Adrienne Rich

"One of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century"

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"Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012) was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was called "one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century", and was credited with bringing "the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse."

 

Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by renowned poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Auden went on to write the introduction to the published volume. She famously declined the National Medal of Arts, protesting the vote by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

Rich gained her college diploma at Radcliffe College, where she focused primarily on poetry and learning writing craft, encountering no women teachers at all. In 1951, her last year at college, Rich's first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by the senior poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; he went on to write the introduction to the published volume. Following her graduation, Rich received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study at Oxford for a year. Following a visit to Florence, she chose not to return to Oxford, and spent her remaining time in Europe writing and exploring Italy.

 

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University she met as an undergraduate. She said of the match: "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." They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had three sons. In 1955, she published her second volume, The Diamond Cutters, a collection she said she wished had not been published. That year she also received the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her three children were born in 1955 (David), 1957 (Pablo) and 1959 (Jacob)...

 

The 1960s began a period of change in Rich's life: she received the National Institute of Arts and Letters award (1960), her second Guggenheim Fellowship to work at the Netherlands Economic Institute (1961), and the Bollingen Foundation grant for the translation of Dutch poetry (1962). In 1963, Rich published her third collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, which was a much more personal work examining her female identity, reflecting the increasing tensions she experienced as a wife and mother in the 1950s, marking a substantial change in Rich's style and subject matter…

 

Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich became involved with the New Left and became heavily involved in anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York…

 

From 1967 to 1969, Rich lectured at Swarthmore College and taught at Columbia University School of the Arts as an adjunct professor in the Writing Division. Additionally, in 1968, she began teaching in the SEEK program in City College of New York, a position she continued until 1975. During this time, Rich also received the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine Increasingly militant, Rich and Conrad hosted anti-war and Black Panther fundraising parties at their apartment; however, rising tensions began to split the marriage, and Rich moved out in mid-1970, getting herself a small studio apartment nearby. Shortly afterward, in October, Conrad drove into the woods and shot himself.

 

In 1971, she was the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and spent the next year and a half teaching at Brandeis University as the Hurst Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, split the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry with Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America. Declining to accept it individually, Rich was joined by the two other feminist poets nominated, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, to accept it on behalf of all women "whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world." The following year, Rich took up the position of the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellow at Bryn Mawr College.

 

In 1976, Rich began her partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, which lasted until her death. In her controversial work Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published the same year, Rich acknowledged that, for her, lesbianism was a political as well as a personal issue, writing, "The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” The pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), which was incorporated into the following year's Dream of a Common Language (1978), marked the first direct treatment of lesbian desire and sexuality in her writing, themes which run throughout her work afterwards, especially in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) and some of her late poems in The Fact of a Doorframe (2001). In her analytical work Adrienne Rich: the moment of change, Langdell suggests these works represent a central rite of passage for the poet, as she (Rich) crossed a threshold into a newly constellated life and a "new relationship with the universe". During this period, Rich also wrote a number of key socio-political essays, including "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", one of the first to address the theme of lesbian existence. In this essay, she asks "how and why women's choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding". Some of the essays were republished in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (1979). In integrating such pieces into her work, Rich claimed her sexuality and took a role in leadership for sexual equality.

 

From 1976 to 1979, Rich taught at City College as well as Rutgers University as an English Professor. In 1979, she received an honorary doctorate from Smith College and moved with Cliff to Montague, MA. Ultimately, they moved to Santa Cruz, [CA] where Rich continued her career as a professor, lecturer, poet, and essayist. Rich and Cliff took over editorship of the lesbian arts journal Sinister Wisdom (1981–1983). Rich taught and lectured at UC Santa Cruz, Scripps College, San Jose State University, and Stanford University during the 1980s and 1990s. From 1981 to 1987, Rich served as an A.D. White Professor-At-Large for Cornell University… She also was awarded the Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters from NYU, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry (1989).

 

In 1977, Rich became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.

