Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Awakening

Newly discovered letters give a rare glimpse of how her poetry—and her radical politics—were formed..

adrienne rich essay feminism

Illustration by Janna Klävers based on the photograph by Joan E. Biren

It began with her fear of stairs. One day in November 1969, Adrienne Rich, a poet known to other poets but not yet to the wider world, paused at the top of the steps in her sister’s house in Boston, overwhelmed by a sense of peril, until her sister came to help. “Touching her, I felt no fear,” Rich wrote in a letter, “but what I did immediately feel was that something very serious had happened to me, something I had better fight—that I couldn’t let myself in for a life of being helped up and down staircases.”

When she got back to New York, her fear spread to the three subway entrances near the apartment, on Central Park West, where she lived with her three sons and her husband. These she had descended many times—sometimes in great pain and limitation from the arthritis that plagued her from her twenties on. But now, her mind seized up worse than her body ever had. Even when she managed to overcome it, anxiety followed her down to the subway platform. Rich felt something “coming on very fast, capable of paralyzing my life.”

The trouble seemed to pass quickly. Rich found a psychiatrist known for his clientele of writers and artists, Leslie Farber . Farber told her he could give her medication but would prefer not to, that the best thing she could do was enter analysis and probe the sources of that deep compulsion. In their first sessions together, Rich felt she could “risk entering certain zones more immediately than I could ever have done with someone I loved … I have never before had such a sense of the intensity of an attention which was not really trying to elicit anything but which therefore was able to receive the whole message.”

What came out in those therapy sessions would surprise nearly everyone Rich had ever known. It changed her life, her poetry, and her politics—a transformation that has hardly been traced before, because Rich herself often avoided direct discussion of the subject. Within months, she would leave her husband of 17 years, the Harvard-trained economist Alfred Conrad. Within a year, Conrad would drive up to the family’s house in Vermont alone, in a state of unarticulated despair. It was October 1970. He bought a gun, went out into the woods, and shot himself.

In the years that followed, Rich began to cut ties with old friends, including some of her closest confidants. She left New York for the West Coast, where she would live for the rest of her life. She came out as a lesbian. She began to write more prose, revealing a talent for polemic. Her feminist politics bloomed suddenly into a very explicit sort of radicalism, the kind unafraid to march onto the pages of intellectual journals and complain that “the way we live in a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.”

She also became famous. In 1973, she published Diving Into the Wreck . It was her ninth book of poetry, but its mixture of anguish and strength of conviction vaulted it past all her previous work. Many of these poems were explicitly feminist in concern, as with “Trying to Talk With a Man,”

Out here I feel more helpless with you than without you You mention the danger and list the equipment we talk of people caring for each other in emergencies—laceration, thirst— but you look at me like an emergency

With this book she won the National Book Award for poetry, tied with Allen Ginsberg. It positioned Rich as one of the foremost poets of her generation and a leading feminist thinker. A young Margaret Atwood wrote that hearing Rich read from it “felt as though the top of my head was being attacked, sometimes with an ice pick, sometimes with a blunter instrument: a hatchet or a hammer.” A male reviewer called it angry, which it was, but women responded in droves because they were angry, too.

By the time of her death in 2012, Rich was a towering figure, an abstracted Great Poet and Important Feminist, whom The New York Times eulogized as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.” Some of this praise has made her sound like a statue, not a person. Her radical feminist beliefs had a curiously distancing effect, often thought too blunt, too simplistic. It seems hard for people to imagine that these ideas could be the result of a complex mind, a complicated experience. And like many artists, Rich was wary of those who wanted to connect her work too closely to the shape of her life. When she died, she asked that her friends and family refrain from participating in any full-length biography; many of her archived letters to close friends are sealed until 2050.

But during the 1960s and into the mid-1970s, Rich wrote often about her innermost concerns to her friend, the poet and critic Hayden Carruth , who was at the time living in relative isolation with his wife and child in Johnson, Vermont. The letters he kept span almost a thousand pages among his papers at the University of Vermont, and Carruth, for whatever reason, left access to them open. Her literary trust granted permission to quote from the letters for the purposes of this article, though Pablo Conrad, her middle son and literary executor, declined to be formally interviewed for it. They paint an intimate portrait of her intellectual and political awakening, one which has scarcely been seen before.

When W.H. Auden gave Rich the Yale Younger Poet’s prize in 1950, he famously said that her poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” That line is so often quoted because her life inverted it, as she became more famous and more overtly identified as a poet of anger.

Rich was brought up to be a very conventional and—more important—very successful sort of poet. Born in 1929 in Baltimore, nothing in her background suggested artistic precocity. Her father was Jewish, having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama; her mother was a Protestant from Atlanta, Georgia. Arnold Rich had encouraged her to write verse from the age of four. He himself was not an artist, but a doctor, with a particular expertise in tuberculosis. He had, consequently, concentrated and divided his literary ambitions among his two daughters, wanting Adrienne to be a poet and her sister, Cynthia, to be a novelist. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she told Carruth in 1965, “with geniuses for children.”

The Rich daughters were at first schooled at home by their mother, only sent out in fourth grade. Their father drove them to write every day, expounded on principles of prosody, the theory of how a poem sounds. He loved, in particular, Rossetti and Swinburne, thought “poetry had fallen on hard days more or less after the death of Oscar Wilde.” In a characteristic fit of pride, he’d printed one of Rich’s early poems, an “allegory on suicide,” as a chapbook. Obedience was a singular virtue in the household, hard work the method of greatness.

But Arnold Rich could not prevent other influences from pressing on his daughters. Worldly subjects began to look like avenues of rebellion. “I went along with all of this,” Rich wrote to Carruth about her father’s plans, “but in secret spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously, thinking up adjectives for face cream which Madison Avenue had in those innocent days not even stumbled on.” In some letters she speaks of hating her father. Her marriage at 24, she said in her 1976 book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution , had been a kind of break between them. “She had ceased to be the demure and precocious child or the poetic, seducible adolescent,” she wrote of her younger self. “Something, in my father’s view, had gone terribly wrong.”

Among the things that had gone “wrong,” and would keep going “wrong” for the rest of her life, was her poetry itself. Rich started writing looser, blank verse, gradually breaking from the rules of prosody her father had instilled, in what she seemed to consider her first successful book of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law , in 1963. There are hints throughout her work that she was amused to discover that all the flattery she’d received from her father had been a kind of control and she saw how her changing verse was a literal break with patriarchy. In the title poem , often identified as her feminist breakthrough, Rich would write of time as male, judging women’s behavior by the lowered standards of chivalry:

Bemused by gallantry, we hear our mediocrities over-praised, indolence read as abnegation, slattern thought styled intuition, every lapse forgiven, our crime only to cast too bold a shadow or smash the mold straight off.

That poem, composed between 1958 and 1960, was first published in 1962 in the Partisan Review . It was then still a year before Betty Friedan would publish The Feminine Mystique . Sylvia Plath was still alive in London, the poems that would make up Ariel as yet unpublished. There was no New York Radical Women collective, no SCUM Manifesto , no consciousness-raising groups. And yet Rich had, all by herself, put her finger on the upsurge of feeling—that feeling being anger—that would come to define the second wave of feminism. “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters,” is another of the most resonant lines in Snapshots .

But until Diving Into the Wreck , Rich was still reserved about her politics. Her letters to Carruth track little feminist reading—Simone de Beauvoir comes up in passing but mostly as an object of gossip. Gloria Steinem makes no appearances, nor Juliet Mitchell, nor Shulamith Firestone, nor any of the writers of the great feminist tracts. Rich was perhaps tailoring her remarks for her audience, Carruth not having much engagement with feminist politics himself. But judging by these letters alone, it would seem that her political and social views were formed mostly through her reading of black writers. She loved, in particular, the early work of James Baldwin. But as late as June 1968 she was having doubts about his work, too:

James Baldwin is as dead as Medgar Evers. Was he always, or did he die a slow death? I haven’t reread any of the early essays or that first novel that seemed so good to me five years ago. Maybe our perceptions are getting sharper. Maybe he sharpened them, blunting himself in the process.

Rich really began to think like an activist when she ventured out into the world of work. In 1966, still recovering from an operation for her arthritis, Rich began to teach, first at Swarthmore (where she did not like the students) and then at Columbia (where she liked them very much). These were her first excursions back into the real world after her sons were grown, and her early remarks on teaching are flavored with a feeling of new freedom:

[The students] are extraordinarily unhypocritical, candid, impatient of anything that seems abstract or mere ritual. I feel they live in a different time-scale from us. I like them better than most of their elders, I suppose, but I have never felt so concretely that I’m thirty-eight, middle-aged, and drenched in assumptions which they haven’t even heard of.

This was an unusual reaction. Most writers end up disliking teaching, claiming it takes them away from their own work. From the beginning, Rich had a much more open mind.

That urge to examine her own assumptions was compounded when, in 1968, she began teaching at City College in its Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program. SEEK was originally conceived as an admissions scheme; the idea was to get more black and Puerto Rican students from struggling high schools into the university. Under SEEK, the top graduates of local high schools were automatically admitted to the university, provided they first went through a series of classes designed to beef up their writing and mathematics skills. Rich taught language to small classes in this program for two years, beginning in the fall of 1968.

In an essay she later wrote on the experience, “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” Rich was wary of the “banal cliché” that, as a privileged teacher, she would learn as much from her students as they would from her. They did nonetheless force her to see a certain section of literature in a different light. Rich found herself, in an effort to lead her students to the discover of “the validity and variety of their own experience,” teaching from black literature for the first time. Her coworkers also included a number of black feminists—the poets Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde among them—who would become lifelong friends and allies.

Rich somewhat downplayed her exposure to black writing before she taught at SEEK. She had, after all, always read Baldwin. She also kept up with Eldridge Cleaver and the other polemicists. And among the writers she most admired, her letters to Carruth tell us, was LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka. She liked the urgency of his message, though she had a complicated reaction to his fiery persona:

We whites with our malfunctions and hang-ups and blocks and sense of alienation—I mean we people with raw nerves who take life so hard—well, a bad novel is a bad novel, but what about somebody like LeRoi, some of whose literary criticism is the best I’ve seen in a long time, and some of whose social incantations are as bad as the next demagogue’s? LeRoi always did think that Baldwin was essentially white-spirited, denying things in himself, with nothing really to write about except his own exquisitely exacerbated sensibility. But what is happening to LeRoi is a different process, at least what I see of it, a totally understandable and relevant madness, but a madness no less.

SEEK plunged her into the midst of it. “It is the only thing I’ve ever done from a political motive,” she told Carruth, “(I applied for the job after King was shot, as a political act of involvement, from which I’ve gained such a sense of doing something practical and effective.” This proved intoxicating, in fact sending her into a flurry of composition—most of the poems that comprised her Leaflets are dated 1968. The book was dedicated to Carruth and his wife, but one of the poems she drafted, in late September, after she’d begun teaching at SEEK, was dedicated to Jones:

Terribly far away I see your mouth in the wild light: it seems to me you are shouting instructions to us all.

Rich was becoming more involved in radical politics, and yet in all these letters of the later 1960s, there is little to no mention of the women’s movement, or of marital unhappiness. She and Conrad spent New Year’s Eve 1968 at the apartment of some of Rich’s students, who “agreed we would not say ‘Happy New Year’ because no one expected or dreamed that 1969 would be happy,” but who also sat up all night reciting poetry to each other. “These are the students of whom people say that they have no interest or love for anything written before today, that they don’t properly revere the classics, that they don’t read, etc.,” Rich wrote to Carruth. Already, she knew better.

This sharpening and blunting is an interesting metaphor for the life of an artist in politics. Rich recognized and even agreed with the politics in the work but was afraid to wield them herself, just yet. She believed, as she would later write in a 1983 essay called “ Blood, Bread and Poetry ,” that politics had little place in art. She writes of being told, after the publication of Snapshots , that her work was “bitter” and “personal.” “It took me a long time not to hear those voices internally whenever I picked up my pen.”

