Celebrating Adrienne Rich
Elegies of writers often tend toward the bombastic, but it would not be an exaggeration to call Adrienne Rich one of the poets who mattered most to the twentieth century. Dedicated to poetry as a form of urgent discourse and committed to prioritizing a vision for women, Rich pushed the boundaries of both her poetry and her activism.
Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of a former concert pianist and a doctor whose “very Victorian, pre-Raphaelite library” she devoured. Although she won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets’ Prize as an undergraduate, she did not immediately pursue her poetry as a professional, publishing only one follow-up volume while starting a family with her husband, an economics professor. When she published again in 1963, her poetry had become more vibrant and complex, beginning her tendency toward freer verse and livelier spirit that would only increase throughout her long career. Both a participant in the women’s movement of the 1970s and one of its chroniclers, she captured in her poetry the kind of stifled rage that pushed feminism to its peak. The issues of American intervention, the future of the arts, and the public role of the self formed a backbone for much of her later writing.
At Harvard, Rich studied English. She became friends with fellow undergraduates Donald Hall and Robert Bly, with whom she double-dated. But Harvard was not totally welcoming—as a woman, Rich could not enter the Lamont Poetry Room or become a member of the Advocate. “From 1947 to 1951, when I graduated,” she would later write, “I never saw a single woman on a lecture platform, or in front of a class, except when a woman graduate student gave a paper on a special topic. The ‘great men’ talked of other ‘great men,’ of the nature of Man, the history of Mankind, the future of Man; and never again was I to experience from a teacher the kind of prodding, the insistence that my best could be even better, that I had known in high school. Women students were simply not taken very seriously. Harvard’s message to women was an elite mystification: we were, of course, part of Mankind; we were special, achieving women, or we would not have been there; but of course our real goal was to marry—if possible, a Harvard graduate.”
A sense of restraint is visible in her early poems, three of which are reprinted on the following pages from their original Advocate publication in 1950-51. Much of the writing is quiet and formal; it seems to echo Rich’s early influences, such as Robert Frost. Her verse, though evocative and lithe, is marked by a controlled and formal precision. As he praised her poems as “gently and modestly dressed,” Auden just as graciously noted in his introduction to the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize that her pieces “respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” Rich was consciously attempting to fit her voice into the model that had been given to her.
Yet Rich’s early poems are striking in their urge to discover what lies beyond the limits. Each line pulses with the recognition that something does lie beyond: a “whisper of a shade,” a “live thing” shivering, an uneasy moth exploring the “edge of light.” Her pressurized pentameter holds an energy that will eventually burst in her later poems, propelling her style beyond its metrical container. Rich’s Advocate poems are harbingers of her career to come.
Years later, when Rich wrote “Twenty-One Love Poems,” an expansive series describing her relationship with another woman, the same voice appears to move more freely. The female of Rich’s poetry is no longer confined to her dark room. Instead, she asserts her identity, walks an astonishing spectrum of pleasure and pain, and stands in life’s direct path. The uneasy moth near the night-lamp is gone, replaced by a narrator who is ready to declare: “I choose to be a figure in that light.”