Adrienne Rich continues to be widely taught in classrooms and read for her unparalleled ability to master language, syntax, and substance. Through her writing, the iconic feminist poet and essayist explored questions of identity, privilege, and the complex ways in which oppressions intertwine that still resonate today.
Author Hilary Holladay has crafted the first comprehensive look at Rich’s life in her new tome, The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography. Holladay notably centers Rich’s experience as an artist, the identity Rich clung to most ardently, and offers a compelling consideration of the powers that worked on the poet herself, from the reaches of her father to her diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis in her early 20s.
I spoke with Holladay via phone in late October about Rich’s presence, intense love of learning, and her fragile relationship with privilege. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was an English professor, my focus was on modern and contemporary American writers… As much as I appreciate deep literary analysis, and there’s certainly analysis in my biography of Rich, I was always drawn to the lives of the writers. I was so fascinated by the twists and turns in their life stories.
I have a background in poetry. I thought, well, Adrienne Rich died in 2012, and then I just knew. I had heard her read a couple of times, once in Virginia, and once in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn’t know her. I wasn’t a groupie. I wasn’t extremely well versed in her work, but I thought, “There’s my noble, principled poet, and she’s a woman.” You know that feeling when things just click? It just clicked.
That’s interesting to say that you weren’t a groupie. It’s a funny thing, but I tend to put so many writers in different spaces, thinking that they have such different lives than me. Of course, you saw her read, but it’s still amazing to me.
It’s important to me that I did get to hear her read in person. The first time I heard her read was at the University of Virginia in the spring of 1998 at the Virginia Festival of the book. The organizing group had chosen a venue and thought it would be fine, and it was too small! There were so many people who wanted to hear her read that they had to move it to the big theater. It was so exciting. All those people. I remember just hustling over there to make sure I got a seat.
The second time I heard her read, I came down to Cambridge, and again, it was a big crowd, people pressed into this room with some people standing up in the back. She was a little but powerful figure. There she was at the front of this hall. She got going, and then, all of sudden, the room went dark. Somebody in the back had bumped the light switch, so it went completely dark. She shot a laser look to the people in the very back, and it just took that look alone to make the lights come back on. Then she resumed. Even though I wasn’t sitting in the back, I felt this terror of the look as it jetted behind me.
That powerful presence definitely felt like a theme throughout her life. Can you speak to her ability to change and the ways that she shifts from her early years, when she’s loving marriage and thinking that’s what an ideal life is for a woman, before shifting to her staunchly feminist days?
One of the keys to understanding Adrienne Rich is to know how much she truly loved learning. I’ve never beheld someone dead or alive who loved to learn more than Adrienne Rich. That motivated everything she did. As she grew up, she had this powerful teacher and scourge in her life, and his name was Dr. Arnold Rich, her father. He loved learning as much as she did. She had a truly natural gift for writing, especially poetry. She also had in him someone who wanted her to be the very best poet on the planet. They worked in tandem to accomplish that goal as long as they were able to get along. When there was finally a rift between them when she was still a young woman, then she had to go it alone, essentially.
However, that rift occurred right when she got married, so she went from being under the thumb of her father to then being in what was a mostly traditional marriage with Alfred Conrad, an economist. Even though there were times when she loved marriage, there was always a conflict within her as to whether she was fulfilling her potential to be who she was, to be Adrienne Rich. As she grew older and as the marriage got more difficult, she started to move toward a new understanding of the person she wanted to be.
Feminism was coming along at the same time. She took the unusual step of leaving her husband and saying, “I’m not saying I want to get divorced. I just need some time and space.” He committed suicide not long after that. Then there she was in grief, in extraordinary pain, while also thinking, “Who am I? Who do I want to be? What was I put on this planet for?” There’s a mind that never stops turning. That continued for the rest of her career. The mind was so hungry and so eager and so ultimately hopeful that that kept her going through physical pain, from her rheumatoid arthritis, through conflicts within the women’s movement, and through the struggles that most of us have at least some of the time in personal relationships.
You write that she “comes out” as an activist, and I’m wondering why you frame activist in the same way as when you say she came out as a lesbian.
She came out early in her life as a poet, and she kept coming out as a different type of poet over the course of her career. As important as it is to look at her other identities, for her, being a poet was always at the center. When she came out as someone who was going to speak openly about feminist politics or environmental politics or whatever it might be, it was never that far from her core self as a poet. She did not have a split self. It was always about the art for her.
She came out as a poet. She came out as a woman, which might sound strange to the two of us but when you operated in a world of male poets, it’s a really big deal. She came out as a feminist. She came out as a lesbian. Then she came out as a Jew.
All of it was inherently political. It took a lot of courage to announce herself in that way, but the courage was incidental to what she was really all about and that was about being an artist.