In the middle of all this is the enigma of Alfred Conrad. From these letters we learn only certain things about him, such as that he shared his wife’s politics and attended protests and leftist talks with and without her. Sometimes he even seemed to be ahead of her radicalism. He proposed, for instance, that the couple stop paying taxes on account of the unconstitutionality of the war in Vietnam. He was a native of Brooklyn, who was born Alfred Cohen but later changed his name to Conrad, and became a man of what you could call a kind of solid conventional success: He earned all three of his degrees at Harvard. His academic work bore the proof of his leftist beliefs; he co-authored a celebrated paper on the economics of slavery in the antebellum South. And once he became a full professor at City College, he often got involved in conflicts with the administration.

adrienne rich essay feminism

Evidently he had quite a bit of personal charm, if of a reserved kind. When Sylvia Plath met him in April 1958, she recorded in her journal that he was “doe-eyed.” And perhaps shy at first. But when they sat down to dinner, he loosened up: “I talked to Al about … tuberculosis, deep, deeper, enjoying him.” But Plath is one of the only people who left behind any record of Conrad. Beyond these bare facts there is not a great deal known of him.

In October 1967 Rich and Conrad joined a number of other writers and poets— Robert Lowell , Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, and Norman Mailer among them—in Washington for a march against the war in Vietnam. Rich was still recovering from a surgery and did not actually walk in the larger of the two protests, held on the twenty-first, but made it to a smaller march and a planning meeting among the poets. Rich reported to Carruth:

The order of events for the public meeting was being discussed, and Denise was announcing that she and Galway were thinking of chaining themselves to the gates of the White House. Galway, by the way, like all of us, was dressed with a care and propriety rarely attempted by him, looking rather as if he were going to a funeral. Denise had a leg encased in surgical bandage, having somehow knocked her knee two days earlier, and probably shouldn’t even have marched, let alone try to chain herself to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The notes of the comic in this description were shoring up a certain depression. Rich had been feeling intermittently depressed throughout the 1960s, a state she often chalked up to her captivity in hospitals and occasional blocks in her writing. But she also did not seem to feel much connection, in the end, to the social movements of the time—not to the anti-Vietnam students, not to the counterculture, nor even a clear connection to the civil rights movement. A month after the protests, she wrote to Carruth of her worry about those to whom “political protest comes too easily,” holding that activism ought to be more difficult for the average “honest man.”

“At times the state of poetry fills me with despair. My own, the whole shooting match,” Rich continued. “The kind and quantity of polemical poetry around these days is awesomely depressing. I’d like to keep poetry safe for the future by forbidding that it be written for two or three generations.” It still worried her, in other words, that her life was becoming more and more bound to ideals of social change which seemed still, to her, to threaten her art.

There were clearly infidelities in Rich’s marriage—some of them her own—but throughout the 1960s Rich gave no hint of wanting to leave. Alfred Conrad was in fact quite intricately associated with the SEEK program that had instilled new energy in Rich. In April 1969, funding for SEEK was under threat and students occupied a campus of the college. Conrad was one of the few professors students spoke to and respected. “He is deeply impressed with [the students’] maturity and realism,” Rich proudly reported to Carruth. His colleagues vilified him for joining with the students, but he stood with them, anyway.

The first hint of any trouble, in fact, appears only when Carruth began to complain to Rich of restlessness within his own marriage. (He would separate from his wife Rose Marie in 1980.) He did not preserve his own letter to Rich, but her reply makes clear that he had made some kind of overture:

I will not flirt with you. I love you too much for that, and I know this is a danger zone. For years now I have believed that honest, loving and deep relations were possible—known they were possible—between men and women who have permanent relationships elsewhere. But proceeding on that assumption, one takes on much difficulty and much responsibility. Even if I didn’t know and love [Rose Marie] I should be anxious that I, at a distance, not become a focus of fantasy, something more glamorous and idealized than any near-at-hand woman—myself included, if I were near at hand—could be. I feel a responsibility to be very lucid, to demand that you too be very lucid.

The letters hint at no physical relationship or developed affair. But Rich once again lapsed into the role of Carruth’s soother and caretaker: “I think you feel you’re a failure, while for me you have been one of the exemplary figures, against whom I set the chasers after success and the people held together with vanity and prestige.” She urged him to begin reading Rollo May , the chief of a school of psychoanalysis sometimes called “existential” because of May’s tendency to draw from the arts and philosophy in his analysis of the mind. She also asked him not to chase after her so clearly:

We are both engaged in extraordinary marriages. The strange paradox of love is that it longs, each time it occurs, to be eternal & exclusive. We don’t know what to do about these feelings, we falsify or mis-identify them. What we have to do, I think, is commit ourselves as best we can to each love, and acknowledge that there are as many loves as one needs, but that loyalty to one need not involve disloyalty to another.

It was a few months after this sort of letter that the troubles with the stairs began. And as Rich’s relationship with her new therapist, Leslie Farber, deepened, so did a sense of distance from Carruth. Her letters begin to remind him “how little you know me.” Farber shared, with Rich and with Carruth, a love of French existentialist writers. And increasingly Farber was a confidant more important to her than any other in her life. Carruth, who had been in therapy himself, tried to warn Rich she was getting too close to the psychiatrist, but she did not listen. “I feel very destructive toward others to whom I would ordinarily turn,” she replied.

At the same time, she was informed by a doctor that the surgeries she’d undergone had not been successful. The arthritis continued to cause daily pain. Among the medical advice she was given were instructions to avoid the stairs whenever possible. “I just have to face becoming more and more of a cripple,” she wrote dejectedly.

Please don’t write me that all of life is compromise, that I can be ‘active mentally’ as the doctor put it … I depend on you for your pessimism as much as your humor and your reassurance of affections.

Another operation was scheduled and performed in March 1970, and another course of physical therapy began. Conrad was arrested for protesting a draft board, occupations at the college continued, and Rich began complaining of exhaustion. She would drive up to the family’s house in Vermont and sleep for days. Her letters to Carruth got more and more abstract, especially when they touched on her conversations with Farber. But finally, when he once again seems to have brought up her attractions for him, she responded with a full-court feminist response:

Of course Rose Marie is jealous—I would be too, if you have made mysteries about yourself and me, forced her to “intuit,” etc. Think of all that she has invested of herself in you, in your life together. Think of all that any bright, attractive, vital women invests in bourgeois marriage, in her husband and family. Her independence and autonomy are postponed or resigned altogether; her own spirit is almost continually being asked to take second place to the needs, the will, even the passing moods, of her man.

The letter continues along these lines for some time until finally Rich signs off,

If this sounds like a Women’s Lib rap, baby, it is.

During this time, she was distant from both her friend and her husband. Within two weeks Conrad had visited Carruth in Vermont, alone. In a Guardian interview in 2002 , Carruth recounted that Conrad had visited him in June 1970 to complain about their split. Rich wrote to Carruth that she could offer no “tidy explanations” but that she was separating from Conrad. “Some of it is uniquely peculiar to Alf’s and my very complicated relationship, and to who we each were long before we knew each other.”

Conrad spiraled out from this rapidly. Rich wrote to Carruth that he needed the separation just as much as she but “finds it almost impossible to admit to this, as if it implied some kind of failure.” Carruth, flabbergasted by the sudden change, wrote hectoring letters back, telling Rich he worried she was moving from her “proper center.” “This is not something I am doing to or against Alf or out of vindictive anger,” she replied. Nor, she said at the end of July 1970, was she contemplating divorce. She had no plans to live with someone else. She would get herself a studio apartment.

Even after moving out, Rich continued to spend some time with Conrad and her children. “Alf & I talking a lot, in the car on leaf-strewn roads, or by the stove evenings,” she wrote to Carruth as late as the fourth of October. But by the thirteenth she’d changed her mind again: “I feel Alf is in bad trouble—I can’t help him anymore & I am trying at best not to provide damaging occasions for him—but he needs friendship.” The same day she wrote the letter, Conrad wrote a check for the gun.

Carruth, living nearby, would be the one to identify the body. “I will never finish being grateful that you could be there,” Rich wrote to him a few days later. “I think (absurd!) that Alf would have wanted you there.” In 1998, when Carruth published autobiographical fragments he labeled Reluctantly , he wrote of Conrad without naming him:

Some years ago I had a friend whose domestic life was in a shambles. Part of the trouble was not his doing, but he was so bound up, so repressed and inhibited, that he could talk to no one, either psychiatrist or friend, about it. He was forty-five years old, had three minor children, was a success in his work, a liked and respected person. He went into the woods and shot himself. ... Anyone could have told him that what he should do was forget the whole mess and go to California; this is the common, effective American expedient. He was simply incapable of this. Incapable. In such a case can anyone say with certainty that his suicide was wrong?

I found the letters between Carruth and Rich in a roundabout way. I was trying to make sense of how Rich’s feminist beliefs fit with other women writers and critics of her generation. After the success of Diving Into the Wreck , Rich would promptly begin a study of motherhood that became Of Woman Born . This book, published in 1976 and now a classic, was among the first to articulate the ways in which the biological facts of procreation had been used as a justification for patriarchal control. “The experience of maternity and the experience of sexuality have both been channeled to serve male interests; behavior which threatens the institutions, such as illegitimacy, abortion, lesbianism, is considered deviant or criminal,” she wrote. Later, she would also write an influential essay on “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she argued that lesbian experience was “a profoundly female experience, with particular oppressions, meanings, and potentialities we cannot comprehend as long as we simply bracket it with other sexually stigmatized existences.”

These writings and others aligned Rich with very radical feminists, the type that often advocated for outright war between the sexes—placing her closer in her beliefs to Shulamith Firestone than to, say, Gloria Steinem. Rich was adamant that there was a great abyss of experience between men and women, and frequently pessimistic that the divide could be overcome unless women were allowed to speak on their own terms. Still, her poet’s faith in language led her to believe that women could make themselves heard, if only they dug down deep enough into their own experiences.

Rich was the only fellow traveler of the so-called New York intellectuals to dive so headlong into the women’s movement. And the attitude most of these people took toward women’s liberation was that it was incalculably vulgar and intellectually poisonous. Even Elizabeth Hardwick, whose writing is often now classified as feminist, once told an interviewer, “I don’t know what happened. She got swept too far. She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” This remark had the opposite effect on me than the one intended: I wanted to know more about how this one person had managed to stand up to the rest.

Besides, I had suspected that the distance between these extremes had been greatly exaggerated. My mind got caught on the snag of an argument Susan Sontag had had with Rich in the pages of The New York Review of Books . At the time, the building and revival of the reputations of women artists was one of the few projects everyone in the movement could believe in; Rich herself had written on Anne Bradstreet. “Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be first-rate,” Sontag had written in her essay on the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, blaming the movement in part for the rehabilitation of a propagandist.

It was then 1975. Rich was getting deeper and deeper into the movement. She wrote in to the Review in the role of a whip, trying to impose a kind of party line. On a reading of Sontag’s prior work, she added, “one imagined Sontag not to dissociate herself from feminism.” Then she went in for a bit of flattery twined with condescension: “One is simply eager to see this woman’s mind working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding; and this has not yet proven to be the case.” Sontag delivered a 2,000-word riposte, a searing document that excoriates those who would see everything through the lens of gender. “Like all capital moral truths,” she wrote, “feminism is a bit simpleminded. That is its power and, as the language of Rich’s letter shows, that is its limitation.”

The argument sounded familiar to me. It was a diorama of the internecine warfare you still see at work in feminist discussions today. There is a fair argument that “feminism” is now a word rendered almost without meaning because it covers such a wide spread of politics. In that context, it often seems that the only common denominator of feminism is to be dissatisfied with “feminism.” Feminists too, hate simplemindedness. But we don’t abandon it because it has, as Sontag put it, capital moral truth.

I learned as I suspected that the gap between Rich and Sontag was not so very wide as it looked. In Sontag’s archive at the University of California, Los Angeles, there is a letter from Rich. “I’m sure we can do better than this,” Rich begins, saying she’d like to meet up in New York to talk about the exchange. “Your mind has interested mine for a number of years—though we often come from very different places.” She cited mutual acquaintances and a love of Marie Curie. To this, Sontag eagerly replied that she, too, would like to meet when Rich was next in New York. Suddenly, in those two letters, the image of Rich as a polemical firebrand falls right through the floor.

I do not know if the two ever met in the end. I do know that eventually Rich came to see herself as engaged in a project analogous to Sontag’s, at least in terms of its intellectual seriousness. In the preface to Arts of the Possible , Rich quoted Sontag’s complaint that the serious had become “quaint” and “ ‘unrealistic,’ to most people.” In fact, Rich, too, had become dissatisfied with feminism as it existed by the end of her life. She disliked the sudden rise of personal essays, “true confessions” as she called them. She felt that this displaced a feminism actively opposed to capitalism or racism or colonialism.

