Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother was a former concert pianist. Rich’s upbringing was dominated by the intellectual ambitions her father had for her, and Rich excelled at academics, gaining her degree from Radcliffe University.
In 1953 she married Alfred Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard. She had three children with him, but their relationship began to fray in the 1960s as Rich became politically aware—she later stated that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.”
Rich’s work of the 1960s and ‘70s begins to show the signs of that radicalization. Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich’s collections from this period include Necessities of Life (1966), Leaflets (1969), and The Will to Change (1971), all of which feature looser lines and radical political content.
Rich’s 2007 collection Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth was her twenty-fourth; however, since the mid-50s, Rich has conceived of her poetry as a long process, rather than a series of separate books.
Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth continues to use open forms, including notebook-like fragments. The book as whole, noted Lee Sharkey in the Beloit Poetry Journal, is concerned with “dissolution and disappearance…The Rich persona who for half a century has been engaged in a continual process of undoing her own certainties owns up to how those certainties have blinded her.”
Layering images and utilizing a stripped-down line help contribute to “the new, still more difficult perspective she has achieved,” Sharkey noted, though Rich “allows no point of resolution in the poem beyond juxtaposed images of cultural, environmental, and personal dissolution.”
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 Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly radical in both its free-verse form and feminist and political content.
Rich has received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship; she is also a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1997, she 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.”
She went on to say: “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” The same year, Rich was awarded the Academy’s Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82.