On the publication anniversary of the poetry collection Midnight Salvage (1999), we’re celebrating the influential poet Adrienne Rich!
Adrienne Rich was an American essayist, feminist and poet, known for being politically outspoken in her writing, particularly about gender and sexuality. She published her first poetry collection, A Change of World, during her last year of college when she was just 22.
The collection, covering a wide range of topics – including gender, race, class, and the self and society – established the outspoken quality of Adrienne’s work from early on, and was quite progressive considering its release in 1951. The collection was selected by renowned poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.
After spending some time traveling and writing in Europe, Adrienne married a Harvard professor, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and had three sons with him. During this time, Adrienne published another collection of poems, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, which explored her female identity, as both a mother and a daughter, in the fifties. The collection, even more overtly feminist than her first one, expressed her frustration with the patriarchal structures which constrained her identity as a woman.
The collection, even more overtly feminist than her first one, expressed her frustration with the patriarchal structures which constrained her identity as a woman.
A few years later, Adrienne and her family moved to New York, where she became directly involved in anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism.
Then, in 1976, at 47 years old, Adrienne came out publicly as a lesbian, the same year that she began a relationship with editor and novelist Michelle Cliff, whom she stayed with for the rest of her life.
Around this time, Adrienne published Dream of a Common Language, the first of her works to explore her true sexual identity. During this time, she also wrote a number of key essays, perhaps the most famous being “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she coined the term “compulsory heterosexuality” which refers to the patriarchal pressures and norms which lead women to falsely identify with heterosexuality. This is a term which is still in wide use today, and its implications are radical even now.
It was around this time that Adrienne also began to explore her Jewish identity in her writing; exploring the intersectionality of her existence led her to create more nuanced meditations on feminism than in her earlier works.
Her essay, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity” which she wrote in 1982, explores her complex relationship with Judaism as someone with a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, and as a lesbian and a woman.
Adrienne continued her activism throughout her life, both in her writing and outside of it, continuing to participate in anti-war protests, LGBTQ+ activism, and feminism.
Adrienne continued her activism throughout her life, both in her writing and outside of it, continuing to participate in anti-war protests, LGBTQ+ activism, and feminism. She was extremely radical throughout. In 1997, she declined the National Medal of Arts in protest of the House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts.
In a review of Hilary Holladay’s biography about Adrienne, FF2 contributor Anne Graue says, “Rich’s stance on political and social realities changes over the course of a life devoted to poetry and its importance.” This hits the nail on the head. Though Adrienne’s understanding of her own identity changed throughout her life, and her political stances and activism changed with it, one thing remained the same throughout her life: her dedication to the power of poetry.
© Julia Lasker (1/15/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read more about Adrienne Rich here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, & Adrienne Rich in a workshop, 1980. (Photo by K. Kendall) licensed with CC BY 2.0. All Rights Reserved. https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/c66548b6-cb13-4230-800f-2194bf7940f1
Bottom Photo: “Adrienne Rich Memorial Utility Box” by J. Maughn is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/6cb74ac4-ce60-47f3-8428-0f445662f056