Her early success allowed her so much privilege. The way she handles that privilege throughout her life — it obviously evolves — but it’s a really interesting conversation in terms of her activism. She always loved Harvard, and she was okay accepting some awards and others she rejected. I’m wondering if you can offer some clarification or insight into how she navigated her privilege.
It was always a work in progress for her. She realized that she had been born into privilege, and then she realized that privilege was compromised from the beginning. When she began to contemplate her Jewishness, she realized that during WWII, it was just a matter of her being in the States and being essentially safe from the Holocaust that she was able to survive. She realized that privilege isn’t always as secure as it may seem. That it’s fragile. And permeable.
That fascinated me as I worked on the book because here was someone who went to Radcliffe, which was the women’s division of Harvard. She loved it but realized many of the professors and many of the male students don’t view the Radcliffe students as being equal to the young men at Harvard College. Even though she had that privilege, she realized that it came with an asterisk after it.
As for awards rejected and for awards received, that was Rich using her platform to make important statements. Sometimes those statements resonated, and people thought, “well, she’s exactly right.” Other times, it made her come off as ungrateful, and I think it cost her some big awards because people probably were afraid that she would turn them down.
She chose to live with Michelle Cliff — Michelle was her life partner for her last 30 plus years — and Michelle was Jamaican, light-skinned, and identified as a woman of color. Rich would sometimes refer to Michelle as Black and considered that that was an important difference in their perceptions of the world.
With her voracious desire for understanding, insight, and knowledge, the question of privilege was one that she grappled with her whole life. I don’t know that she ever totally figured it out, but I don’t think that anyone else has either.
Rich was writing about her own experiences for many years. We’re still, in terms of politics, trying to figure out how we value experience, which is in some ways disheartening because it hasn’t evolved that much. But I think we can learn a lot from people like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich and people who have done this work.
We have to keep trying. They took us as far as they could in their lifetimes. They were building on the women and men coming along with them and before them. We have to pick up that baton because things are different now. They’re very different now in 2020 than they were in 2012 when Rich died. She always wanted to look to the future and had a certain prescience about her. She was very worried about the country during the Clinton years, for instance, and didn’t feel like things were going wonderfully well for the U.S. at that time. She was not just a predictable Democrat by any means. There’s something to be said for that, to always have your eyes open and to be looking behind you, around you, and ahead of you.
We can imagine the future we want, and I’m channeling Rich, then we have to figure out how to make the tools or acquire the tools to get there. It’s not just a pipe dream. “I want a better world. I want a better world where there’s true equality.” We’ve been saying that forever, but how do we do it? For her, it was through art and through her platform where she could move people who had different skills and strengths from hers to do things that she couldn’t do and really didn’t want to. She wanted to write her poems and essays. Art is a tool. It can be a sharp tool. It can be a subtle tool. She had both of those in her toolkit.
In the book, you say that she wrestled with the idea of someone else shaping her life. How did that bit of knowledge inform how you told her story?
I probably had been working on the research no more than a year, probably less. I was asleep at home, and all of a sudden, I woke up. I sensed this presence crouched in the corner of my bedroom. The presence was lifting her arm and her index finger and speaking and exhorting me and scolding me. I knew who it was, and I was terrified. I got up out of bed, and my heart was pounding. I walked out of my bedroom, and I paced around until I was fully awake. I just felt like maybe she wasn’t on board with the project. (Laughs) But I just felt like she’s too important. That’s what I always came back to. She’s too important, and I’m afraid that people will lose sight of her.
As the times evolved with the political problems that have been emerging over the course of my writing about her, the biography of Adrienne Rich took on real urgency. It goes back to her being a poet. That she would have wanted the art to be the messenger for her, the sole messenger for her. But poets need a hand, no matter who they are. The biographer’s hand helps introduce people to a poet who may need some explaining even eight or ten years after her death so that people can appreciate her.
Some knowledge of a poet’s life can be extremely valuable. There are some poems you can read without knowing even the name of the poet, and you’ll think, “oh wow. That’s beautiful, or that’s moving.” But more often than not, just a few little pieces can open it up so that then you really grasp it. It’s a form of communication between you and the poem but with some sort of ghost figure of the poet behind it.
Then things really clicked and for me. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to get her freshly out into the world to younger readers, to all sorts of readers and thinkers and creative people and people who don’t have time to write poetry but maybe have time to read it. People who need her! And didn’t know they needed Adrienne Rich. People who might want to quarrel with her and didn’t know they needed to quarrel with her. They’ll grow from those quarrels.
The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography
By Hilary Holladay
Nan A. Talese
Published November 17th, 2020
Grace Ebert is a Chicago-based writer and editor. Her most recent work is with Colossal. Find more at graceebert.com.