest in writing and was encouraged by her father to peruse his extensive Victorian literature collection. Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, and her first volume of poetry, A Change of World (1951), published when Rich was only twenty-one, was selected by noted Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In his introduction to the collection, Auden praised her mastery of form, delicacy, and restraint from striving for intense individuality. Other critical comments support Auden’s evaluation and note that this volume is a remarkable production for so young a poet. In a 1971 essay, ”When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” Rich herself comments upon her early poetry: ”I know that my style was formed first by male poets: . . . Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, MacNeice, Stevens, Yeats. What I learned chiefly from them was craft.”
The following year Rich was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and traveled to Europe and England. In 1953 she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad, and the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rich gave birth to a son in 1955 and that same year saw the publication of her second poetry collection, The Diamond Cutters, and Other Poems. By 1959 Rich was the mother of three sons and had very little time for writing. While she wrote sporadically when her children were young, Rich was very unhappy with the quality of work she produced. In her essay ”When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” she later explained:
I was writing very little. … What I did write was unconvincing to me; my anger and frustration were hard to acknowledge in or out of poems because in fact I cared a great deal about my husband and my children.
Politics and Art
Rich published her third volume, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, in 1963. A collection of poems drawn from the fragments of writings she had compiled over eight years, it is considered her breakthrough work because of its overt delineation of female themes. In 1966 Rich moved with her family to New York City, where she became involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. By 1969 she had become estranged from her husband, who committed suicide the following year. During the early 1970s Rich devoted much of her time toward the women’s liberation movement and began identifying herself as a radical feminist. In 1973 her eighth poetry collection, Diving into the Wreck, won the National Book Award. Defying what she perceived to be the patriarchal organization upon which the competition was founded, Rich refused the award as an individual; however, she accepted it with nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, acknowledging the award ”in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world.” Rich came out as a lesbian in 1976, at which time she advocated a female separatist philosophy in her works. In the early 1980s she moved to Massachusetts with poet Michelle Cliff, where they coedited the lesbian feminist journal Sinister Wisdom.
In 1984, Rich and Cliff moved to California, where Rich continued to explore the personal and political through her verse. In the collections Your Native Land, Your Life (1986); Time’s Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1988); and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991
(1991), Rich addresses new issues while continuing to develop feminist themes. The long sequence titled ”Sources” in Your Native Land, Your Life is Rich’s first major attempt to confront her Jewish heritage and the effects of the Holocaust on her life and work. In ”Living Memory,” a long poem in Time’s Power, Rich faces the consequences of time and aging and also meditates on her bond to the American landscape. An Atlas of the Difficult World focuses on such issues as poverty, the Persian Gulf War, and the exploitation of minorities and women. Rich s use of personal experience, first-person narratives, and language prompted critics to compare this collection to the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Hudson Review critic Dick Allen observes, ”Rich’s book is truly a small atlas; but it is also the mature poetry of a writer who know she own power, who speaks in the passionate, ambitious blending of the personal and the universal.
Rich was to be given the National Medal of Arts in 1997, but she refused to accept the award because she felt that the ”cynical politics” of the administration of President Bill Clinton was incompatible with her definition of art. She and Cliff continue to live and work in California.
Works in Literary Context
Rich’s work sustains her belief that ”Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.” Her poetry is strongly integrated with other dimensions of her life, and changes in form and tone from volume to volume reflect changes in her personal life and consciousness.
Rich’s poetry has not always been described as ”feminist.” Discussion of her poetry is generally divided into discrete phases that reflect the evolutionary nature of her canon. The highly crafted verse structures and delineation of such themes as alienation and loss in her first two collections display Rich’s early fondness with modernist poets. In ”Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” a poem often praised for its mastery of sound, rhythm, and meter, Rich depicts a woman embroidering a tapestry in which tigers playfully inhabit a forest scene. She contrasts the restrained lifestyle of Aunt Jennifer, who feels inhibited by ”The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band,” with the power and vitality of the tigers, who ”pace in sleek chivalric certainty.” While commentators frequently cite ”Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” as an example of the control and objectivity that Rich sought in her early work, they nevertheless maintain that the poem portrays a feminist perspective in its critique of male dominance.
