American Literature Adrienne Rich
Cheryl Colby Langdell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0034


One of the founders of what we now call “women’s studies,” major American feminist poet Adrienne Cecile Rich was singular in the originality of her voice and in the impact she has had politically and culturally on America and the world. Born on 16 May 1929 to a Jewish father, a medical professor at Johns Hopkins University, and gentile mother, she was taught by her father “as a son” to study and write poetry. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book of poetry, only to become a leading advocate for women’s rights and a feminist-lesbian icon. She was a frequent contributor to the national dialogue on the arts, culture, homosexuality, and feminist theory. Traveling what the Yale Symposium on Rich called “the path of ubiquity,” Rich burst out of the confines of formalism early on and “began dating her poems—the initial step toward insisting that her work be read as a confluence of history and personal vision.” Later, she transformed herself into an outspoken activist for lesbian rights, achieving a radical reshaping of her identity. Winning the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck in 1974, she accepted the award on behalf of all women, sharing it with runners-up Alice Walker and Audré Lorde. This and subsequent books mirror the concerns of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and of Rich’s own inner transformations. Her body of work is not just impressive but brilliant and original. Rich has published many collections of poetry, including Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2011), An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)—which was a finalist for the National Book Award—and The Dream of a Common Language (1978). Among her books of nonfiction are What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) and the famous Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986). Concerned with complete honesty and integrity in everything, in 1997 she refused the National Medal of Arts, writing that she could not accept the award from a corrupt administration. Former poet laureate W. S. Merwin described her passion for integrity best: “[S]he has been in love with the hope of telling utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been startlingly powerful.” Rich has received the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and she was a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 1997 Rich was awarded the American Academy’s Wallace Stevens Award “for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” Rich passed away on 28 March 2012.

General Overviews

Although she was a major American poet who had been publishing her work for more than sixty years, fewer books have been written on Rich’s poetry, theory, and oeuvre than one might expect. Much has been written about her poetry and literary criticism, but few comprehensive works have come out. An early work treating Rich’s poetry, along with that of a good many other women poets, is Bennett 1986. Diaz-Diocaretz 1985 is the first book dedicated entirely to Rich, but it is a more advanced, theoretical work on “translating [Rich’s] poetic discourse” and posing questions on the feminist strategies in her poetry. Keyes 1986 is another book-length study of Rich’s body of work. Werner 1988 gives competent coverage of her oeuvre up to 1988. Templeton 1994 concerns Rich’s poetic dialogue with the world seen from the perspective of feminist theory. Langdell 2004 is an ambitious feminist analysis of her entire oeuvre. Templeton 1994 and Langdell 2004 remain the best comprehensive overviews of her poetry, thought, and feminist theory, with Langdell 2004 studying the prose as well as her poetry. Two less comprehensive works in triptych format published in the 1980s and 1990s discuss her poetry in association with two other women writers, examining her work in a female continuum. Although not devoted solely to Rich’s poetry, Martin 1984 and Dickie 1997 each provides substantial coverage of and helpful insights into Rich’s verse—by feminist critics Wendy Martin and Margaret Dickie.

  • Bennett, Paula. My Life, A Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

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    Detailing a poetic progression from Emily Dickinson through Adrienne Rich, this study inspired a number of feminist critics to write on Rich’s poetry. This analysis of women poets’ literary creativity, along with Angela Ostriker’s Stealing the Language and Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic, put feminist literature and criticism on the map and ushered it into the literary canon.

  • Diaz-Diocaretz, Myriam. Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions on the Feminist Strategies of Adrienne Rich. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1985.

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    Early work on Rich’s feminist theory as it plays out in her poetry. As the title suggests, there may be more questions here than answers, but this is an interesting, thought-provoking theoretical book analyzing Rich’s poetry in the context of early contemporaries such as Wakoski, Giovanni, Plath, June Jordan, and Levertov.

  • Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Place. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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    Best of the triptych books on Rich, Dickie’s study is more critical of Rich’s borrowings from other poets even as she challenges critics who misread Rich’s poems and misunderstand the purposes of her work. Argues for Rich’s inclusion in the literary canon and affirms she is a major poet both in the mainstream literary tradition and in the female and lesbian continuums.

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

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    Comprehensive study covering all Rich’s poetry until 1985, identifying power and transformation as central themes. Keyes’s work is influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s and Sandra Gilbert’s feminist theory. Power is seen as the primary route to women’s recognition as men’s equals in everything. Less detailed analyses of the poetry.

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

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    Called by one critic an “ambitious” in-depth scholarly analysis of Rich’s entire oeuvre in the continuum of American poetry, Langdell covers the seismic shifts and changes in her poetry and Rich’s thoughtful essays on the discipline of women’s studies, hetero- and homosexuality, feminist theory, and the poetics of radical politics. Useful analyses of all her work for both the academic audience and general reader.

  • Martin, Wendy. American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

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    Along with Bennett’s, this is one of the first scholarly books that analyzes Rich’s poetry along with that of two other American women poets, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Deals with the origins of women’s studies as an academic field of study and the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, showing how these movements interlace and affect Rich’s poetry and feminist critical theory.

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

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    Theoretical work emphasizing Rich’s poetic dialogue between the self and the world seen from the perspective of feminist theory and focusing only on Rich’s poetry 1971–1993. Prevailing concept is that Rich’s mid-1970s dream of a common language might have become a reality for humankind through feminist hermeneutics, ethics, and poetics. For more advanced scholars.

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

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    Detailed overview of Rich’s work and critical reception through the mid-1980s. Critical perspective is reader-response, focusing on the first books as they form a foundation for Diving into the Wreck and her more mature poetry. A good source for those new to her poetry seeking in-depth discussions of the early poems from a neutral critical perspective.

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