Perhaps this explains why Rich left such strict instructions against a biographer digging into her life. She simply, and admirably, did not want her personal life to overshadow the things she believed in. But her political change did not happen without this personal catastrophe; at least, it seems, it could never have happened in the same way.

Today there is a tendency to portray the radical feminists as flat figures. Even on the left, the movement has been stereotyped as a trove of dogmatics, unshaven man-haters who want female supremacy. They are, to borrow Sontag’s frame, thought simpleminded. There is little recognition that their political beliefs bloomed from actual human conditions, that they were and are people with full lives, changing their minds and learning, motivated by flashes of sadness and anger. They have become as abstracted as the movement itself. There are certainly criticisms of radical feminism worth mounting—one that seems particularly trenchant against Rich herself is her alliances with a number of feminist writers who demonized transgender women. But simpleminded? They did a lot better than that.

For the first couple of years after Conrad’s death, Rich kept things much as they were before it. She taught at the SEEK program; she wrote long, searching letters to Carruth. “Sometimes I feel relief that he was able to make, for once in his life, a clean statement about the way he was feeling,” she wrote just a few days after Conrad’s death. Later she would become more philosophical: “It’s clear to me that I had never finished with Alf, that something goes on in me now which has to do with him, like a cut off limb that still tingles.” She pronounced herself unwilling and unable to get involved with anyone else. For a while she didn’t want to write about the suicide either, horrified as she was by the “romanticizations” of others.

Romanticization became a theme with Rich in this period. In the middle of 1970, Robert Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for another woman. Almost as soon as she heard, Rich fired off a letter. “I feel we are losing touch with each other, which I don’t want,” she wrote him. “Perhaps part of the trouble is that the events of my own life in the past four or five years have made me very anti-romantic, and I feel a kind of romanticism in your recent decisions, a kind of sexual romanticism with which it is very hard for me to feel sympathy.”

It seems that in the aftermath of Conrad’s suicide, this is what happened: Rich began to lose faith in most forms of love. Occasionally she’d openly say so to Carruth. She was clearly unwilling to use a new romance to patch over the wound, too. This led to a lot more psychoanalysis. And a lot more time spent with women.

In a long letter to Carruth dated August 1971 that presaged many of the arguments she’d later make in Of Woman Born , Rich gave a very simple account of the source of her ideas about gender:

And above all, talking—with my women friends, not one of whom, whatever her situation, does not feel relief and hope and new courage in the crystallizations and confirmations that are taking place. And with men, including my therapist, with whom I have had extremely moving and amazing talks.

Her letters become almost wholly preoccupied with gender politics. Where formerly any discussion of sexual life has been, at best, oblique, Rich becomes suddenly frank:

For me, there has sometimes been that element, but more often a strange joyful sense of power—of taking some kind of mana into me with the sperm of a man, but also (and this I hope I’ve ceased to need or want) simple power over the man in terms of my body being absolutely necessary to him at the moment of intercourse.

Perhaps an initial period of concern was warranted, on Carruth’s part. After a few of these letters, most of which simply asked him to consider the possibility that women’s liberation really had something to say for itself, Carruth became angry with Rich. He began to become suspicious that she was moving away not just from him, but from all men. Her tone in the letters became increasingly defensive. She wrote him a letter about a long car trip she’d taken with Elizabeth Bishop—in which Bishop told her she had secretly sympathized with the women’s liberation movement—but such was the breakdown of the relationship that she felt compelled to add, “No, I haven’t been into a lesbian experience.”

When finally she told him, in 1974, that she had begun seeing a woman, he accused her of a “sexual switch.” “Too shallow, and rather cruel,” she replied, angrily, to the accusation. They stopped writing to each other for a while, and though the friendship resumed, it was rockier. The few post-1974 letters in these files are more careful, and the correspondence stopped entirely in 1977.

Another of Diving Into the Wreck ’s poems, “ Song ,” could be read as a report of recovery from the events of 1970:

You want to ask, am I lonely? Well, of course, lonely as a woman driving across country day after day, leaving behind mile after mile little towns she might have stopped and lived and died in, lonely

Rich deflected the success of Diving Into the Wreck when she accepted its National Book Award. All those years of moving with her students had left her convinced that the project of language was not something any one person ought to be able to claim. “We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture,” she said in her speech .

That was it, the moment she smashed the mold entirely. Things like this did not happen in America, particularly in literary and intellectual America, in the 1970s. They are starting to happen more now, of course. It is no longer such a strange, unusual thing to point out that there are more voices to be heard. Maybe our perceptions have sharpened. Maybe she sharpened them.

Michelle Dean is co-creator of The Act on Hulu and author of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion .

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Home » POSTS » Unlearning “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: The Evolution of Adrienne Rich’s Poetry

Unlearning “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: The Evolution of Adrienne Rich’s Poetry

Angel Chaisson

            Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet and essayist, best known for her contributions to the radical feminist movement. She notably popularized the term “compulsory heterosexuality” in the 1980’s through her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience,” which brought her to the forefront of feminist and lesbian discourse. Her article delves deeply into men’s power over women’s expression of sexuality, and how the expectation of heterosexuality further oppresses lesbian women. My purpose is not to question Rich’s assessment of sexuality and oppression, but rather to examine how the institution of heterosexuality as depicted in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience” impacted her life and career.  Before elaborating on Rich’s argument, it is important to clarify her definition of compulsory heterosexuality as sexuality that is “both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women” (“Compulsory” 24). One of the defining arguments of the essay is that heterosexuality is a tool of the oppressors, playing into politics, economics, and cultural propaganda— that sexuality has always been weaponized against women to perpetuate the inequality of the sexes (“Compulsory” 32). The foundation of Rich’s argument is Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of the Family,” in which Gough attributes men’s power over women to various acts of repression, such as denying or forcing sexuality onto women, commanding or exploiting their labor, controlling reproductive rights, physically confining or restricting women’s movements, using women as transactional objects, depriving them of creativity, and barring them from the academic and professional sphere (“Compulsory” 9). Although Gough only describes such oppression in relation to inequality, Rich believes these behaviors are a direct result of institutionalized heterosexuality; her determination to dismantle said institution drives the anger and passion present in both her essays and her poetry.

As stated before, Gough mentions that a method of male control is stifling women’s creativity and hindering their professional success. Part of the control stems from the heavy scrutiny on female professionals such as Rich, who explains that men force women into limiting boxes: “women [. . .] learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment” (“Compulsory” 13).Women writers, for example, would be more likely to receive praise from male critics for corroborating a positive portrayal of marriage instead of depicting real and serious struggles faced by wives. In fact, it is not difficult to find intense criticism of Rich’s feminist ideals by men who sought to silence her. In the essay “Snapshots of a Feminist Poet,” Meredith Benjamin states that Rich faced the typical backlash that other feminist poets did— her writing was “too personal, too close to the female body, not universal, and privileged politics at the expense of aesthetic and literary merit” (633). The personalization of her poetry was heavily scrutinized, even by her own father, Arnold Rich. He found her writing “too private and personal for public consumption” and rejected her casual exploration of the female body, or in his words, the “wombs of ordure and nausea” (Benjamin 6). The intensity of such criticisms further support Gough’s notion of men suppressing female creativity, fueling Rich’s fire.

Lesbian women suffer even further beneath this heteronormative structure— heterosexist prejudice, in Rich’s terms— because of their sexuality and gender expression. Lesbians must fall within the typical expression of femininity and cannot be “out” on the job; they must remain closeted for the sake of their personal safety and the possibility of success. Although she does not make the connection herself within her essay on the topic, Rich’s personal and professional life centered around maintaining outward heterosexuality. Her experiences fit well within her own descriptions of lesbian suffering; having to “[deny] the truth of her outside relationships or private life” while “pretending to be not merely heterosexual but a heterosexual woman” (“Compulsory” 13). During her seventeen-year marriage to Alfred Conrad (1953-1970), she reluctantly filled the roles of mother and wife, her experience with both drastically changing her poetic approach. It was not until six years after Conrad’s death that Rich established herself as a lesbian through the release of Twenty-One Love Poems in 1976 and her public relationship with writer Michelle Cliff the same year. Rich’s deeply personal style of writing allows one to construct a distinct line of growth and development through her poetic work, which was fully intentional on her part. In his essay “Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics,” Craig Werner quotes Rich on her decision to include dates at the end of every poem by 1956, viewing each finished piece as a “single, encapsulated event” that showed her life changing through a “long, continuous process” ( Werner ). Over the years, Rich’s struggles were documented and immortalized through her ever-changing poetic voice and style. I will examine the timeline of Adrienne Rich’s poetry from 1958 to 1976 to determine how Rich’s work evolved from the beginning of her marriage all the way to her divorce and eventual coming out. Each poem offers a unique glimpse into Rich’s inner conflict with compulsory heterosexuality and the institution of marriage. Each poem mentioned in this essay can be found in Barbara and Albert Gelpi’s 1995 publication, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose.

Pre-Divorce Poetry (1953-1970)

            The first collection of poetry published after Adrienne Rich’s marriage to Alfred Conrad was The Diamond Cutters: and Other Poems , released in 1953. According to Ed Pavlic’s essay “‘Outward in Larger Terms / A Mind Inhaling Exigency’: Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems,” the collection is largely ignored, likely because Rich herself “disavow[ed]” the work as “derivative” (9). The poems largely reflected the formalist tradition of poetry, much different than the poetry Rich would write in the late 1950’s and beyond. Regardless, it is worth examining some of the work from that time to establish a foundation for Rich’s growth as a writer; there are already inklings of dissatisfaction with the heteronormative framework of love. Here are the opening lines from “Living in Sin”:

               She had thought the studio would keep itself;

               no dust upon the furniture of love.

               Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,

               the panes relieved of grime. (Rich et al. 6).

The speaker of the poem seems to be assessing her belief that the “furniture of love” would maintain itself. Describing love as furniture conjures up the image of something solid and fixed in place. Without careful attention, furniture collects dust and dirt over time and becomes a tarnished version of what it once was. She acknowledges this later in the poem when the speaker dusts the tabletops and cleans the house, declaring that she is “back in love again” by the evening, “though not so wholly” (Rich et al. 6, lines 23-24). The progression of events shows that the doubt the speaker feels is persistent; the dust will always return, no matter how often it is swept aside. The poem calls into question the expectations she had of her recent marriage: did she expect her relationship to survive without nurturing? Was she hoping that she could still thrive as a woman and a writer under the strict heterosexual constraints of marriage? In “Friction of the Mind: The Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich,” Mary Slowik cites this early poetry as the breeding ground for Rich’s anger: “Rich makes an uncompromising examination of the secure world she must leave behind and an even more painful inquiry into the disorderly and isolated world she must enter” (143) .The new life Rich enters is dominated by a heterosexual framework— it would only take a few more years for her experiences as a wife and mother to radicalize her feminism and transform her poetry.

“Snapshot of a Daughter-in-Law” (dated 1958-1960) is featured in a collection of the same name and is arguably one of Rich’s most prominent earlier works. Although the poem barely scratches the surface of her steadily growing anger, it represents “early attempts at understanding a world of deep displacements, painful isolation and underlying violence” (Slowik 148). The collection received much attention due to its innovative form and feminist themes; it contrasted starkly with Rich’s previous collection and potentially the “reinvention” of her career (Pavlic 9). The poem itself is divided into ten numbered sections, each one with an ambiguous female voice. The pronouns cycle through “I,” “you,” and “she.” Although the speaker seems to change throughout the poem, one cannot ignore that each voice seems to offer some observation or criticism about domestic life, or the role women must play in relation to men. Slowik states that behind each pretty line of verse is a “grotesque, vicious, and unexpected violence” (154). Section 2, particularly the last two stanzas, perhaps receives the most observation due to the portrayal of a housewife committing subtle acts of self-harm:

… Sometimes she’s let the tap stream scald her arm,

a match burn to her thumbnail

or held her hand above the kettle’s snout

right in the woolly steam. They are probably angels,

since nothing hurts her anymore, except

each morning’s grit blowing into her eyes. (Rich et al. 9, lines 20-25)

The woman that Rich portrays in this section is one who has become numb to her way of life. The only stimulus that elicits any feeling is the pain of waking up each morning in the same unfulfilling role. In fact, each of the various voices seems to be dealing with some sort of displeasure or pain, such as being “Poised, trembling, and unsatisfied,” stuck singing a song that is not her own (lines 54-60). These women exemplify the pitfalls of institutionalized heterosexuality, forced to maintain a certain image of womanhood and femininity at their own expense. Furthermore, Benjamin asserts that the sections are indeed “snapshots” as the title suggests, implying that they all refer to “ a daughter-in-law, if perhaps not the same one” (632). Regardless, Rich joins them all together in the final line of the poem, which is simply the word “ours” (line 122). The cargo mentioned in line 118 suddenly belongs to every voice in the poem, joining them under a shared weight— a similar baggage. It hardly matters if Rich is depicting various aspects of herself, relating her woes to those of other women, or creating characters entirely for the sake of the poem; the brewing dissatisfaction within her is clear through her carefully chosen words.

