Coming of age in the 1990s, three 20th century poets loomed over my reading life: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich. Of the three, two of those women committed suicide. The survivor was Adrienne Rich. It’s been noted by a certain book critic that Rich was commonly perceived of as a scold. That wasn’t the perspective I had when I read “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” in my Norton Anthology of Literature at my conservative, Catholic all-girls high school. And it wasn’t the conventional wisdom of my straight white male freshman English professor who assigned Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken—Writing as Re-Vision” in the fall of 1996. My introduction to Rich was not smeared by misogyny or homophobia.
However, Rich didn’t linger in my imagination quite the way that Sexton and Plath did. They were mythic women, too brilliant and troubled for this world. Rich wasn’t contained by biography or curated by an estate. Still living, she wasn’t defined by a tragic death. Instead, she was a steady vocal presence speaking out against the Clinton administration while also championing young poets. She continued to give readings and had a prodigious output of essays and poetry collections well into the 21st century. It was only later in life that I could mentally place these women side by side on my bookshelves as contemporaries. The late legends felt altogether cut off from the living.
While I loved the imagery and dark passion that all three women shared, it was Rich’s poetry and prose, informed by activism as much as intellect, that took root in me. She became for me a touchstone as a writer and a compassionate citizen. All three writers unlocked the bitter mysteries of womanhood through an interrogation of fairy tales and history, but with pride and exuberance, Rich’s ongoing work modeled a means to transcend the ongoing challenges of patriarchal oppression. All were wildly influential, but not all were held with the same esteem by general readers or critics.
Over the years, I read countless biographies of Sexton and Plath along with their poetry. I even wrote about the posthumous publication of Plath’s work and the varied interpretations of “discovery” applied to women writers of the 20th century. Yet, for all this talk of revision and reclaiming, publishing and popular literary criticism tends to situate its gaze on dead women over the living. Just this past winter, I wondered why no one had written a formal biography of Adrienne Rich.
Consequently, it was with great surprise and excitement that I read Hilary Holladay’s terrific biography, The Power of Adrienne Rich. Surveying her long life, this is an overdue book that demystifies not only its subject but also the evolution of American women in the 20th century. Rich survived an overbearing and self-loathing father, deeply suppressed mother, and her husband’s suicide to reimagine herself as a proud lesbian Jewish mother—all the while remaining true to her mind and heart as a writer. It’s been eight years since Rich’s death, but reading this biography, you wonder why no one else tackled her fascinating and tumultuous life before now.
Holladay is both a journalist and an academic who focused on 20th century American literature at University of North Carolina, so she seems somewhat primed to become a biographer. Teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, inspired Holladay to take a deeper look at the Beat generation. American Hipster, her acclaimed biography of the Beat writer and hustler Herbert Huncke, was published in 2013. In conversation with the Observer, Holladay discussed how she moved from Huncke to Rich.
“I was just done with crooks and I wanted to write about someone who was really principled. This was in 2014. After I considered various possibilities, it came to me that Rich had died in 2012. And so I thought, ‘There’s my person.’ I love her poetry. I had heard her read a couple of times. However, I didn’t know her personally; I was not in the groupie camp.” Holladay’s first exposure to Rich was as college freshman when she read Diving into the Wreck, which she found “beautiful and mysterious and life altering.” Engaged but not entangled, Holladay began to make research trips to Cambridge where Rich’s papers are kept at Harvard as well as to the New York Public Library among other libraries. Beyond that, she interviewed over 100 people for the project, several of whom (such as the poet Donald Hall) have died since their conversations.
Given that Rich had such a long life, it was a challenge for Holladay to gather stories from peers. Beyond that, Rich’s life involved so many different circles. There was her tony upbringing in Baltimore. There she attended Roland Park Country School, an elite girl’s high school, after years of being tutored at home by her parents who drilled into her calling as an important writer. Her years at Radcliffe were marked by remarkable peers and professors. She won the Yale Younger Poets prize and published her first collection, A Change of World, during her Junior year. After graduation, Rich received a Guggenheim fellowship to study at Oxford, but not before ending her first engagement. Later she married Alfred Conrad, an economist, with whom she moved to New York City where both taught at City College. Together, they had three children and threw themselves into the civil rights movement as activists. Over time, Rich also became part of the women’s liberation movement which prompted her to reevaluate her domestic life.