In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, considered her first transitional work, Rich departs from the formalism of her earlier volumes by employing free verse forms and overtly portraying women’s themes. For example, in the title poem, which is composed of ten rapidly shifting, fragmentary sections, Rich explores a young woman’s anger and frustration at her banal and limited existence within a patriarchal society.
Rich began the second phase of her poetic career with the collections Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971). These works focus on the relationship between private and public life and reflect social themes that openly reject patriarchal culture and language. Diving into the Wreck, Rich’s second major transitional work, is a radical feminist critique of contemporary society. Many of the poems in this volume assert the importance of reinventing cultural standards in feminist terms and focus on the need for women to achieve self-definition. In the title poem, Rich recognizes the necessity of creating an alternative, female language. Her next collections, The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), have been commended for their lyrical celebrations of the accomplishments of women. In poems such as ”For Julia in Nebraska” and ”The Spirit of Place,” Rich envisions a separate, utopian community of women as an alternative to contemporary society. Rich’s emphasis on a distinct community of women is portrayed in ”Twenty-One Love Poems,” a sequence of poems that directly represents lesbian sexuality and relationships.
Works in Critical Context
Since the publication of Diving into the Wreck in 1973, most critics have analyzed Rich’s work as an artistic expression of feminist politics. While some reviewers have praised her ability to write effectively in numerous verse forms, others have faulted the content of her poems as preachy. Critical commentary on Rich’s work has reflected the polarizing subject matter of her verse; critics who adhere to Rich’s politics frequently commend her poems unconditionally, while those who disagree with her radical feminism disavow her work. Additionally, there has been no conclusive appraisal of her canon as Rich continually revises her views and asserts new approaches to contemporary issues. Most critics concur, however, that Rich’s intelligent and innovative portrayals of women have contributed significantly to the feminist movement. Wendy Martin has stated that ”Rich’s poetry serves a prophetic function by articulating the history and ideals of the feminist struggle. By … envisioning the women of the future who will emerge from the feminist struggle, her poetry celebrates women’s strength and possibilities.”
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law
Many critics find in Rich’s book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems, 1954-1962 the first indication of both the end of Rich’s imitative efforts and the beginning of her concern with feminist issues. In Southwest Review, Willard Spiegelman calls Snapshots ”the luminal volume, attempting a journey from one self, world, poetic form, to another.” In Writing Like a Woman, Alicia Ostriker also comments on the change in Rich’s poetry evident in Snapshots. Calling the collection ”Rich’s break-through volume,” Ostriker notes that the book’s title poem ”has the immediacy and force which Rich did not attempt earlier.”
- ”Rusted Legacy.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Anne Marie Hacht. Vol. 15. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
- Templeton, Alice. The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
- Werner, Craig Hansen. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.
- Boyers, Robert. ”On Adrienne Rich: Intelligence and Will.” Salmagundi no. 22-23 (Spring-Summer 1973): 132-148.
- Gelpi, Albert. ”Adrienne Rich: The Poetics of Change. ”American Poetry Since 1960, ed. Robert B. Shaw. Cheadle, Cheshire, U.K.: Carcanet Press, 1973, pp. 123-143.
- Gelpi, Barbara C. and Albert Gelpi, eds. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1975.
- Jarrell, Randall. ”New Books in Review.” Yale Review 46 (September 1956): 100-103.
- Jong, Erica. ”Visionary Anger.” Ms. 2 (July 1973): 31-33.
- Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 129-169.
- McDaniel, Judith. Reconstituting The World: The Poetry and Vision of Adrienne Rich. Argyle, N.Y.: Spinsters Ink, 1979.
- Ostriker, Alicia. ”Her Cargo: Adrienne Rich and the Common Language.” American Poetry Review 8 (July-August 1979): 6-10.
- Vendler, Helen. ”Ghostlier Demarcations, Keener Sounds.” Parnassus 2 (Fall-Winter 1973): 5-10, 15-16, 18-24.
- Werner, Craig Hansen. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.
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