            “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties,” written in 1961, is a bittersweet account of romance between a couple who is holding onto the passionate past while living in a much less passionate present. The connection the speaker has with her husband feels superficial; the only outright compliment paid to him is in stanza 3, when she commends how well time has treated his appearance. She remembers how she felt reading his old letters, but in the present, they are “two strangers, thrust for life upon a rock” (Rich et al. 15, line 33). The image of the rock implies that the speaker feels stranded with her husband, even if they feel a spark every now and again. In the end, they are still strangers with differing intentions. The speaker poses the question: “Will nothing ever be the same” (line 39). The question comes across as genuine concern. Will the couple remain strangers forever? Returning to the notion of compulsive heterosexuality and marriage, the speaker does not outright consider removing herself from the situation; marriage was often viewed as being a life-long commitment. Rich’s own concerns seem to shine through here, eight years into her own marriage, as she depicts an emotionally distant couple. A poem written two years later in 1963 titled “Like This Together, which is addressed to A.H.C— Alfred H. Conrad — stands out among the others because it is distinctly in Rich’s voice, a direct message to her husband. Lines 8-13 evoke a similar emotion to conflict within “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties”:

            A year, ten years from now

            I’ll remember this—

            this sitting like drugged birds

            in a glass case—

            not why, only that we

            were like this together.

The imagery of drugged birds in a glass case is not pleasant: two creatures, in a stupor, on display for the world to see. Rich stating that she will remember this moment for years to come still feels like reminiscing. Perhaps she is conscious that the couple is “drugged,” going through the motions, but appreciates the time they spent together—perhaps more akin to friendship than romance. Both “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties” and “Like This Together” feature a sort of emotional tug of war; one moment, the speaker feels comforted by their marriage, but in the next moment, she feels isolated or betrayed. Rich portrays that in stanza 4 of “Like This Together” with the metaphor of her husband being a cave, sheltering her. She finds comfort in him, but she is “making him” her cave, “crawling against” him, as if she must force that intimate connection (Rich et al. 23, lines 44-46). Compulsory heterosexuality is at work within this poem, once again showing how the institution of marriage can make a woman feel trapped. Rich is doing everything she can to make something out of nothing, even though their love has been “picked clean at last” (line 54).

            Rich’s examination of the heterosexual relationship dynamic continues in the 1968 poem “I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus,” a feminist reading of the ancient mythological tale.  The speaker wanting to become the death of Orpheus implies a role switch, perhaps turning the patriarchal structure on its head— what if Orpheus’s fate had been in Eurydice’s hands? Lines 2-4 corroborate a feminist lens: “I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers/ and those powers severely limited/ by authorities whose faces I rarely see” (Rich et al. 43, lines 2-4). While the mention of Orpheus may once again aim to criticize marriage or the husband, the overall tone of the poem seems to be a broader rejection of the strict heterosexual lifestyle forced on women. In the essay “The Emergence of a Feminizing Ethos in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry,” Jeane Harris cites this poem as a drastic shift in Rich’s poetry, that “the [feminizing] ethos began to take its measure” with a “a deeply self-scrutinizing attitude” (134). Harris’s interpretation forces readers to revisit the poem; as much as Rich is damning the patriarchy, she is also damning herself. She recognizes her own power, but it is a power she cannot use. She has “nerves of a panther,” but she is still wasting the prime of her life filling a role she does not want to fill. Perhaps Rich is criticizing herself for being stuck in the heterosexual sphere for too long, knowing that she is missing out on valuable time.

                                                            Post-Divorce Poetry

            “Re-forming the Crystal” was written in 1973, three years after Adrienne Rich’s divorce from Alfred Conrad and his subsequent suicide. Despite the poem’s target being deceased, Rich does not hold back—the verse is raw, scathing, and honest. Therefore, “Re-forming the Crystal” deserves extensive analysis regarding both Rich’s personal development (sexuality, identity) and artistic development (poetic style and content). The poem itself has a striking format, incorporating both stanzas and blocks of prose poetry; once again, Rich is disrupting the formalist poetic tradition in favor of something more authentic to her own style, breaking free from the constraints that had limited her for so long during her career. The break from traditional form surely fits the theme of the poem: denouncing the heterosexual institution of marriage and facing her feelings about her ex-husband.

The first stanza and the third stanza, when paired together, reveal the speaker’s resentment for the subject. The poem begins with “I am trying to imagine/ how it feels to you/ to want a woman,” as the speaker attempts to place herself in the subject’s shoes (Rich et al. 61, lines 1-3). Stanza 3 heightens the tension, almost sounding accusatory: “desire without discrimination/ to want a woman like a fix” (Rich et al. 61, lines 8-9). The speaker wants to know how it feels to desire without limits; a man is allowed and even encouraged to want women within the heterosexual framework, but a woman is forbidden to want another woman. In the block of prose poetry following the first three stanzas, the speaker hammers in her resentment toward the subject. She says her excitement was never directed toward him; “you were a man, a stranger, a name, a voice on the telephone, a friend; this desire was mine” (lines 14-15). From here on, it can be said with near certainty that Rich is talking directly to Conrad, as she did in previous poems. Although the husband figure is described as a stranger in both “A Marriage in the 60’s” and “Re-forming the Crystal,” Rich expresses uncertainty regarding her relationship in the former that is no longer present in the latter. The emotions felt toward her ex-husband beforehand are no longer up for debate as romantic love. She goes on to say that she is also a stranger to herself: she is the person she sees in pictures, and “the name on the marriage-contract” does not belong to her (line 28). The poem, then, is about Rich rediscovering her sense of self. She is not just denouncing her marriage, but also the person she became during those years. Having to play the part of a heterosexual woman compromised Rich’s politics, art, and identity, all of which she must reevaluate after her divorce. The final point of reconciliation for Rich is understanding the role her relationship with Conrad played in the oppression she experienced: “I want to understand my fear both of the machine and of the accidents of nature. My desire for you is not trivial; I can compare it with the greatest of those accidents” (lines 33-36). Perhaps Rich means for her frustrations not to be directed fully at Conrad, but on a broader scale, heterosexuality as an institution—the “machine.” The marriage itself may have been a result of the heterosexual institution, but the relationship formed between Rich and Conrad is the accident she refers to, a mere coincidence that may have happened with or without outside factors. The distinction is important, as it saves Conrad from being the sole oppressor and object of her anger.

Rich’s first blatantly lesbian work, Twenty-One Love Poems, came out in 1976. The collection was arguably the biggest risk Rich had taken with her poetry up until that point. Although she had always been criticized for her techniques and feminist themes, she was now directly rejecting the heterosexual framework she had placed herself in publicly for her entire career. Harris also comments on this risk when identifying the emergence of Rich’s feminizing ethos: “Perhaps the most costly and potentially damaging position taken in Rich’s poetry is that of lesbianism. Unable to exist in the world ruled by the patriarchy, Rich must create a place for a lesbian ethos to exist” (Harris 136). Twenty-One Love Poems is a result of Rich trying to create that lesbian space, an attempt to radicalize her art along with her politics. As is true with many of Rich’s defining works, the collection incorporates a distinctive form—each poem is numbered from I-XXI (except for “The Floating Poem,” which appears between XIV and XV); and together, the poems tell a cohesive narrative. The overarching story is the growth and decay of an intimate relationship between two women, without the resentment present in Rich’s past poetry. The following paragraphs will analyze the collection based on which poems best exhibit Rich’s personal and artistic growth, prioritizing discussion based on content rather than numerical order.

            Poem I establishes the basis for the collection with one simple line: “No one has imagined us” (line 13). Rich is treading on new ground by depicting lesbian romance, likely creating an image of women that others may have failed to consider—existing separate from men, loving each other, experiencing nuanced passion and lust. She is also entering a territory unknown to herself, describing love in a manner that completely clashes with the dynamic created within her past writings. In poem II, she writes:

…You’ve kissed my hair

to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,

I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .

and I laugh and fall dreaming again

of the desire to show you to everyone I love,

to move openly together

in the pull of gravity, which is not simple. (lines 9-16)

Already, Rich has presented a level of intimacy that was virtually absent from her older works—her love for her partner is genuine and giddy. The poem metaphor perhaps serves two purposes: to show that she is experiencing a new kind of love, and that her poetry is changing as a result. However, she is facing a roadblock that comes with this new way of life. She wants to show her partner off to everyone she loves; but due to the stigma around lesbian relationships, it is impossible to express that level of joy. In “Compulsory Sexuality and the Lesbian Experience,”Rich states that lesbianism is often regarded as a conscious choice made by women who are “acting-out of bitterness toward men” (3); aside from the societal bias against homosexuality, Rich faced the risk of people invalidating her expression of love because of the public falling out she had with her husband. Although she was no longer directly oppressed by her marriage, she was not free from the effects of institutionalized heterosexuality. Rich brings institutional oppression up again in poem IV: “And my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds/ break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly/ and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms (lines 19-21). Rich uses strong words to describe her anguish— “incurable,” “unmendable,” “helplessly”—all indicating that her emotions are a symptom of the patriarchal system and cannot be erased. Considering previous works in which Rich harps on her resilient nerves or impenetrable will (rebelling against notions of softness and weakness), the vulnerability shown in this poem is interesting as well as refreshing. Escaping the stereotype of the frail, dependent heterosexual woman only comes with more stigma—lesbians were considered hardened and bitter. The poem is not the “meaningless rant of a ‘manhater’” that Rich discusses in her essay, but rather one meant to humanize the lesbian struggle (“Compulsory” 23).

            Rich further elaborates on the differences between her experiences with heterosexuality and lesbianism based on the way her relationships have affected her. In poem III, she acknowledges that she is no longer young, yet she feels more alive than ever: “Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with a purer joy?” (lines 4-5). She spends every possible moment making up for the time she lost as a careless young adult, living in the heterosexual framework. More importantly, she accepts that even though this relationship is blissful, it will not be completely perfect: “and somehow, each of us will help the other live/ and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (lines 15-16). The tug-of-war described in poem III is starkly different than the one described previously in poems such as “Like This Together” or “Marriage in the 60’s”; instead of woefully predicting a bitter end to their relationship, Rich’s close connection to her partner allows her to accept the possibility of splitting up. “The Floating Poem” also supports this notion with the phrase, “Whatever happens to us, your body/ will haunt mine—tender, delicate” (lines 1-2). “Tender” and “delicate” throw off the typically negative connotation that “haunt” has. Rich knows that her partner has changed her forever, and she fully accepts whatever fate has in store for them. Another interesting disparity between the heterosexual relationship(s) depicted in past works and the relationship depicted in Twenty-One Love Poems is the notion of the partners being too different. In past works, Rich referred to her husband (or the representation of a male partner) as a stranger on multiple occasions, the relationship crumbling because their minds were too dissimilar. Poem XIII, however, celebrates differences. Rich and her partner are from different worlds, have different voices, all while having “bodies, so alike…yet so different” (line 11). All that matters to Rich is what ties the women together: “[they] were two lovers of one gender/ [they] were two lovers of one generation” (line 16-17). Regardless of their differing pasts, experiences, and ways of life, they are a part of a new, shared future.

