Adrienne Rich Biography : The Poet as a Person

Questions round #1

1. What sort of family did the poet grow up in? Did she have a happy childhood? Was this the subject of any of her poetry?

Adrienne Rich was raised in a family of five, in which she had two older sisters. Her father, Arnold Rich, worked at John-Hopkins in Pathology while her mother, Helen Elizabeth Rich, became a composer after she left the profession of concert pianist when she got married. While Adrienne and her sisters were raised Christians, her father was Jewish and her mother was a Protestant. Her mother home-schooled her up to fourth grade, and her influence towards poetry came from her father who encouraged her to read and write poetry as much as possible from a very young age. Her childhood was indeed the subject of a couple of her poems. For example, her poems like “Sources” and “After Dark” were based on the relationship she had with her father when young and how much she struggled to make her parents happy.

  • Sara Illick

“Adrienne Rich.” 2015. The Famous People website. Feb 1 2015, 05:49 //

“Childhood Memories in Adrienne Rich’s poem, Miracle Ice Cream.” 01 Feb 2015

“Adrienne Rich.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.

2. What education did the poet receive? Did she pursue the education she desired? If not, why not? Was she educated in literature? Did she have mentors for her writing?

Adrienne Rich attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This college was primarily a women’s liberal arts institution. Rich was fortunate enough to received the education she desired. Her father influenced her passion for poetry. Though she often found it challenging to please her parents, they supported her throughout her education. Rich studied poetry and writing. During her time in college, she mastered the art of writing, analyzing and dismembering texts and, she was therefore educated in literature.

Though her earliest poetic influence was her father, Rich was also influenced by the fact that she had never encountered a female professor at the university level. At this time in the United States, women were deemed to be equal to men although they were still seen as being inferior. Rich investigated the stigma associated with women and dominant roles in society, through her poetry.

Rich did not have any personal mentors. Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World (1951) was published and won the Yale Younger Poets Award. Having won this prestigious award gave her a certain level of recognition and advantage over other female poets of her time. Her earlier works often dealt with a fairy tale ideology. Though her earlier poetry was not heavily influenced by her education, after mothering three children, Rich’s work took a quick turn. In the 1960s, Rich’s poems and literature often reflected the ideology of a women’s role in society. She has stated, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her”. This is representative of many of her work in the 1960s, which often dealt with indelicate and honest topics.

Simon Correia

“Adrienne Rich.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2015. “Adrienne Rich.”

Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004, 2015. 3.

What personal relationships affected the poet? Were these the subject of her poems?

Adrienne Rich’s early career as a poet was influenced largely by her father, Arnold Rite Rich, who encouraged her from a young age to both read poetry and write her own. He recognized her talent with words early on, and had huge ambitions for her life and career. She discusses her relationship with him in an autobiographical poem called Sources, where she talks about how he was domineering and how she constantly sought his approval. In an essay also about family life called Split at the Root, she recalls conflict within her family due to the fact that her mother was a southern Protestant and her father was Jewish. The essay discusses her family’s tension and struggles caused by the two very different cultural heritages.

Adrienne married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University, in 1953. She soon learned, however, that married life would not give her the sort of contentment with life that she had always expected it to. She discussed what it meant to be a woman, artist, wife, and mother in the 1950s in a collection of poems called Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, which was met with harsh reviews. She and her husband split in 1970; her husband had feared she was losing her mind as she became heavily involved in political activism, supporting anti-war movements as well as civil rights and feminism. Shortly after their separation her ex-husband committed suicide.

Six years later she began a relationship with another woman – novelist and editor Michelle Cliff. The relationship lasted for the rest of her life. She gave voice to many women’s issues (including being a lesbian) in her controversial collection of poems Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. She went on to write not only poems but political essays about womanhood and lesbian existence, discussing what it means to be a woman in our world and calling for sexual equality.

From: Pope, Deborah. “Rich’s Life and Career.” Rich’s Life and Career–by Deborah Pope. University of Illinois Dept. of English, n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2015. <;.

“THE BIOGRAPHY OF ADRIENNE RICH.” N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2015. <;.

Mara Brian

4. Did marriage or motherhood affect her writing? Did she write about these things?

Adrienne Rich was a woman who valued women’s rights. When she got married to Alfred Conrad and had three boys with him, this is the moment she understood that she was starting a family. Being the poet she was, she could not reach the expectations of the traditional assumptions that a wife and mother was. She struggled a lot with her work as a poet and her work as a mother and wife. She decided to express herself about this situation with poems. Well, her marriage and her motherhood made a real impact in her poems. She wrote about the women’s place in society, the imbalance of power between men and women, the social norms, and challenged her readers with taboo topics. Additionally, when she left her husband and when not so long after that he committed suicide, Rich decided to put her feelings on paper and made poems on the subject in a collection named “Diving into the Wreck”, in 1973.  Rich also published an essay collection, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, in 1976, which gave voice to many women’s issues surrounding parenthood and marriage. Motherhood and marriage were really important things in Rich’s life. These processes of  her life had her cared about those topics, so she decided to explain how she felt on these subjects with many poems.

