Poet, essayist and theorist ADRIENNE RICH was born. In 1953 (d: 2012), Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard, whom she had met as an undergraduate. She had said of the match “I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family […] I wanted what I saw as a full woman’s life, whatever was possible.” They settled in Cambridge, Mass/ and had three sons – David in 1955 (now a graphic designer), Paul in 1957 (now an elementary school music teacher) and Jacob in 1959 (now a radio producer). In 1955 she published her second volume, The Diamond Cutters, a collection she says she wishes had not been published. In 1964, Rich joined the New Left and in 1966, she moved with her family to New York, becoming involved in anti-war, civil rights and feminist activism; her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Rich’s activism and increasing politicization are reflected the poems in her next three collections. Increasingly militant, Rich hosted anti-Vietnam and Black Panther fundraising parties at their apartment; tensions began to split the marriage, Conrad fearing that his wife had lost her mind. The couple separated in mid-1970 and shortly afterward, in October, Conrad drove into the woods and shot himself.
In coming out as a lesbian in 1976, Rich’s feminist position crystallized. In this year she published the controversial volume Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. She wrote, “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs,” lesbianism pressing as a political as much as a personal imperative. The pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), which was incorporated into the following year’s Dream of a Common Language (1978), marked the first direct treatment of lesbian desire and sexuality in her work. A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) and some of her late poems in The Fact of a Doorframe (2001) represent the capstone of this philosophical and political position.
In her analytical work Adrienne Rich: the moment of change, Langdell suggests these works represent a central rite of passage for the poet, as she (Rich) crossed a threshold into a newly constellated life and a “new relationship with the universe”. During this period, Rich also wrote a number of key socio-political essays, including “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” one of the first to address the theme of lesbian existence. In this essay, she asks “how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding.” Some of the essays were republished in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966–1978 (1979). Rich shouted out her sexuality and took a role in leadership for sexual equality. Novelist and poet Jeanette Winterson describes Rich’s impact: “Since the 1960s, her poetry and her politics have come together to create involved, engaged, challenging writing.”
In 1974, her collection Diving Into the Wreck won the National Book Award for Poetry, which she shared with Allen Ginsberg. Rich was joined by feminist poets Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept it on behalf of all women. In 1976, began a relationship with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff. Adrienne Rich taught at City College as well as Rutgers University until 1979. She moved to Western Massachusetts with Cliff in the early 1980s. Ultimately, they moved to Northern California, where Rich continued her career as a professor, lecturer, poet, and essayist. Cliff and Rich took over editorship of the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom in 1981. Rich taught and lectured at Scripps College, San Jose State University and Stanford University during the 1980s and 1990s.
Both An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991) and Dark Fields of the Republic (1995) explore the relationship between private and public histories. During the 1990s Rich became an active member of numerous advisory boards such as the Boston Woman’s Fund, National Writers Union, Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa, and New Jewish Agenda. On the role of the poet, she has written, “We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”
In 1997, Adrienne Rich refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration […] “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” Rich died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82 in her Santa Cruz, California home. Her son, Pablo Conrad, reported that her death resulted from long-term rheumatoid arthritis. Her last collection was published the year before her death. Rich was survived by her sons and Michelle Cliff.