Twenty-one Love Poems serves yet another purpose outside of exploring and documenting sexuality—establishing Rich’s renewed relationship with writing. Rich was known for her anger, and her continuous suffering was the muse for her art and career. She conceptualizes her pain in poem XX: “a woman/ I loved drowning in secrets, fear wound her throat” (lines 6-7). Rich seems to be discussing someone else, but she reveals that she was “talking to her own soul” (“XX,” line 11). The woman Rich used to be was stuck between a public lie and a personal truth, dealing with the constant agony of performative womanhood. However, in poem VIII, she declares that she will “go on from here with [her lover]/ fighting the temptation to make a career out of pain” (lines 13-14). Although heterosexuality as an institution constricted Rich’s freedom and creativity, her work seemed to thrive there; her entire career at that point was spent occupying a different persona altogether. Suffering, in other words, was familiar, comfortable, and reliable. Poem VIII is Rich’s vow to prioritize her own happiness over that reliability. “The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead,” she writes, “I am her descendant” (“VIII,” lines 10-11). She accepts the strength of the person she was before, and all the sacrifices she made, but recognizes that it is time to let go. Poem XXI, the last poem of the collection, is the process of Rich doing just that— finally moving on from the mind’s temptation of pain and loneliness with the phrase, “I choose to walk here” (line 15). She is establishing her effort to break through the heterosexual framework and establish her own path in life.  Twenty-One Love Poems marks a monumental shift in Rich’s life and writing, no longer embracing her own suffering as the main avenue for her work.

Between her unfulfilling marriage and the start of a new life with a female partner, Adrienne Rich’s poetry experienced a drastic transformation from subtle feminist criticism to outright expressing her displeasure with the heterosexual life she was living. Her anger with the world became the core of her art, which trapped Rich into a corner: Could she successfully liberate herself from the confines of the heterosexual framework and continue her career? With every new publication, Rich continued to take risks and push boundaries until she reached a breakthrough—fully embracing her feminist politics and identity. Between The Diamond Cutter and Twenty-One Love Poems, Rich’s poetic and political motivations merge into one cohesive unit; she no longer feared the backlash she would face as an outspoken, radical woman. This groundbreaking confidence would be the defining trait of Rich’s work; nothing, not even the looming influence of the patriarchy, could force her into silence again.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Meredith. “Snapshots of a Feminist Poet: Adrienne Rich and the Poetics of the Archive.” Women’s Studies , vol. 46, no. 7, Oct. 2017, pp. 628–645. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.2017.1337415.

Harris, Jeane. “The Emergence of a Feminizing Ethos in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly , vol. 18, no. 2, 1988, pp. 133–140. JSTOR ,

Pavlic, Ed. “‘Outward in Larger Terms / A Mind Inhaling Exigency’: Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012: Part One.” The American Poetry Review , vol. 45, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 9-14. EBSCOhost,,cookie,url,uid&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.456674446&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Rich, Adrienne, et al . Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews and Criticism .

W.W. Norton, 1993.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs , vol. 5, no. 4, 1980,

pp. 631–660. JSTOR ,

Slowik, Mary. “The Friction of the Mind: The Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich.” The

Massachusetts Review , vol. 25, no. 1, 1984, pp. 142–160. JSTOR ,

Werner, Craig. “Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics.” Contemporary Literary Criticism , edited by Thomas Votteler and Elizabeth P. Henry, vol. 73, Gale, 1993. Gale Literature Resource Center,  Originally published in Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics , by Craig Werner, American Library Association, 1988.

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Biography of Adrienne Rich, Feminist and Political Poet

Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 - March 27, 2012) was an award-winning poet, longtime American feminist, and prominent lesbian. She wrote more than a dozen volumes of poetry and several non-fiction books. Her poems have been widely published in anthologies and studied in literature and women's studies courses. She received major prizes, fellowships, and international recognition for her work.

Fast Facts: Adrienne Rich

Known For : American poet, essayist and feminist credited with bringing "the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse."

Born : May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, MD

Died : March 27, 2012, in Santa Cruz, CA

Education : Radcliffe College

Published Works : "A Change of World", "Diving Into the Wreck", "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law", "Blood, Bread, and Poetry", numerous nonfiction books and poems.

Awards and Honors : National Book Award (1974), Bollingen Prize (2003), Griffin Poetry Prize (2010)

Spouse(s) : Alfred Haskell Conrad (1953-1970); Partner Michelle Cliff (1976-2012)

Children:  Pablo Conrad, David Conrad, Jacob Conrad

Notable Quote : "When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her."

Adrienne Rich was born May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, Maryland. She studied at Radcliffe College , graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1951. That year her first book, "A Change of World", was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. As her poetry developed over the next two decades, she began writing more free verse, and her work became more political.

Adrienne Rich married Alfred Conrad in 1953. They lived in Massachusetts and New York and had three children. The couple separated and Conrad committed suicide in 1970. Adrienne Rich later came out as a lesbian. She began living with her partner, Michelle Cliff, in 1976. They moved to California during the 1980s.

Political Poetry

In her book "What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics", Adrienne Rich wrote that poetry begins with the crossing of the trajectories of "elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity."

Adrienne Rich was for many years an activist on behalf of women and feminism , against the Vietnam War , and for gay rights , among other political causes. Although the United States tends to question or reject political poetry, she pointed out that many other cultures view poets a necessary, legitimate part of the national discourse. She said that she would be an activist "for the long haul."

Women's Liberation Movement

Adrienne Rich's poetry has been seen as feminist since the publication of her book "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" in 1963. She called women's liberation a democratizing force. However, she also said that the 1980s and 1990s revealed more ways in which U.S. society is a male-dominated system, far from having solved the problem of women's liberation.

Adrienne Rich encouraged the use of the term "women's liberation" because the word "feminist" could easily become a mere label, or it could cause resistance in the next generation of women. Rich went back to using "women's liberation" because it brings up the serious question: liberation from what?

Adrienne Rich praised the consciousness-raising of early feminism. Not only did consciousness-raising bring issues to the forefront of women's minds, but doing so led to action.

Prize Winner

Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award in 1974 for "Diving Into the Wreck". She refused to accept the award individually, instead sharing it with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker . They accepted it on behalf of all women everywhere who are silenced by a patriarchal society.

In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts, stating that the very idea of art as she knew it was incompatible with the cynical politics of the Bill Clinton Administration.

Adrienne Rich was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She also won numerous other awards, including the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Book Critics Circle Award for "The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004", the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award, which recognizes "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry."

Adrienne Rich Quotes

• Life on the planet is born of woman.
• Today's women Born yesterday Dealing with tomorrow Not yet where we're going But not still where we were.
• Women have been the truly active people in all cultures, without whom human society would long ago have perished, though our activity has most often been on the behalf of men and children.
• I am a feminist because I feel endangered, psychically and physically, by this society and because I believe that the women's movement is saying that we have come to an edge of history when men - insofar as they are embodiments of the patriarchal idea - have become dangerous to children and other living things, themselves included.
• The most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.
• But to be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination.
• Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.
• When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.
• Lying is done with words and also with silence.
• False history gets made all day, any day, the truth of the new is never on the news
• If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless.
You build from the ground up.
• There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.
• The woman I needed to call my mother was silenced before I was born.
• The worker can unionize, go out on strike; mothers are divided from each other in homes, tied to their children by compassionate bonds; our wildcat strikes have most often taken the form of physical or mental breakdown.
• Much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother. Much male fear of feminism is infantilism -- the longing to remain the mother's son, to possess a woman who exists purely for him.
• How we dwelt in two worlds the daughters and the mothers in the kingdom of the sons.
• No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. When we allow ourselves to believe we are, we lose touch with parts of ourselves defined as unacceptable by that consciousness; with the vital toughness and visionary strength of the angry grandmothers, the shamanesses, the fierce marketwomen of the Ibo's Women's War, the marriage-resisting women silkworkers of prerevolutionary China, the millions of widows, midwives, and the women healers tortured and burned as witches for three centuries in Europe.
• It's exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.
• War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.
• Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language -- this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
• There are days when housework seems the only outlet.
• Sleeping, turning in turn like planets rotating in their midnight meadow: a touch is enough to let us know we're not alone in the universe, even in sleep...
• The moment of change is the only poem.

edited by Jone Johnson Lewis 

adrienne rich essay feminism

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Adrienne Rich

What is a feminist interpretation of Adrienne Rich's poem "The Trees"?

A feminist interpretation of Adrienne Rich's poem "The Trees" would compare the trees beginning to break out of their glass veranda to women in 1963 beginning to break out of their restricted roles as housewives.

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The trees in this poem are a metaphor for women. These trees are inside a glassed-in veranda. This is an unnatural environment for them because inside the veranda "no bird could sit / no insect hide." This is similar to the unnatural state of women in society in 1963, when Rich wrote this poem. Women were expected to be satisfied encased in their homes as housewives, just as the trees are enclosed inside a porch.

However, the poem expresses hope. The trees' leaves and twigs exert themselves, straining against the glass, and their roots break through the floor. They are

like newly discharged patients half-dazed, moving to the clinic doors.

This is a simile , comparing trees breaking out of their glass cages to women of that time period who, after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and the beginnings of the woman's movement, were beginning to move in a dazed way out of their own artificial worlds.

In the second part of the poem, the speaker shifts to an "I" voice. She describes writing letters that scarcely mention the departure of the trees, meaning the stirrings of female rebellion. Nevertheless, she urges us, as readers of her poem, to

Listen. The glass is breaking. The trees are stumbling forward into the night.

It might not be evident to everyone, the speaker says, but women are on the move and will no longer be satisfied to be confined to their restricted and stunted roles in society.

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Adrienne Rich Essay

adrienne rich essay feminism

Adrienne Rich Research Paper

Adrienne Rich, born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, died in 2012, was an influential poet and essayist, as well as feminist and political activist. Rich was the eldest of two daughters, and was largely influenced by her parents. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich was the Chairman of Pathology at Johns Hopkins, and always encouraged Adrienne to read and write her own poetry as much as possible. Her early influences include Arnold, Blake, Keats, and Tennyson. Her mother was a concert pianist and composer, another influence on her artistic abilities. Her parents wanted to raise a prodigy, and Rich worked hard to achieve this (Doc 1). She went to college at Radcliffe College, focusing on poetry and writing craft. College was one of the first major experiences in her life that involved gender inequality, in…

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and thus different perspectives. Adrienne Rich uses her writing as a political outlet to be able to convey her message to the masses. She was a woman that strived for social justice and wrote about many inequalities. Though a lot of her writing was about social inequalities and the problems within, all of her pieces came from her moral compass. For example, her choice to be a feminist influenced her writing immensely and increased the feminist pieces she wrote. It is inevitable writers often…

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In my life education has been one of the most important thing. Although I was not always the best student I made it a point to be in the class, paying attention as much as possible. That was not the case in many of the classes I was in though. I had trouble from a young age with certain subjects and because of that when I got to high school I was put into classes with people who were at the same level. The problem with that was that the majority of the students in those classes were as Adrienne…

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After carefully evaluating the speech spoken by Adrienne Rich, it was apparent that she argued for women to stand up and take control of their education instead of just tolerating it. She presents this speech to an audience of women at a women’s only institution in 1977, resulting in her speech mainly focusing on women who were academically discriminated to their belief. During her speech she desires her audience to be assertive and to strive for self-respect to help women universally, which…

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Adrienne Rich 's piece, “Diving into the Wreck” published in 1973 takes readers on a journey to the seemingly complex pits of the ocean to view a vividly described shipwreck (McKay, “Adrienne Rich”). Rich paints a picture of her mysterious journey to the shipwreck and forces the audience to take a closer look at what the shipwreck as well as her overall journey are truly symbolizing. Adrienne Rich effortlessly includes several elements and vehicles of poetry within her piece such as imagery,…

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“Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich and Feminism This paper intends to examine the relationship between “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich and Feminism. She as an author has had much influence in feminist writers and females in general by opening doors for them with her work. Feminism is not just a random word, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary the definitions are: 1) - the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities and 2) - organized activity in…

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Responsibility over your education Claiming an education is easier said than done and as you grow older you begin to realize how responsible you are over your own education. In Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Claiming an Education,” she makes an argument about responsibility for all students. In her opinion it is important, within the educational community, to truly take control over our own education. That is to say, you as a student has to be engage with what is being taught to you. Rich states,…

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Walking In The Dark By Adrienne Rich Analysis

specific agenda. Creative writing however is also shaped by an authors political belief thus making it a much more political form of writing; therefore, the more political the author the more that comes out in there writing. In Adrienne Rich’s work Diving into the wreck she has overtly political poems that are real and still relevant in todays politics this is very prominent in her poem “Rape”. She writes some of her more…

Adrienne Rich Claiming An Education Essay

Power comes with responsibility. To take responsibility for oneself is to empower oneself, and vice versa. The more power one has, the more responsibility they must also possess. The more responsible for themselves someone is, the more power they have over themselves. This is put especially well in Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Claiming an Education,” when she speaks of the unequal treatment women were receiving from a male-dominated society, and how if a woman is to have power over herself where…

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Two New Volumes by Adrienne Rich, Game-Changing Feminist, Poet and Essayist

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Adrienne Rich in New York City, 1987.

