Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012) was an influential American poet, essayist, and prose writer. Rich’s self-reflexive poetry and prose are unrelenting and prolific, exhibiting themes that can be traced across the timeline of her life’s work. Her contributions to what Elaine Showalter called the “female” phase of feminism, as well as the burgeoning field of gender studies, left a profound impact on not just a literary canon, but on the psyche of readers who deeply connect to her vivid poetry and analytical prose. Through its themes and moods, her work reflects a woman who evolved over time: she sharply questioned what existed in women’s lives, often questioning her own assumptions and opinions through her poetry. The effect of Rich’s evolution from the beginning of her writing career in the 1950s to her death in 2012 informed her poetic praxis; her poetry is consistent in its reflection of a woman ever committed to redefining herself in ways that were truer, less polluted, and more accurate. As such, it reflects the element of change, reflecting a coadjuvant relationship with cultural phenomena: Rich often wrote in response to culture and its effects. These writings helped shape the field of feminist theory and left their mark on American literature. Over the span of her nearly 70-year career, Rich published twenty-four collections of her own poetry and wrote numerous prose collection, including several influential essays that helped shape the fields of feminist scholarship, gender studies, and sexuality studies.
In 1951, her first poetry collection, A Change of World, was selected by W. H. Auden to receive the Yale Younger Poets Award. Rich’s earliest poems reveal few traces of the radical feminist she was to become in her later years, but the events of her life following the publication of A Change of World were to shape her identity in ways that would be reflected in her poems. By the time her third collection Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law was published in 1963, her progressive politics and feminist leanings were beginning to be revealed through her poetry. By the mid-1960s, Rich had become involved in progressive social issues such as protesting the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and feminist activism. By the end of the decade, Rich separated from her husband and began identifying as lesbian. Her poems chart her transformation, and the themes of rebirth and revision figure prominently in her works. Her 1973 collection Diving Into the Wreck persists as one of her most well-known pieces, its title poem an extended metaphor that examines female existence in a patriarchal world, and depicts the reclamation of self through a journey into the unconscious mind.
Throughout her career, her poems and prose works won her numerous awards and honors. Significantly, Diving Into the Wreck was awarded the National Book Award, a distinction she split with Allen Ginsburg in 1974. In a characteristic show of solidarity with all women, Rich declined to accept the award individually, but accepted it with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all women "whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world." Years later, in 1993, she again used a distinguished honor as an opportunity for political activism. When she was selected for the National Medal of the Arts, she refused the prestigious award to protest the defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts by the House of Representatives.
Rich’s belief in the importance of the art is also a common theme in her poetry. In her poem “Origins and History of Consciousness,” Rich writes of “the true nature of poetry. The drive/to connect. The dream of a common language” (ll. 11-12). Similarly, her other works contain symbolic calls for unity and connection, particularly among women. Always political, deeply individual, and deeply compelling, her prose works addresses issues of sexuality, motherhood, contemporary culture, and radical feminism. The best known of these is her 1980 essay "Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" from her prose collection, Blood, Bread, and Poetry (1980). In it, Rich argues for a more expansive view of women’s sexuality and increased lesbian visibility, while seeking to undermine the notion of female heterosexuality as normal, required, and obligatory.
Rich’s career was long and prolific, and she wrote and published nearly right up until her death in 2012. Through her writing, she continually challenged cultural perceptions of the self, of gender, and of sexuality, as well as her own beliefs and assumptions. Her poetry and prose works serve as important parts of the feminist canon, and her activism has earned her the distinction of one of the most prominent feminists and LGBT activists of the later-20th century.