In 1970, shortly after securing her own apartment away from her husband and children, Conrad drove to Vermont where they shared a family home and killed himself. In the years that followed, Rich continued to fight for equality and justice for others while ceaselessly exploring notions of identity. She met her partner of 36 years, the Jamaican born novelist Michele Cliff (No Telephone to Heaven, Abeng) in 1976, the same year that she published her nonfiction work On Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Beyond her work in poetic work toward a new language or awareness critical for equality, one of Rich’s great contributions to the feminist movement was her declaration that motherhood had radicalized her. Throughout the years, Rich collaborated with fellow poets, and as she grew older, those circles changed to reflect her growing awareness of politics, power and art beyond a male dominated sphere. Poets such as Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, May Sarton, June Jordan and Audre Lorde were intimate friends. As she grew older, friendships ebbed and flowed. She was a self-professed “pessimistic optimist” whom Holladay writes was “Hard on the world and on herself. [Rich] always believed that she could do better, that everyone could. Nothing engaged her more than her interwoven pursuits of knowledge and involvement.”
For five years, as Holladay researched and interviewed, she never flagged in her attention to Rich. “Every minute I spent on her was a minute well spent because my attention and interest in her never flagged. I always felt, here was someone who was so intelligent, that I would learn something from her or from the people around her every single time I put my mind to it.”
Perhaps a comprehensive portrait of Rich could only be written now. For too long, complicated, challenging women were dismissed as being too much—as though poetry, serious nonfiction, and activism was too great a juggling act—to add up to anything. Critics like Helen Vendler accused Rich weakening her work by bringing politics and personal history into her poetry. It could be asked instead who is served by apolitical, dispassionate poetry? During a time when we most need inspired, innovative leadership, why not look to poets and artists without emotional or historical constraints?
Holladay expands on her admiration for Rich’s principles, saying, “What I truly admire about her is that here we have someone who is a brilliant, strong exception to the rule of the mad poet committing suicide. You can be sane and a brilliant, successful poet. Look at what someone can do—who’s had rheumatoid arthritis for the better part of her adult life, look at those achievements, look at the courage of her coming out again and again. She essentially had to come out as a woman because she had been embraced by a male literary culture. She was writing in a male persona until she realized she didn’t have to do that. She didn’t want to do it. She came out as a woman, a feminist, a lesbian and Jewish.”
It’s easier for critics to celebrate a dead female poet than one who survived the 1950s and the subsequent social movements that followed. Holladay writes, “Rich was too curious about the world, and the next day, to ever kill herself. No matter how angry and depressed she felt, she would push forward with extraordinary determination and resolve. She would find a powerful new direction for her life, first in the civil rights movement and the in the emerging women’s liberation movement. Plath was the author of the iconic poem that has raised goosebumps on many an arm, but it was Rich who rightly could be called ‘Lady Lazarus.’ She was the real ‘walking miracle’ who emerged from the ashes of the 1950s determined to survive, thrive, and—if need be—‘eat men like air.’”
Holladay’s biography in no way attempts to rank the great poets of the 20th century. What is so remarkable about this book is the way that Holladay recognizes Rich’s power as it evolved over time. First, that power was Rich’s intellect and artistry—the power of literary promise followed by achievement after achievement. Yet, at all times, her desire for survival was also her source of power. Not only did she survive her oppressive childhood, but she also survived her role as the token female poet and the patriarchal trappings of her early career as well as the violent death of her husband. Rich saw to it that she would not allow herself or others to define her by trauma.
Holladay says, “Trauma is not the end of the story, right? Too often, trauma is the beginning of the story. Rich was so involved in thinking about violence and its impact on communities. Not only did she write about it, she collaborated with other women to think about how it communities function. She did as much as she could to bring women of other races and ethnicities into the global community of poetry and to make sure that they were heard and read. At the peak of her fame and prominence as the lesbian feminist, she did so much for writers of both male and female writers. She wanted a big table, a big tent.”
Tracking the arc of women’s liberation and ongoing social justice movements through the life of Adrienne Rich, one finds a source of great hope. Rich herself believed in “serious joy” and found greater faith in the future than the past. Her relentless curiosity forged within her an optimism that makes pessimism in any person seem jejune. As much as ever, Adrienne Rich remains a vital poet and activist whose life embodies hope for a more expansive and inclusive freedom for all. This biography is a grounding, encouraging call to arms for during these introspective, too often alienating days.