By Craig Morgan Teicher

ESSENTIAL ESSAYS Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry By Adrienne Rich Edited and with an introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert 411 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

SELECTED POEMS 1950-2012 By Adrienne Rich Edited by Albert Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Brett C. Millier 421 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. Paper, $17.95.

“I saw my mother’s menstrual blood before I saw my own. Hers was the first female body I ever looked at, to know what women were, what I was to be,” Adrienne Rich writes in “Motherhood and Daughterhood,” a 1976 essay. Female identity begins with the body: “I too shall have breasts, full hips, hair between my thighs. … I too shall marry, have children — but not like her . I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” Indeed she did, blazing a new path for herself and for other women, but not before doing it the same way, raising three boys in a heterosexual marriage subject to many of the confines “Mad Men” has allowed popular culture to revisit in recent years.

Rich came to consciousness as a poet — and person — of the 1950s, 20th-century America’s most repressed and repressive decade, a retreat, after the madness of World War II, to traditional values: Women were meant to stay at home, to raise children and to enable their husbands’ worldly careers. Rich’s early books of poetry narrate an apprenticeship in the status quo, a slow, steady casting off of immeasurably old, unspeakably limiting ideas about what women could do, think and be in relation to men, followed by the rigorous creation of an empowered female identity for the second half of the 20th century. For Rich, this meant a new life sprung from the old, as a lesbian and groundbreaking feminist writer, as a distiller and popularizer of academic feminist theory, and as a poet who would exert a reshaping influence over other writers forever after.

The latest sign of Rich’s ongoing impact is the publication this fall by W. W. Norton, six years after her death, of a volume of her “Essential Essays,” along with a retrospective collection of verse, “Selected Poems: 1950-2012.” Paradox is at the heart of the story these two books tell. Along with their mothers’ physical traits, women take on their mothers’ history; in order to transcend it, women must work “not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Yet the tradition remains and has its uses, not least of which in Rich’s case was to introduce her to poetry — a conversation across time. Rich’s poems are full of warnings against forgetting the past, against pretending one has escaped it, as in a reflection on the life of Marie Curie, who, Rich writes, died “denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power.” She urges a profound kind of ambivalence: Proceed with caution, looking over your shoulder, and somehow simultaneously with fierce abandon.

Ambivalence and subversion are already evident in Rich’s debut collection, “A Change of World” (1951), which was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize by W. H. Auden, both the standard-bearer of literary tradition and the discoverer of many poets who would break with it (among them John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin and James Wright). “I cherished a secret grudge against Auden,” Rich reflects in one essay, “not because he didn’t proclaim me a genius, but because he proclaimed so diminished a scope for poetry, including mine.” The early poems are very much of their moment, formally virtuosic and written in the stilted manner (even as they already begin to defy the accepted subject matter) of any number of midcentury poets. “In those years formalism was part of the strategy,” Rich recalls:

Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needle hard to pull. The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

From Rich’s early poems, one simply couldn’t have extrapolated the wide horizons she’d reach for just a few years later. The poems of the 1950s and ’60s chart a steady course of development. By “Leaflets” (1969), Rich has shed formal stricture in favor of organic, free forms and a grave, speech-inflected tone; these poems of her second period profoundly repudiate the imposition of poetic, political and social traditions:

The old masters, the old sources, haven’t a clue what we’re about, shivering here in the half-dark ’sixties.

They point the way toward her greatest poetic work, from “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973) and “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978), poems written alongside her groundbreaking essays.

Rich’s contemporary Sylvia Plath viewed Rich as a primary rival; Rich’s name comes up in tight-lipped passages in Plath’s journals, as, for instance, a poet “who will soon be eclipsed.” I don’t think Rich returned Plath’s ferocious competitiveness, but they shared a youthful literary ambition to write their way out of the shackles of midcentury female identity.

Rich was far more direct and radical than her peers. Certainly Plath and Anne Sexton claimed a kind of imaginative power that could match, even exceed that of male poets. But Rich, in her seminal poems and essays, took this reimagining as her central subject. She explodes the very idea of gender the way that James Baldwin, in “Notes of a Native Son,” did with race.

Baldwin was among the literary models, Rich writes, who “helped me to realize that what had seemed simply ‘the way things are’ could actually be a social construct, advantageous to some people and detrimental to others, and that these constructs could be criticized and changed.” Change spurred via criticism (in the literary sense of that word) becomes the object of the essays, which by the 1970s are coming fast and furious, at least as much a part of Rich’s literary output as her poems.

“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” Baldwin wrote, announcing the change his criticism would enact. Similarly, Rich proclaims, with all the urgency of revelation, “No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness,” issuing a warning to her fellow outsiders — we can’t win if we play their game. It is men who wrote the “book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” These famous closing lines from “Diving Into the Wreck” are Rich’s poetic call for a new set of myths; by the ’70s, she was avidly writing it.

The notion of the outsider is central to Rich’s thinking, a key that opens subjects ranging from literature to feminism to politics, which, in both essays and poems, are all effortlessly — and necessarily — interwoven. Rich reframes classic literature through a feminist lens. Of “Jane Eyre,” she writes, “The wind that blows through this novel is the wind of sexual equality.” In the utterly thrilling “Vesuvius at Home ,” she gives us a new Emily Dickinson, “a great psychologist” who saw through her patriarchal society and claimed the solitude and independence she needed to make her art.

And she looks back at Elizabeth Bishop, already a senior figure in Rich’s poetic youth, a closeted lesbian who represented a tradition — “diffuse, elusive, often cryptic” — that Rich was working to escape. Finally, however, Rich comes to find Bishop’s poems “remarkably honest and courageous” precisely because she was an outsider and “critically and consciously trying to explore marginality, power and powerlessness, often in poetry of great beauty and sensuousness.” This strikes me as perhaps the first utterance of what has become the standard reading of Bishop.

Now I need to confess something. Until recently, I mostly ignored Rich. I read “Diving Into the Wreck” in college and have always had a few of her books in my poetry library, but, I’m embarrassed to admit, I didn’t credit how important she was. I told myself I didn’t like political poetry, that I was already a feminist, so I didn’t need to read the essays. I was afraid, I now see, to admit what she worked so fiercely to articulate: that I, as a white man, have always thoughtlessly partaken of all sorts of privilege, that I am an insider in ways I had the luxury of ignoring — in fact, it was specifically the truth of Rich’s writing that my privilege insulated me from.

I don’t mean to claim some instant, magic woke-ness upon reading these books. But Rich offers me a powerful and necessary reminder of the continuous self-reflection required to fight ignorance — one’s own and others’. We need to reread these books, especially now.

Rather than hide behind madness and a reckless shirking of decorum like Plath and Sexton, Rich made it her mission to expose herself — and her readers — to the facts of patriarchy and racism that had made her, and which are still woven deeply into American identity. Many of these essays could have been written tomorrow.

I’ll confess one more thing: Reading the prose and poetry side by side has convinced me that it is in the essays that Rich makes her most imperative and lasting statements — but only because the poems, with luminous metaphor and embodiment, lit the way through the historical darkness. Those poetic torches first flared in the 1960s, glowed brightest in the ’70s, and began to fade in the ’80s, but there is invaluable prose almost to the end of Rich’s writing life. It’s as if the prose siphoned the light of the poems over time, such that the late poetry retreats into the colder abstraction of this poem from 2007:

Tonight I think no poetry will serve
Syntax of rendition:
verb pilots the plane adverb modifies action
verb force-feeds noun submerges the subject noun is choking verb disgraced goes on doing

Rich never really suffered the indignity common to poets with long careers: merely self-imitative late poems that strain for effects the poet discovered decades ago. But many of Rich’s late poems seem to want to state their politics without grounding them in the life of the body, from which language learns its metaphors. This is a voice edging toward rhetoric, away from poetry, and away from us.

Meanwhile, Rich’s essays draw ever closer to her own and her readers’ conscience. “To be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination,” Rich writes in “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), claiming for herself and other woman artists the same inner freedom Dickinson showed her how to preserve. In “What Does a Woman Need to Know?,” a 1979 commencement address at Smith College, Rich warns young women that a patriarchal society will try to make subservience seem like the woman’s own good idea: “Doesn’t she need to know how seemingly natural states of being, like heterosexuality, like motherhood, have been enforced and institutionalized to deprive her of power?” And in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” from 1980, she offers an evergreen explanation of how “the destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence” serves as “a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage and community.” The Trump era lends a new urgency to all of these insights, not that they were ever less than urgent.

These two volumes will be the gateway to Rich’s pivotal body of work for the coming generation of readers. They will find a piercingly clear and authoritative voice in both poetry and prose, able to assert itself on seemingly any topic, which will serve as a model for inaugurating and explaining future paradigm shifts. They will find what were once new ideas that are now commonplace, in part thanks to Rich. They will find, in a little more than 800 pages, a summation of one of the great careers in American letters, a profound and beautiful call to think, and feel, and fight.

Interesting Literature

10 of the best adrienne rich poems everyone should read.

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked that poems are ‘like dreams’ because ‘in them you put what you don’t know you know’. Into her own poetry, Rich would put her own experiences, as well as the experiences of other women (when she won the 1974 National Book Award, she accepted the honour on behalf of all women).

And her poetry, which can be described as ‘feminist’ only if we also accept the insufficiency of this label to describe accurately what her poetry does, underwent an interesting evolution, from the rather traditional early poems written in received forms to the more experimental and innovative works of her maturity. As Rich herself put it, her poems stopped being about experiences and became experiences themselves.

For Adrienne Rich, ‘Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.’ Below, we select and introduce ten of her finest poems, spanning her long career, each one overcoming a silence that had to be broken.

1. ‘ Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers ’.

This was Rich’s first great poem, published in her first poetry collection, A Change of World , which appeared when the precocious Rich was still in her early twenties. In the poem, the speaker describes her aunt’s embroidery, which features tigers who prance proudly and unafraid, in contrast to the aunt’s own meek, oppressive life and marriage.

In an early collection of her essays, Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979), Adrienne Rich observed that throughout history, ‘women’s struggle for self-determination’ had been ‘muffled in silence’. This poem bears this out. However, although she is silent about her struggles, Aunt Jennifer’s embroidery is a quiet act of self-determination.

2. ‘ Living in Sin ’.

This 1955 poem is another early piece from Rich, when she was still largely using established forms; although here, the blank-verse ground plan of her poem is occasionally broken by shorter lines.

The poem explores the idea of an unmarried woman cohabiting with her male lover in the 1950s, when social disapproval would have been rife. The woman in the poem has second thoughts about her life of dusting and cleaning (is she, a kept woman, as good as married after all, but without the stamp of approval from society?), and the final image, of morning coming like a milkman up the stairs, is memorable.

3. ‘ A Valediction Forbidding Mourning ’.

The title of this 1970 poem is the same as one by the metaphysical poet John Donne, inviting us to put the two poems into a dialogue across the centuries.

But Rich’s poem is somewhat different from Donne’s. For among the things she is bidding farewell to is the heterosexual love that Donne’s poem celebrated: Rich, a lesbian, needs to find a new language, a new grammar even, to talk about her experiences.

4. ‘ A Mark of Resistance ’.

This short poem from 1957 provides a nice ‘way in’ to Adrienne Rich’s work, for the newcomer to her poetry. In the poem, a speaker piles up stones for some unspecified purpose, although it appears to be some sort of flood-barrier.

Of course, the poem invites to be read as metaphorical: this speaker, probably female, is shoring up some defences against the troubles that life will bring. The pile of stones is itself an ‘assertion’, a ‘cairn of my intention’: as so often in Rich’s poetry, the concrete is rendered into the abstract.

5. ‘ Power ’.