Joe-Ann Lamarre

5. Did the poet have mental health issues? If so, did they affect her ability to write or inform her work?

Adrienne Rich was not known to have any mental health issues. Rather, she was a stable individual who was well-rounded and very influential for those who knew her personally. Her career was a reflection of who she was as a person – someone who stood her ground and believed what she believed in with passion and conviction. You can tell that she had a strong sense of self worth by the topics she choose to write about (feminism and politics) as well as through her actions, such as when she declined the National Medal of Arts in 1997, stating “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…” (— Hannah Kirk

Questions Round #2

1. How did the poet handle her gender identity and sexual orientation?

During her early career when she was married to Alfred Conrad, Adrienne Rich would write about her childhood and about motherhood mostly. Their marriage started falling apart as Rich started having feminist and anti-war views which started in 1966. It was in 1976 when she started a partnership with Michelle Cliff that she started writing more controversial publications such as Of Woman Born and Motherhood as Experience and Institution. It was in that same year she came out as a lesbian. In her works, she addressed her thought that “for her, lesbianism was a political as well as a personal issue, writing, the suppressed lesbian [she] had been carrying in [her] since adolescence began to stretch [her] limbs.”[1] She also published, in 1980, an essay called Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence where she argues that “heterosexuality is a violent political institution making way for the male right of physical, economical, and emotional access to women.”[2] By saying this, she wanted women to think about other women and go towards them instead of men to make them realize that lesbianism was in the same line as feminism.

Sara Illick

[1] “Adrienne Rich.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.

[2] Wikipedia. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.

“Adrienne Rich.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.

2. What was the poet’s relationship with nature? Was nature a subject of her poems?

Adrienne Rich did not often depict interest in the theme of nature. Her work was often based on feminism within a patriarchal society and “the suppressed lesbian [she] had been carrying in [her] since adolescence”. She grew up in a traditional city-like environment which limited her access and connection to nature. Her parents prioritized literature and constant improvement over enjoying the beauties of life. In consequence, for the majority of her career, nature was not a topic of discussion. After having gone through various changes in her life and having been a poet for many years, Rich developed the ideology of nature in one of her poems. In one of her later works What Kind of Times Are These she briefly uses the idea of nature as a metaphor for political annex and corruption. Although she mentions trees she takes a quick turn from the talk of nature and goes straight to her point focusing on governmental corruption.

Simon Correia

“Adrienne Rich.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2015.

3. What was the poet’s social situation? Was this a constraint for the poet’s free expression? Did she write about social issues?

Adrienne Rich’s social situation changed throughout her life, as did her ability to freely express herself. In the beginning of her career, her writing was largely dominated by her father, who mostly encouraged her to write conventional poetry which did not give her the sort of freedom to write about issues that mattered to her as she had later in life. As a married woman, she became more and more influenced by emerging philosophies such as feminism and social justice, and so it was on these topics that many of her works during this period were focused. Following her husband’s death and her own coming out as a lesbian, much of her writing turned to the topics of homosexuality, gender, and equal rights. Adrienne’s freedom to talk about a vast range of social issues seems to have expanded as her life went on, presumably because much of her career unfolded during a time when women’s voices were beginning to be considered valid and important, thus giving her the ability to make valued comments on issues that she would never have been able to write about had she lived fifty years earlier.

Adrienne wrote a number of pieces about various social issues. Women’s issues are a recurring theme in many of her works, as well as the subject of homosexuality, which she began to write more about after she came out as a lesbian. The collections Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language discuss both womanhood (and Adrienne’s objection to societal standards of what it means to be a woman) and lesbianism. Along with many highly influential pieces on women’s issues, Adrienne also took on other modern social issues in her writing – for instance, a collection called The School Among the Ruins touches on incredibly diverse issues, from technology and the effects of modernity on human dignity to the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War. Throughout her career as a writer and poet, she was outspoken about all kinds of issues that were of importance to her, and many of the things she wrote in regards to various social issues are still influential today.

