On May 16, 1929, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1951, and was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for A Change of World that same year.
In 1953, she married Harvard University economist Alfred H. Conrad. Two years later, she published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, of which Randall Jarrell wrote: "The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale."
But the image of the fairytale princess would not be long-lived. After having three sons before the age of thirty, Rich gradually changed both her life and her poetry. Throughout the 1960s she wrote several collections, including Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Leaflets (1969). The content of her work became increasingly confrontational—exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam war. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse. In 1970, Rich left her husband, who committed suicide later that year.
It was in 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress that Rich wrote Diving into the Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974. Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde.
Since then, Rich has published numerous collections, including Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010); Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006 (2006); The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 (2004), which won the Book Critics Circle Award; Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (2001), Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (1999); Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (1995); Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (1993); An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (1991), a finalist for the National Book Award; Time's Power: Poems 1985-1988 (1989); The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984 (1984); and The Dream of a Common Language (1978).
Rich is also the author of several books of nonfiction prose, including Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (W. W. Norton, 2001), What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993) and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986).
About Rich's work, the poet W.S. Merwin has said, "All her life she 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, and a MacArthur Fellowship; she is also a former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that "I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration." She went on to say: "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
The same year, Rich was awarded the Academy's Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of 82.
Want more poetry? Sign up for our free Poem-A-Day email.