The Many Lives of Adrienne Rich
The Atlantic|December 2020
Praised by W. H. Auden as neat and modest, she vowed to be passionate and radical instead.
Stephanie Burt

In 1952, in her native Baltimore, Adrienne Rich delivered her first public lecture, “Some Influences of Poetry Upon the Course of History.” She was 23. Over the next 59 years, Rich (1929–2012) would herself alter both poetry and history. As an author, a teacher, and an editor, she helped define American feminism. As a poet, she left a stack of books that are animated by anger, by self-reproach, by deep knowledge of the poetic traditions she often rejected, and by her fierce desire to be understood. She created, and illuminated, divisions—within her readers as much as among them—as she reversed and revised her life’s goals.

The simplest story about those goals—and it’s not wrong—presents an obedient daughter and a young mother, rewarded early for talent, radicalized in middle age. Adrienne’s father, Arnold, was a prestigious pathologist at Johns Hopkins University and a WASP-passing Jewish man. An “absolute authority” in his own home, as Rich wrote, Arnold required his wife, Helen, to wear the black crepe dress he designed for her, day after day, year after year. Helen, a trained pianist and composer, threw herself into Adrienne’s music lessons (she was playing Mozart by age 4); Arnold, into her literary education, neglecting her younger sister, Cynthia. When Arnold died in 1968, Hilary Holladay writes in her capacious, generous biography, The Power of Adrienne Rich, Rich had “spent her life becoming the accomplished poet he wanted her to be.” She had also “hated him for a long time.”

Rich was driven and admired, though never popular, in her all-girls high school. She enrolled at Radcliffe (then Harvard’s college for women) seeking a husband and a literary career. The “self-possessed and proper” Adrienne impressed professors, among them the poet Theodore Morrison and the renowned F. O. Matthiessen, an authority on American literature and a gay socialist. She also became engaged to a graduate student in history, Sumner Powell. Before her senior year at Radcliffe, Rich had completed the manuscript W. H. Auden chose for the Yale Younger Poets prize. His foreword to A Change of World (1951) praised the undergraduate’s “neatly and modestly” finished work. Writing to her family, Rich resolved to be “messily passionate and grand” instead.

The Yale book made Rich a well-mannered wunder kind; it also led to a Guggenheim-funded year at Oxford, with travels on the European Continent (de rigueur for her poetic generation). A poem from The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems (1955) suggested more unruly ferment; set at Versailles, it augured great change (such as the French Revolution) for “all good children who are all too good.” Before Rich moved overseas, she left Powell cold. She then fell hard for Alfred Conrad, whose Jewish background repelled Arnold. “I didn’t know a great deal about him,” remembered the poet Donald Hall, who knew Rich at Harvard and Oxford, “but I knew he was an economist and I knew she loved him—and I knew that her father disapproved.”

When she returned, the pair married and settled in Cambridge, where they enjoyed a Harvard-centric social world at once comfortable and stifling. “She had a script to follow,” as Holladay writes: that of young faculty wife. As her first two children, David and Pablo, neared school age, Rich found herself pregnant with a third, Jacob. She nonetheless managed to enter the Boston University– based literary circles of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Rich “advised Sylvia very strongly not to have children.” Poems in free verse about feeling trapped in a household, about being a woman in a male-dominated world, opened Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). In the title poem, angels tell the writer at the kitchen sink, “Be insatiable … Save yourself; others you cannot save.”

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