Information from:

– Mara Brian

4. What was the poet’s economic situation? Did financial issues affect her ability to write?

Adrienne Rich economic situation was good and she did not have any problems with money or any financial issue that cold have affected her ability to write. Instead i can tell you that she did approach the theory of heterosexuality being the cause the economic status that a women had in this kind of relationship. Rich talked about how the women in a heterosexual relationship had no place in contributing in the economic situation of her couple. I think that financial issues did affected her writing, but in the way that those financial issues were those of the minorities in the society: women, poor, black, etc. Rich challenges the notion of women’s dependence on men as social and economic supports.

Wikipedia. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” (Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2015) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2015

5. What was the political situation at the time? Was the poet engaged with politics? Did she write about political issues?

During Adrienne Rich’s lifetime, the political environment was intense. The height of her career was marked by the height of the civil rights and feminist movements. Many people claimed that because of how heavily she was involved in political matters, she could not really call herself a poet.

– Hannah

Questions Round #3

1. Was the poet part of a community of writers, artists, intellectuals, or activists? If so, did they have a particular set of concerns? What was her position in this community?

Adrienne Rich became one of the first mainstream poets to write in a very feminist and lesbian orientated manner and point of view as she was one herself[1]. She was very involved in anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism in 1960’s and 1970’s.[2] Rich was concerned about social justice, but her strongest allegiance was towards the women rights movement. She was mostly concerned about issues like sexuality, language, oppression and power in our world dominated by men.[3] She brought consciousness about feminism in women’s minds early on which started a series of actions on the movement.[4] The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers[5]Adrienne Rich

Sara Illick [1] Schudel, Matt. “Adrienne Rich, Feminist Poet Who Wrote of Politics and Lesbian Identity, Dies at 82.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

[2] “Adrienne Rich.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

[3] Pope, Deborah. “Rich’s Life and Career–by Deborah Pope.” Rich’s Life and Career–by Deborah Pope. Oxford University Press, 1995. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

[4] Napikoski, Linda. “Adrienne Rich – Feminist and Political Poet.” About Education., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

[5] “Adrienne Rich Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

2. What was the critical reception of the poet’s work? Find some contemporary reviews. How did the poet respond?

Throughout her career, and even after her passing, Rich was praised for her literary works. She has received over 20 poetry awards including the National Book Award for Poetry (1974) and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award (1999). Although Rich appreciated all the recognition her work got, she was a firm believer in her ideologies. In 1997, she was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts but she declined the award in protest again the House of Representatives. They had voted to essentially cut art funds and she stated that she “could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as [she] understand[s] 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”.

“Adrienne Rich.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

“Adrienne Rich.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004, 2015.

Simon Correia

3. What did the poet say about her own work?

Adrienne gave many interviews where she discussed not only her own work but also her thoughts on poetry as a whole. In one interview, she was asked to discuss what she meant when she said that “poetry is banned in the United States” and that it is “under house arest” (which she had written in a poem called What Is Found There). She responded by saying that, while in other parts of the world poets are penalized for breaking censorship rules, in the United States poets are penalized because of the popular mentality that poetry is not important, and that poets don’t talk about issues that actually matter. Of course, we know that social and political issues were the focuses of most of Adrienne’s works, so we can assume that this common mentality of poetry being irrelevant was difficult for her to live with.

In other interviews, she talked about how critics early in her career would dismiss her political poetry as being “angry” or “bitter”. She replied to these critics by saying that people were simply afraid of the growing number of women using poetry as a means through which to talk about their struggles as a woman. She viewed the attacks on her own poetry as attacks on the entire movements she supported, saying, “if you attack one writer, you think then others will have less temerity. But there are such wonderful younger women writers coming along who are creating out of their anger, their fury, their sense of the world. Nothing’s going to stop that.”


– Mara Brian

What were her artistic goals? What was she trying to accomplish in her poems?

Adrienne Rich artistic goals were political and social. She always trie to challenge her reader by writing about the women’s world and by explaining how women was seen in society. I know of no woman—virgin, mother, lesbian, married, celibate—whether she earns her keep as a housewife, a cocktail waitress, or a scanner of brain waves— for whom the body is not a fundamental problem: its clouded meanings, its fertility, its desire, its so-called frigidity, its bloody speech, its silences, its changes and mutilations, its rapes and ripenings. There is for the first time today a possibility of converting our physicality into both knowledge and power. Physical motherhood is merely one dimension of our being….She had a political view on her poems and was expressing the ups and down of the minorities. We could say her poems was like a weapon against all the people who were lowering them so they could not get any representation of their problems. She was trying to accomplish a work of art by making the minorities and problems of the world the main topics of her poems, and by giving them a voice so the entire world would listen to them for once.

Rich, Adrienne. “Of Woman Born (1977).” History is a weapon. , 1977. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Adrienne Rich.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
-Joe-Ann Lamarre
How is the poet viewed in literary studies today? Is her work anthologized? Are scholars writing about her?

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