Drawing on (pseudo)science and technology for its imagery and subject-matter, ‘Power’ is full of enigmatic imagery and statements. The poem concludes with Marie Curie ‘denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power’: Curie, who discovered several radioactive elements, died of radiation poisoning.

6. ‘ Orion ’.

Adrienne Rich’s metaphors are often surprising, even illogical (at least at first). ‘Orion’ is a good example. In the poem, she addresses the constellation as her half-brother, although the poem is really a reflection of the poet’s own self. Once a ‘dead child born in the dark’, she is now able to face the starlight which Orion casts down at her, and meet his gaze.

7. ‘ Tonight No Poetry Will Serve ’.

This is a late Adrienne Rich poem, from 2007, and included in the collection of the same name which appeared in 2011, gathering together new poems from 2007-10. Beginning with a romantic, even sensual encounter, the poem then turns – as ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ had done – to grammar, and the world of the abstract.

8. ‘ What Kind of Times Are These ’.

This 1991 poem explores the connection between the poetic and the political. It’s also playfully self-referential (‘this isn’t a Russian poem’, don’t worry, the speaker assures us), but the poem’s imagery – especially the dense mesh of woods into which the speaker ventures – is laden with political symbolism.

9. ‘ Planetarium ’.

In one of her best-known poems, Rich salutes the achievements of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the astronomer who has been eclipsed by her brother William (who discovered the planet Uranus).

Rich is interested in exploring what it would have been like for a gifted woman like Caroline, working in what was very much a male-dominate sphere at the time. Rich deftly weaves together the astronomical world of Caroline’s scientific discoveries with her female biology: ‘the moon ruled’ her, as it does all women, Rich tells us. And indeed, with its talk of the ‘Heartbeat’ of pulsars, the poem views the night sky as a curious biological entity.

10. ‘ Diving into the Wreck ’.

Let’s conclude this list with one of Adrienne Rich’s best-known poems, from 1973. It’s another poem about a journey of discovery, although this time, rather than venturing into the ‘dread’ of the woods, we find ourselves going underwater to examine the ‘wreck’ which is both ‘treasure’ and ‘damage’.

Most critics regard the shipwreck as a symbol for women’s struggle for liberation, although the imagery of the poem is cryptic and ambiguous. But in leaving behind the book of ‘myths’ at the beginning of the poem and donning the various paraphernalia required to go down and examine the wreck herself, the speaker issues a rallying cry for self-determination and action.

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adrienne rich essay feminism

Someone is Writing a Poem

A feminist poet and critic, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore and attended Radcliffe College in the 1950s. After college, Rich married and started a family; during the 1960s, her awareness of feminist and civil rights issues grew. She eventually divorced her husband and taught at several universities, among them Stanford, Cornell, San Jose State, and Brandeis; since the 1970s she has lived with her partner, the writer Michelle Cliff.

Rich’s work has evolved from her first two collections, A Change of World (1951), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and The Diamond Cutters (1955), which were restrained and formal in technique, to become increasingly political, global, and personal. She has written of archetypical female figures, historical events, and ecological conditions as well as the individual experience of love; her poems have come to rely less on traditional forms, and in her collections she dates her poems as if they comprise a continual record. Rich is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Diving into the Wreck (1973), winner of the National Book Award, The Dream of a Common Language (1978), The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950–1984 , An Atlas of a Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991 , Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991–1995 , and Fox: Poems 1998–2000 ; as well as the prose collections Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986) and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993).

Rich makes a distinction between poetry and the “political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators” in “Someone Is Writing a Poem.” Poetry is “an exchange of electrical currents through language” and does not require “high technology” to be effective. In the essay, Rich layers sounds, images, and references, as well as a poem by Lynn Emmanuel about a mother and daughter watching a nuclear-bomb test on television, to create an argument for the power of language.

Emmanuel’s poem about the bomb, Rich points out, “would be mere ‘message’ and forgettable without the poem’s visual fury, its extraordinary leaps of sound and image.” By choosing the poem, Rich seconds the choice the writer made in creating this poem that privileges language over destruction; she observes of the woman writing the poem: “She can’t remain a spectator, hypnotized by the gorgeousness of a destructive force launched far beyond her control. She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language.”  

The society whose modernization has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing and deserves nothing. Those who are watching to see what happens next will never act and such must be the spectator’s condition.

                                                                                       —Guy Debord

In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received. It’s an exchange of electrical currents through language—that daily, mundane, abused, and ill-prized medium, that instrument of deception and revelation, that material thing, that knife, rag, boat, spoon/reed become pipe/tree trunk become drum/mud become clay flute/conch shell become summons to freedom/old trousers and petticoats become iconography in appliqué/rubber bands stretched around a box become lyre. Diane Glancy: Poetry uses the hub of a torque converter for a jello mold . I once saw, in a Chautauqua vaudeville, a man who made recognizably tonal music by manipulating a variety of sizes of wooden spoons with his astonishing fingers. Take that old, material utensil, language, found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use, and make it into something that means more than it says. What poetry is made of is so old, so familiar, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just the words, but polyrhythmic sounds, speech in its first endeavors (every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome), prismatic meanings lit by each others’ light, stained by each others’ shadows. In the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colors that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.

And all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished.

I can’t write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed. Perhaps you have read such poems and decided you don’t care for poetry; something turned you away. I can’t write a poem from dishonest motives; it will betray its shoddy provenance, like an ill-made tool, a scissors, a drill, it will not serve its purpose, it will come apart in your hands at the point of stress. I can’t write a poem simply from good intentions, wanting to set things right, make it all better; the energy will leak out of it, it will end by meaning less than it says.

I can’t write a poem that transcends my own limits, though poetry has often pushed me beyond old horizons, and writing a poem has shown me how far out a part of me was walking beyond the rest. I can expect a reader to feel my limits as I cannot, in terms of her or his own landscape, to ask: But what has this to do with me? Do I exist in this poem? And this is not a simple or naive question. We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to receive the experience of the not me , enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend.

Someone writing a poem believes in a reader, in readers, of that poem. The “who” of that reader quivers like a jellyfish. Self-reference is always possible: that my “I” is a universal “we,” that the reader is my clone. That sending letters to myself is enough for attention to be paid. That my chip of mirror contains the world.

But most often someone writing a poem believes in, depends on, a delicate, vibrating range of difference, that an “I” can become a “we” without extinguishing others, that a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images. A language that itself has learned from the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.

Spectacles controlled and designed to manipulate mass opinion, mass emotions depend increasingly on the ownership of vast and expensive technologies and on the physical distance of the spectators from the spectacle. (The bombing of Baghdad, the studios where competing camera shots were selected and edited and juxtaposed to project via satellite dazzling images of a clean, nonbloody war.) I’m not claiming any kind of purity for poetry, only its own particular way of being. But it’s notable that the making of and participation in poetry is so independent of high technology. A good sound system at a reading is of course a great advantage. Poetry readings can now be heard on tape, radio, recorded on video. But poetry would get lost in an immense technological performance scene. What poetry can give has to be given through language and voice, not through massive effects of lighting, sound, superimposed film images, nor as a mere adjunct to spectacle.

I need to make a crucial distinction here. The means of high technology are, as the poet Luís J. Rodriguez has said of the microchip, “surrounded by social relations and power mechanisms which arose out of another time, another period: . . . [they are] imprisoned by capitalism.” The spectacles produced by these means carry the messages of those social relations and power mechanisms: that our conditions are inevitable, that randomness prevails, that the only possible response is passive absorption and identification.

But there is a different kind of performance at the heart of the renascence of poetry as an oral art—the art of the griot, performed in alliance with music and dance, to evoke and catalyze a community or communities against passivity and victimization, to recall people to their spiritual and historic sources. Such art, here and now, does not and cannot depend on huge economic and technical resources, though in a different system of social relations it might well draw upon highly sophisticated technologies for its own ends without becoming dominated by them.

Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other. Part of the force field, the charge, is the working history of the words themselves, how someone has known them, used them, doubted and relied on them in a life. Part of the movement among the words belongs to sound—the guttural, the liquid, the choppy, the drawn-out, the breathy, the visceral, the downlight. The theater of any poem is a collection of decisions about space and time—how are these words to lie on the page, with what pauses, what headlong motion, what phrasing, how can they meet the breath of the someone who comes along to read them? And in part the field is charged by the way images swim into the brain through written language: swan, kettle, icicle, ashes, scab, tamarack, tractor, veil, slime, teeth, freckle.

Lynn Emanuel writes of a nuclear-bomb test watched on television in the Nevada desert by a single mother and daughter living on the edge in a motel:


          Outside the window the McGill smelter           sent a red dust down on the smoking yards of copper,           on the railroad tracks’ frayed ends disappeared           into the congestion of the afternoon. Ely lay dull

          and scuffed: a miner’s boot toe worn away and dim,           while my mother knelt before the Philco to coax           the detonation from the static. From the Las Vegas           Tonapah Artillery and Gunnery Range the sound

          of the atom bomb came biting like a swarm           of bees. We sat in the hot Nevada dark, delighted,           when the switch was tripped and the bomb hoisted           up its silky, hooded, glittering, uncoiling length;

          it hissed and spit, it sizzled like a poker in a toddy.           The bomb was no mind and all body; it sent a fire           of static down the spine. In the dark it glowed like the coils           of an electric stove. It stripped every leaf from every

          branch until a willow by a creek was a bouquet           of switches resinous, naked, flexible, and fine.           Bathed in the light of KDWN, Las Vegas,           my crouched mother looked radioactive, swampy,

          glaucous, like something from the Planet Krypton.           In the suave, brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were           not poor. In the atom’s fizz and pop we heard possibility           uncorked. Taffeta wraps whispered on davenports.

          A new planet bloomed above us; in its light           the stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.           The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;           we could have anything we wanted.

In the suave, brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were/not poor . This, you could say, is the political core of the poem, the “meaning” without which it could not exist. All that the bomb was meant to mean, as spectacle of power promising limitless possibilities to the powerless, all the falseness of its promise, the original devastation of two cities, the ongoing fallout into local communities, reservations—all the way to the Pacific Islands—this is the driving impulse of the poem, the energy it rides. Yet all this would be mere “message” and forgettable without the poem’s visual fury, its extraordinary leaps of sound and image: Ely lay dull/and scuffed: a miner’s boot toe worn away and dim . . . . Tafetta wraps whispered on davenports . The Planet Krypton is Superman’s planet, falling apart, the bits of rubble it flings to earth dangerous to the hero; Earth has become its own Planet Krypton—autotoxic.

At a certain point, a woman, writing this poem, has had to reckon the power of poetry as distinct from the power of the nuclear bomb, of the radioactive lesions of her planet, the power of poverty to reduce people to spectators of distantly conjured events. She can’t remain a spectator, hypnotized by the gorgeousness of a destructive force launched far beyond her control. She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language. But to do this she has to see clearly—and to make visible—how destructive power once seemed to serve her needs, how the bomb’s silky, hooded, glittering, uncoiling length might enthrall a mother and daughter as they watched, two marginal women, clinging to the edges of a speck in the desert. Her handling of that need, that destructiveness, in language, is how she takes on her true power.

During her life, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including  A Change of World  (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger...

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Tracing the fight for equality and women’s rights through poetry.

Asking how my criticism relates to my poetry is like asking how my obsessions relate to my compulsions. It’s a question I’m much too glad to answer. I like Jhumpa...

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Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry

Adrienne rich.

