A very famous poet, essayist and a radical feminist of her time, Adrienne Cecile Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, US to Arnold Rice Rich who was the Chairman of Pathology at The Johns Hopkins Medical School and Helen Elizabeth Rich who was a concert pianist and composer. Adrienne Rich was a Jewish-Protestant.
Researching on her life, I found out that she has been a really successful person, winning awards and what not. She was a renowned poet and her first book A Change of World was selected by W.H. Auden for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series, which she also won after which she did her undergraduate studies from Radcliffe College in 1951.
In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist with whom she has three sons – David, Pablo and Jacob. On this marriage she says, “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.” Her journal entries reveal that for her this period was emotionally and artistically difficult. Their marriage suffered a rough patch after which Conrad committed suicide. One of the reason being said was that Rich had accepted the fact that she was a lesbian. She struggled with the conflicts over the assumed roles of a woman.
Rich also talks about her growing-up days as veraciously dominated by the claims, demands and intellectual presence of her father in her autobiographical poem “Sources” (1983) and the essay “Split at the Root” (Blood, Bread and Poetry). These work show how actually religious and cultural heritage of her father’s Jewish background and her mother’s Southern Protestantism created a tension and conflict in her life. Her desire was to get approval from her father and maybe this is why she is a well-known person in literature as her interests were emanated only when her father encouraged her to read books from his library and to write her own poetry.
She continued writing throughout the 1960s and created works like Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Leaflets. The content of her work became more confrontational – focussing on themes like Vietnam War, women’s role in society and racism. Her writing style also observed a change from metric patterns to free verse.
Rich wrote Diving into the Work in 1973, which is a collection of fundamental and angry poems which earned her a National Book Award in 1974. She accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her nominees – Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
“Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980) is an essay by Rich which was published in her book Blood, Bread and Poetry in 1986. In this Rich says heterosexuality is not natural or intrinsic in human instincts but actually an institution which is imposed upon cultures and societies which puts women in an inferior position. Heterosexuality is an institution, also shown as a norm or a preference for women which does not give any power to women, using violence and force to maintain the institution. This institution relies on male power leading to patriarchal society.
Rich believes that women are able to benefit more when they are in a relationship with other women than compared to a relationship between a man and a woman. She also gives importance to art and culture for enforcing compulsory heterosexuality. Sexuality is on a “lesbian continuum”, which means that until women can achieve a nonsexual relation with other women without the imposition by culture, women cannot really have any power. Feminism hence cannot achieve its aim.
Her other celebrated works include Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010; The School among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 which gave her the Book Critics Circle Award; Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991, finalist for the National Book Award; and The Dream of a Common Language.
She also wrote a number of books like Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations; A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997–2008; Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985; Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence 1981; and What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.
Like mentioned earlier she has received numerous awards for her work like 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. She however refused the National Medal of Arts in 1997 as she believed that “art was incompatible with the cynical politics of an administration.” She was also awarded the Academy of American Poet’s Wallace Stevens Award for her wizardry in poetry.
Rich also did not live a fairy tale life. She had her own problems being marginalized because she was a woman, a Jew and lesbian. In 1970 she began to recognise her love for women which she describes as ‘lesbian experience’ in her work and in 1976, she came out as lesbian as she published “Twenty One Love Poems” which talks about sexual love between women which was considered as a taboo that time.
According to her poetry was a beacon for women’s lives where women’s unconsciousness could be illuminated. During her budding years in poetry, she followed traditional form of writing although she never wanted to invest in it. She adopted something which was believed to be liberative language. Her poems examined one’s sexuality and femininity. She wanted to connect her writing to traditional writing style, her identity as a Jew and to her father.
Adrienne Rich died on March 27, 2012 at her home in Santa Cruz, California because of her complications related to rheumatoid arthritis.