Adrienne Rich: Feminist and Political Poet

May 16, 1929 - March 27, 2012

Adrienne Rich, 1991
Adrienne Rich, 1991. Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

edited by Jone Johnson Lewis 

Adrienne Rich 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.

Adrienne Rich Biography:

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.