 

In June 1984, Rich presented a speech at the International Conference of Women, Feminist Identity, and Society in Utrecht, Netherlands titled Notes Toward a Politics of Location. Her keynote speech is a major document on politics of location and the birth of the concept of female “locatedness.”... The essay hypothesizes where the women’s movement should be at the end of the 20th century. In an encouraging call for the women’s movement, Rich discusses how the movement for change is an evolution in itself. Through de-masculinizing itself and de-Westernizing itself, the movement becomes a critical mass of so many different, voices, languages and overall actions. She pleads that the movement must change in order to experience change. She further insists that women must change it. In her essay, Rich considers how one’s background might influence their identity. She furthers this notion by noting her own exploration of the body, her body, as female, as white, as Jewish and as a body in a nation. Rich is careful to define the location in which her writing takes place. Throughout her essay, Rich relates back to the concept of location. She recounts her growth towards understanding how the women’s movement grounded in the Western culture is limited to the concerns of white women to the verbal and written indications of Black United States citizens. Such professions have allowed her to experience the meaning of her whiteness as a point of location for which she needed to take responsibility…

 

Rich's work with the New Jewish Agenda led to the founding of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990, a journal of which Rich served as the editor… Her next published piece, An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), won both the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award as well as the Poet's Prize in 1993 and Commonwealth Award in Literature in 1991. During the 1990s Rich became an active member of numerous advisory boards such as the Boston Woman’s Fund, National Writers Union and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa… In July 1994, Rich won the MacArthur Fellowship and Award, specifically the "Genius Grant" for her work as a poet and writer…

 

In 1997, Rich declined the National Medal of Arts in protesting 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 particular, stating that "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"...

 

In the early 2000s, Rich participated in anti-war activities, protesting against the threat of war in Iraq, both through readings of her poetry and other activities. In 2002, she was appointed a chancellor of the newly augmented board of the Academy of American Poets, along with Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Jay Wright (who declined the honor, refusing to serve), Louise Gluck, Heather McHugh, Rosanna Warren, Charles Wright, Robert Creeley, and Michael Palmer. She was the winner of the 2003 Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry and applauded by the panel of judges for her "honesty at once ferocious, humane, her deep learning, and her continuous poetic exploration and awareness of multiple selves." In October 2006, Equality Forum honored Rich's work, featuring her as an icon of LGBT history.

 

Rich died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82 in her Santa Cruz, California home. Her son, Pablo Conrad, reported that her death resulted from long-term rheumatoid arthritis. Her last collection was published the year before her death.

 

Views on Feminism

Perhaps the most prominent contribution of Rich can be seen through her works alone. She has written several pieces that explicitly tackle the rights of women in society. Her book entitled Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law is said to be the first work that discusses this subject matter. In the book, she offers a critical analysis of the life of being both a mother and a daughter-in-law, and the impact of their gender in their lives. The book is about a speaker talking against a woman, her mother-in-law, because the former feels that she had become a limiting factor in her life. In addition, she chastises her for not improving her life all the same. This book contains themes which can be described as common in feminist works. For one, it chastises a superficial life focusing on beauty rather than intellectual pursuit.

 

Her poems are also famous for their feminist elements. One such poem is “Power”, which was written about Marie Curie, one of the most important female icons of the 20th century for discovering radiation. In this poem, she discusses the element of power and feminism. More specifically, it tackles the problem that Curie was slowly succumbing to the radiation she acquired from her research, to which Rich refers in the poem as her source of power. This poem is said to be discussed the concept of power, particularly from a woman’s point of view.

 

Besides poems and novels, Rich also wrote and published a number of nonfiction books that tackle feminist issues. Some of these books are: Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Blood, Bread and Poetry, etc. Especially the Bread and Poetry contains the famous feminist essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, and Feminism and Community.

 

From the works listed above as well as her various interviews and documentaries, demonstrate that Rich has an in-depth perspective of feminism and society.

 

For one, Rich has something to say about the use of the term itself. According to her, she prefers to use the term “women’s liberation” rather than feminism. For her, the latter term is more likely to induce resistance from women of the next generation. Also, she fears that the term would amount to nothing more than a label if it is used extensively. On the other hand, using the term women’s liberation means that women can finally be free from factors that can be seen as oppressive to their rights.

 

Rich’s views on feminism can be found in her works. She says in Of Woman Born that "we need to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture." She also speaks regarding the need for women to unite in her book On Lies, Secrets and Silence. In this book, she spoke:

 

“Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”

 

Given the feminist conditions during the 50s – 70s era, it can be said that Rich’s works on feminism are revolutionary. Her views on equality and the need for women to maximize their potential can be seen as progressive during her time. Her views strongly coincide with the feminist way of thinking during that time. For Rich, society as a whole is founded on patriarchy and as such it limits the rights for women. For equality to be achieved between the sexes, the prevailing notions will have to be readjusted to fit the female perspective." (1)

From Wikipedia



Her Works