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First published August 28, 2018

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"Reading Stevens in other years I had tried to write off [his racism] as a painful but encapsulated lesion on the imagination, a momentary collapse of the poet's intelligence. I treated [his racist characters] as happenstance, accidental. There in the high desert I finally understood: This is a key to the whole. Don't try to extirpate, censor, or defend it. Stevens's reliance on [racist characters] is a watermark in his poetry. To understand how he places himself in relation to these . . . is to understand more clearly the meanings . . . It's to grasp the deforming power of racism . . . over the imagination-- not only of this poet, but of the collective poetry of which he was a part, the poetry in which I, as a young woman, had been trying to take my place." (pp. 276-277)

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Adrienne Rich by Carmen Birkle LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0075

Adrienne Cecile Rich (b. 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, MD; d. 27 March 2012 in Santa Cruz, CA) is one of the best-known feminist poets, essayists, and activists from the 1950s onward into the 21st century. She published about twenty-six volumes of poetry, six collections of essays, and quite a number of individual essays in numerous journals or as single volumes. She gave hundreds of interviews, and the scholarly studies on her work are too numerous to be counted. In most of her poems and essays, Rich focused on her own and, thus, a woman’s relationship to a world that she described as patriarchal, with predetermined and fixed gender roles that made being a successful poet, having a family, and being a mother and wife incompatible—an experience depicted in “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971). This self-exploration and yearning to understand how she herself might fit into a male-dominated world shaped Rich’s poetry and prose, accompanied by a strong sense of social criticism. She received a number of prestigious awards, prizes, and fellowships, among them the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1950, for her first collection of poems, A Change of World (1951); a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952); the National Book Award for Poetry (1974); honorary doctorates from Smith College (1979) and Harvard University (1989); several lifetime achievement awards; the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2006); and many more. In the late 1960s, she joined Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde on the faculty of the City College of New York and, thus, took her first steps into the African American and, to some extent, lesbian community. The year 1970 was a turning point in her life and career, with the divorce from her husband and his subsequent suicide and the publication of poetry that inaugurated her rise as a leading feminist figure. In the course of the 1970s, she came out as a lesbian (see “It Is the Lesbian in US . . .” [1976], The Dream of a Common Language [1978], and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” [1980]) and turned to political activism. Her long essay Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) has become her most frequently discussed work, in which she distinguishes between motherhood as a personal experience and motherhood as an institution that controls women. To being a woman, a mother, a writer, and a lesbian, she later added her concerns about her own Jewishness. In the 1980s, her poetry and prose became manifestations of her own physical pain and remained true to her idea of the “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1978). For Rich, the feminist slogan “the personal is the political” was always true. After 2000 she participated in antiwar movements and continued to write poetry and prose. From 1976 until her death in 2012, she lived with her partner, the Jamaican-born writer and editor Michelle Cliff, in California.

Most monographs on Adrienne Rich do not distinguish between her life and her work, thereby remaining true to Rich’s own endeavor to make the private public and to express her personal experience in her poems, essays, and activism. The earliest book-length studies on Rich appeared in the 1970s, with McDaniel 1978 , a feminist analysis of Rich’s poetry and vision, looking back at Rich’s poetry and essay collections published until then. In the 1980s, with Keyes 1986 , Díaz-Diocaretz 1984 , and Díaz-Diocaretz 1985 , she began to be seen as a woman writer with a feminist voice, in reference to the language she used and to a female aesthetics. Werner 1988 considers Rich in relationship to her critics. While the late 1980s and the 1990s saw the publication of a number of comparative studies, with the exception of Templeton 1994 , providing a feminist analysis, and Yorke 1997 , an analysis of Rich’s contribution to feminism, the new millennium brought forth more overviews such as Langdell 2004 , which covers Rich’s entire career until 2004, with an emphasis on Rich’s struggle for change and self-transformation, and Riley 2016 , which serves as the first full-length study of Rich’s life and work from 1951 until her death.

Díaz-Diocaretz, Miriam. The Transforming Power of Language: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich . Utrecht, The Netherlands: HES, 1984.

Provides a short (75-page) analysis in three essays of the language used by Adrienne Rich in her poetry, and focuses on the communicative function of poetry. The author applies Michel Foucault’s theory of authorship as well as Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality.

Díaz-Diocaretz, Miriam. Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions on Feminist Strategies in Adrienne Rich . Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1985.

DOI: 10.1075/ct.2

The author is concerned with the translations of Rich’s work into Spanish and about the ways the transfer of a text from one language to another can change its meaning. Here, the translator becomes a second author of the text. Lesbian and feminist texts are a particular challenge if they are to be translated into the language of a culture that locates these texts on the margins of society.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich . Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Keyes traces Rich’s awareness of power and its patriarchal constructedness in her chronological reading of Rich’s poetry from 1951 to 1981, beginning with A Change of World (1951), and ending with A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981). This feminist study sees Rich as a political poet, power as connected to control, and the woman as Other who needs to understand her own power in order to leave this marginalized position.

Langdell, Cheri Colby. Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change . Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

Langdell sets out to trace Rich’s recording of the public voice in her poetry. She is concerned with the author’s self-fashioning, her concepts of nationhood, and the female body in relation to its power and sexuality. She sees change and self-transformation as two of the most important themes in Rich’s writing. Further themes are female roles and womanhood, Rich’s rejection of traditional gender roles, and the use of will and creative intelligence to accomplish global change through political action.

McDaniel, Judith. Reconstituting the World: The Poetry and Vision of Adrienne Rich . Argyle, NY: Spinsters, 1978.

This is one of the earliest full-length and feminist studies of Rich’s poetry and the vision expressed in her earliest works. It traces Rich’s poetic development from her early phase, during which she still seemed to accept traditional female roles, or at least did not openly criticize them, to her later phases, when she began to protest against stifling role prescriptions and came out both as a lesbian and a feminist.

Riley, Jeannette E. Understanding Adrienne Rich . Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016.

DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv6sj9dg

Riley draws on decades of research evolving around Rich in an attempt to create a genuine understanding of her work. She divides Rich’s career into three major phases: 1951–1971, 1973–1985, and 1986 until her death in 2012. In the early phase, Rich struggles to find her own (feminist) voice. In the later phases, she focuses on women’s history, repression under patriarchy, and sexuality and politics. Riley also analyzes Rich’s growing political and cultural awareness.

Shima, Alan. Skirting the Subject: Pursuing Language in the Works of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, and Beverly Dahlen . Uppsala, Sweden: University of Uppsala, 1993.

Inspired by Rich’s essay “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971), Shima compiles a detailed study of a changing women’s language, which reflects the efforts put into practice by the three female authors Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, and Beverly Dahlen to change the discourse in order to better reflect female experience. He connects the authors through their common desire to offer new ways of shaping female identity and invoking change in the symbolic discourse.

Templeton, Alice. The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics . Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Templeton discusses how Adrienne Rich was shaped by feminism, and influenced feminist discourse, through her poetry. She unravels the poetic strategies Rich uses to test her feminist ideas and focuses on “dialogic moments” that facilitate the poet’s and the reader’s cultural participation. The collection Diving into the Wreck (1973) is at the center of this scholarly endeavor.

Werner, Craig Hansen. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics . Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.

This study is organized by themes and places Rich in the context of American poetry, particularly in the legacy of Walt Whitman. Werner applies close and formalist readings to Rich’s poetry and analyzes the prosody of the occasional poem. He deals with poetry and process, patriarchy and solipsism, the lesbian vision, and the radical voice, and uses Elaine Showalter’s concept of the “Wild Zone” as an exclusively female space of experience that Rich transforms into poetry.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics and the Body . London: SAGE, 1997.

Yorke puts special emphasis on Rich’s struggle to overcome strict cultural norms, such as the often glorified nuclear family, and calls for an extension of the personal experience toward a collective experience. She traces Rich’s feminist beginnings and her historical and cultural contexts and sets them in relation to the larger women’s movement. She explains how Rich worked hard on bridging the gap between white and black female activists and on fighting anti-Semitism.

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adrienne rich essay feminism


  1. A powerful, poetic life: The complexities of Adrienne Rich

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  2. Adrienne Rich, Feminist Poet and Activist, Feminist Poet and Activist

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  1. Adrienne Rich's Feminist Awakening

    Adrienne Rich's Feminist Awakening Newly discovered letters give a rare glimpse of how her poetry—and her radical politics—were formed. Illustration by Janna Klävers based on the photograph by...

  2. Adrienne Rich

    On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 (1979) , continues Rich's feminist intellectual project and contains one of Rich's most celebrated essays, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which Rich clarifies the need for female self-definition.

  3. Unlearning "Compulsory Heterosexuality": The Evolution of Adrienne Rich

    Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet and essayist, best known for her contributions to the radical feminist movement. She notably popularized the term "compulsory heterosexuality" in the 1980's through her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience," which brought her to the forefront of feminist and lesbian discourse.

  4. Adrienne Rich's 'Of Woman Born': Motherhood

    Adrienne Rich was already an established feminist poet in 1976 when she published Of Woman Born. It had been more than twenty years since her first volume of poetry was published. Adrienne Rich is known for confronting society and writing political themes in her poetry.

  5. Adrienne Rich: Feminist and Political Poet

    Fast Facts: Adrienne Rich Known For: American poet, essayist and feminist credited with bringing "the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse." Born: May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, MD Died: March 27, 2012, in Santa Cruz, CA Education: Radcliffe College

  6. What is a feminist interpretation of Adrienne Rich's poem "The Trees

    A feminist interpretation of Adrienne Rich's poem "The Trees" would compare the trees beginning to break out of their glass veranda to women in 1963 beginning to break out of their restricted ...

  7. Feminism in Adrienne Rich's Poetry Essay

    Feminism in Adrienne Rich's Poetry Essay Better Essays 2828 Words 12 Pages Open Document Adrienne Rich's poetry serves a prophetic function by articulating the history and ideals of the feminist struggle.

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    Adrienne Rich, born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, died in 2012, was an influential poet and essayist, as well as feminist and political activist. Rich was the eldest of two daughters, and was largely influenced by her parents.

  9. Adrienne Rich Essay

    Adrienne Rich can relate to her because they both are Jewish women that grew up in the forties. They were both victims of racism or felt racism in society, The poem refers to being forced to lose your identity, character, and ethnicity. Throughout her life Adrienne Rich has felt a loss of identity.

  10. Adrienne Rich Essay Feminism

    Adrienne Rich Essay Feminism | Best Writing Service 8521 Finished Papers Confidentiality guarantee We never disclose your personal information to any third parties Good News! Your paper is now complete and is ready for you to download. Show Less Short Answer Questions Why choose Us? Adrienne Rich Essay Feminism 368 Customer Reviews 1753

  11. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

    Adrienne Rich argues that heterosexuality is a violent political institution making way for the "male right of physical, economical, and emotional access" to women. She urges women to direct their attention and energies towards other women rather than men, and she portrays lesbianism as an extension of feminism.

  12. Two New Volumes by Adrienne Rich, Game-Changing Feminist, Poet and

    ESSENTIAL ESSAYS Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry By Adrienne Rich Edited and with an introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert 411 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.. SELECTED POEMS 1950-2012 By ...

  13. Adrienne Rich

    Throughout her essay, Rich refers back to the concept of location. She recounts her growth towards understanding how the women's movement grounded in Western culture and limited to the concerns of white women, then incorporated verbal and written expression of black United States citizens.

  14. 10 of the Best Adrienne Rich Poems Everyone Should Read

    For Adrienne Rich, 'Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.'. Below, we select and introduce ten of her finest poems, spanning her long career, each one overcoming a silence that had to be broken. 1. ' Aunt Jennifer's Tigers '. This was Rich's first great poem, published in her first poetry collection, A Change of World ...

  15. Someone is Writing a Poem by Adrienne Rich

    A feminist poet and critic, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore and attended Radcliffe College in the 1950s. After college, Rich married and started a family; during the 1960s, her awareness of feminist and civil rights issues grew.

  16. 'You Have to Change Your Life': How Adrienne Rich Wakes Us Up

    Rich is best known as a second-wave feminist activist and writer, and the label fits neatly for the first essays in this volume. They crackle with the energy and optimism released by the women's liberation movement, with what Rich describes as an "unforgettable sense of coming alive, of newness and connectedness."

  17. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry

    Adrienne Rich. 4.25. 213 ratings38 reviews. Demonstrating the lasting brilliance of her voice and her prophetic vision, Essential Essays showcases Adrienne Rich's singular ability to unite the political, personal, and poetical. The essays selected here by feminist scholar Sandra M. Gilbert range from the 1960s to 2006, emphasizing Rich's ...

  18. Adrienne Rich

    Adrienne Cecile Rich (b. 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, MD; d. 27 March 2012 in Santa Cruz, CA) is one of the best-known feminist poets, essayists, and activists from the 1950s onward into the 21st century. She published about twenty-six volumes of poetry, six collections of essays, and quite a number of individual essays in numerous journals or as ...

  19. Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry: Rich

    A New York Times Critics' Pick A career-spanning selection of the lucid, courageous, and boldly political prose of National Book Award winner Adrienne Rich.. Demonstrating the lasting brilliance of her voice and her prophetic vision, Essential Essays showcases Adrienne Rich's singular ability to unite the political, personal, and poetical. The essays selected here by feminist scholar ...