Literary and Critical Theory Adrienne Rich
Carmen Birkle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0075


Adrienne Cecile Rich (b. 16 May 1929 in Baltimore, MD; d. 27 March 2012 in Santa Cruz, CA) is one of the best-known feminist poets, essayists, and activists from the 1950s onward into the 21st century. She published about twenty-six volumes of poetry, six collections of essays, and quite a number of individual essays in numerous journals or as single volumes. She gave hundreds of interviews, and the scholarly studies on her work are too numerous to be counted. In most of her poems and essays, Rich focused on her own and, thus, a woman’s relationship to a world that she described as patriarchal, with predetermined and fixed gender roles that made being a successful poet, having a family, and being a mother and wife incompatible—an experience depicted in “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971). This self-exploration and yearning to understand how she herself might fit into a male-dominated world shaped Rich’s poetry and prose, accompanied by a strong sense of social criticism. She received a number of prestigious awards, prizes, and fellowships, among them the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1950, for her first collection of poems, A Change of World (1951); a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952); the National Book Award for Poetry (1974); honorary doctorates from Smith College (1979) and Harvard University (1989); several lifetime achievement awards; the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2006); and many more. In the late 1960s, she joined Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde on the faculty of the City College of New York and, thus, took her first steps into the African American and, to some extent, lesbian community. The year 1970 was a turning point in her life and career, with the divorce from her husband and his subsequent suicide and the publication of poetry that inaugurated her rise as a leading feminist figure. In the course of the 1970s, she came out as a lesbian (see “It Is the Lesbian in US . . .” [1976], The Dream of a Common Language [1978], and “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” [1980]) and turned to political activism. Her long essay Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) has become her most frequently discussed work, in which she distinguishes between motherhood as a personal experience and motherhood as an institution that controls women. To being a woman, a mother, a writer, and a lesbian, she later added her concerns about her own Jewishness. In the 1980s, her poetry and prose became manifestations of her own physical pain and remained true to her idea of the “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1978). For Rich, the feminist slogan “the personal is the political” was always true. After 2000 she participated in antiwar movements and continued to write poetry and prose. From 1976 until her death in 2012, she lived with her partner, the Jamaican-born writer and editor Michelle Cliff, in California.

General Overviews

Most monographs on Adrienne Rich do not distinguish between her life and her work, thereby remaining true to Rich’s own endeavor to make the private public and to express her personal experience in her poems, essays, and activism. The earliest book-length studies on Rich appeared in the 1970s, with McDaniel 1978, a feminist analysis of Rich’s poetry and vision, looking back at Rich’s poetry and essay collections published until then. In the 1980s, with Keyes 1986, Díaz-Diocaretz 1984, and Díaz-Diocaretz 1985, she began to be seen as a woman writer with a feminist voice, in reference to the language she used and to a female aesthetics. Werner 1988 considers Rich in relationship to her critics. While the late 1980s and the 1990s saw the publication of a number of comparative studies, with the exception of Templeton 1994, providing a feminist analysis, and Yorke 1997, an analysis of Rich’s contribution to feminism, the new millennium brought forth more overviews such as Langdell 2004, which covers Rich’s entire career until 2004, with an emphasis on Rich’s struggle for change and self-transformation, and Riley 2016, which serves as the first full-length study of Rich’s life and work from 1951 until her death.

  • Díaz-Diocaretz, Miriam. The Transforming Power of Language: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Utrecht, The Netherlands: HES, 1984.

    Provides a short (75-page) analysis in three essays of the language used by Adrienne Rich in her poetry, and focuses on the communicative function of poetry. The author applies Michel Foucault’s theory of authorship as well as Julia Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality.

  • Díaz-Diocaretz, Miriam. Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions on Feminist Strategies in Adrienne Rich. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1075/ct.2

    The author is concerned with the translations of Rich’s work into Spanish and about the ways the transfer of a text from one language to another can change its meaning. Here, the translator becomes a second author of the text. Lesbian and feminist texts are a particular challenge if they are to be translated into the language of a culture that locates these texts on the margins of society.

  • Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

    Keyes traces Rich’s awareness of power and its patriarchal constructedness in her chronological reading of Rich’s poetry from 1951 to 1981, beginning with A Change of World (1951), and ending with A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981). This feminist study sees Rich as a political poet, power as connected to control, and the woman as Other who needs to understand her own power in order to leave this marginalized position.

  • Langdell, Cheri Colby. Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

    Langdell sets out to trace Rich’s recording of the public voice in her poetry. She is concerned with the author’s self-fashioning, her concepts of nationhood, and the female body in relation to its power and sexuality. She sees change and self-transformation as two of the most important themes in Rich’s writing. Further themes are female roles and womanhood, Rich’s rejection of traditional gender roles, and the use of will and creative intelligence to accomplish global change through political action.

  • McDaniel, Judith. Reconstituting the World: The Poetry and Vision of Adrienne Rich. Argyle, NY: Spinsters, 1978.

    This is one of the earliest full-length and feminist studies of Rich’s poetry and the vision expressed in her earliest works. It traces Rich’s poetic development from her early phase, during which she still seemed to accept traditional female roles, or at least did not openly criticize them, to her later phases, when she began to protest against stifling role prescriptions and came out both as a lesbian and a feminist.

  • Riley, Jeannette E. Understanding Adrienne Rich. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv6sj9dg

    Riley draws on decades of research evolving around Rich in an attempt to create a genuine understanding of her work. She divides Rich’s career into three major phases: 1951–1971, 1973–1985, and 1986 until her death in 2012. In the early phase, Rich struggles to find her own (feminist) voice. In the later phases, she focuses on women’s history, repression under patriarchy, and sexuality and politics. Riley also analyzes Rich’s growing political and cultural awareness.

  • Shima, Alan. Skirting the Subject: Pursuing Language in the Works of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, and Beverly Dahlen. Uppsala, Sweden: University of Uppsala, 1993.

    Inspired by Rich’s essay “‘When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971), Shima compiles a detailed study of a changing women’s language, which reflects the efforts put into practice by the three female authors Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, and Beverly Dahlen to change the discourse in order to better reflect female experience. He connects the authors through their common desire to offer new ways of shaping female identity and invoking change in the symbolic discourse.

  • Templeton, Alice. The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

    Templeton discusses how Adrienne Rich was shaped by feminism, and influenced feminist discourse, through her poetry. She unravels the poetic strategies Rich uses to test her feminist ideas and focuses on “dialogic moments” that facilitate the poet’s and the reader’s cultural participation. The collection Diving into the Wreck (1973) is at the center of this scholarly endeavor.

  • Werner, Craig Hansen. Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1988.

    This study is organized by themes and places Rich in the context of American poetry, particularly in the legacy of Walt Whitman. Werner applies close and formalist readings to Rich’s poetry and analyzes the prosody of the occasional poem. He deals with poetry and process, patriarchy and solipsism, the lesbian vision, and the radical voice, and uses Elaine Showalter’s concept of the “Wild Zone” as an exclusively female space of experience that Rich transforms into poetry.

  • Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics and the Body. London: SAGE, 1997.

    Yorke puts special emphasis on Rich’s struggle to overcome strict cultural norms, such as the often glorified nuclear family, and calls for an extension of the personal experience toward a collective experience. She traces Rich’s feminist beginnings and her historical and cultural contexts and sets them in relation to the larger women’s movement. She explains how Rich worked hard on bridging the gap between white and black female activists and on fighting anti-Semitism.

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