I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslateable language in the universe
Adrienne Rich was, without question, the unofficial poet laureate of 20th-century American feminism. Over the years, as she evolved from a stereotypical “daddy’s girl” and a precocious disciple of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens into an aesthetic, critical, and political pioneer, she became a prophet for both the women whose causes she championed and the country whose flaws she lamented and whose transformation she envisioned. Many critics thought her crotchety or, worse, “strident,” while she herself sometimes said that she spoke from a marginalized perspective. Even women who might have been sympathetic to her ambition complained about her. Two éminences grises of The New York Review of Books castigated her feminism: Susan Sontag dismissed it as “a bit limited,” and Elizabeth Hardwick fretted that she “deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” Yet during her lifetime, Rich won countless prizes, including a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Bollingen Prize, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. When she died at 82, in 2012, Margalit Fox, who composed her New York Times obituary, aptly characterized the ambiguity of her position, describing her as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.”
“Towering rage”—no one would have expected such passion from the preternaturally expert 20-something who won the Yale Younger Poet’s prize in 1951 for a first book tellingly titled A Change of World, which arrived with a commendation from W. H. Auden that is still infamous. Her poems, declared Auden, who had chosen them for the distinguished Yale series, were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” A few years later, in patronizing words on her next volume, The Diamond Cutters, Randall Jarrell made things worse, writing that the author of the book seems “to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” That the young woman responsible for these two collections was a serious student of English and American verse tradition with an extraordinary verbal gift and an impressive command of prosody—the kind of formal skill especially admired in the ’50s—makes these remarks seem especially odd today, when we inhabit a literary world that has been significantly altered by, among others, the powerful author of A Change of World. Yet it is from the midcentury American culture whose implicit assumptions about gender and genre were arguably defined by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique that Rich journeyed toward her major accomplishments, achieving stature through, in her own words, “a succession of brief, amazing movements / each one making possible the next” (“From a Survivor”).
Rich’s life, like her writing, was marked by dramatic metamorphoses, changes that reflected, even while they influenced, the world that was radically changing around her. Her growth, observed the poet-critic Ruth Whitman in 1975, was “an astonishing phenomenon to watch: in one woman the history of women in our century, from careful traditional obedience … to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.” Like Yeats, the poet she most admired when she was an undergraduate, Rich evolved from phase to phase as, increasingly, she elaborated the politics of her aesthetic in essays that can be read along with her poems as both manifestoes and glosses. In prose and verse, she herself remarked on these transformations, sometimes almost with wonder. A dutiful child, she was homeschooled for some years by a strict pianist mother, who taught her to play Bach and Mozart, and more overwhelmingly, by a scholarly pathologist father who set daily literary tasks for her and her sister. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Papa Brontë,” she once wrote to the poet Hayden Carruth, “with geniuses for children.” (Her unpublished letters to Carruth appear in “The Wreck,” an article by Michelle Dean in the April 3, 2016, issue of The New Republic.)
But beneath a veneer of decorum, the stubborn poet had begun to stir. In secret, she confided to Carruth, she “spent hours writing imitations of cosmetic advertising and illustrating them copiously,” and “mercifully,” she recalled in print, she “discovered Modern Screen, Photoplay, Jack Benny, ‘Your Hit Parade,’ Frank Sinatra,” and other icons of popular culture. Worse still, though from her father’s perspective she was “gratifyingly precocious,” she confessed in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution that she had “early been given to tics and tantrums.” Even in the years when Auden and Jarrell were captivated by her command of versification (“I was exceptionally well grounded in formal technique,” she herself admitted in What Is Found There, “and I loved the craft”), she was “groping for … something larger.” Her first act of overt rebellion against Papa Brontë was to marry “a divorced graduate student.” Then, as she sardonically noted in Of Woman Born, she began to write “ ‘modern,’ ‘obscure,’ ‘pessimistic’ poetry,” and eventually she had “the final temerity to get pregnant.” Another young woman poet who visited Cambridge at this time discerned what Auden, Jarrell, and perhaps even Rich’s father had failed to grasp. Sylvia Plath was fiercely rivalrous toward Rich, but in her journal she described her, with some respect, as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparkling black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella: honest, frank, forthright and even opinionated.”
When Plath encountered her, Rich had ostensibly settled into marriage and maternity. Her husband, Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist, was simpatico and reasonably supportive. Yet soon enough the young poet began to rebel against the implications of her own decision to bear children in her mid-20s. In Of Woman Born, another classic text of ’70s feminism, Rich examined with unusual frankness the anxieties and ambivalences of maternity. Though she confided that she loved her sons deeply—and was evidently close to them throughout her life—she argued that “every mother has known overwhelming, unacceptable anger at her children.” And at her husband. For like Plath, Rich was slowly skidding toward a marital breakup. Unlike Plath, she survived the pain. Instead, seven years after Plath gassed herself in a London oven, leaving two children for Ted Hughes to raise, Alfred Conrad drove in a rented car to the family’s Vermont country home and shot himself, leaving his wife with three young boys and a weight of grief that went for many years unwritten.
Inevitably, biographical pressures shaped the work of both Rich and Plath. Though each fictionalized or screened personal crises in sometimes evasive or obscure metaphors, each might be said to have lived what Keats once called a life of allegory, “a life like the scriptures, figurative.” But because Rich outlasted Plath for so many years, she was able through the “amazing movements” at which she herself marveled to become a feminist warrior for yet further change. And many of her readers, especially those of us who were poets and feminists, detected the revolutionary urge even in her most elliptical texts. We knew that traditional marriage hadn’t worked for her, as it hadn’t for Plath, and that she had begun writing with passion and precision not only about the problems of patriarchal culture but also about lesbianism as personal desire and political decision. But what exactly, many must have wondered, had happened and how was life dramatized in art?
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