‘The Power of Adrienne Rich’ Captures a Forceful and Complicated Poet

Long before I read her, I disliked Adrienne Rich. It was received opinion. When I was in high school, the people I respected (English teachers, good ones, and fellow bookstore employees, male and female), rolled their eyes at the mention of her name.

She was a radical lesbian separatist who didn’t allow men into her readings and would not respond to their questions. She was, it was thought, a humorless scold. Worse, Rich was perceived to have bent her sensitive talent on a political wheel. When Susan Sontag cracked her on the snout in an exchange of views in The New York Review of Books in 1975, referring to her “anti-intellectualism,” it was catnip for what would become my crowd.

It took me two decades to push past this and to read Rich on my own. I located the diamantine intensities in so many of her poems, which are as vital and influential in their way as Sylvia Plath’s or Elizabeth Bishop’s. I began to appreciate, rather late, why her work of the 1970s and 1980s was essential to second-wave feminists and so many others.

Eight years after Rich’s death, at 82, comes Hilary Holladay’s “The Power of Adrienne Rich,” which allows us to meet this prickly poet fresh and entire. It’s the first proper biography of her, and there’s a lot to unpack. This is a good story well-told.

Rich was a child prodigy. She played Mozart on the piano and dictated stories by the age of 4. Her father, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, sensed his daughter’s genius. He tightly controlled her education and ruthlessly urged her to work harder and better. Mostly she enjoyed this urging; she was an apt pupil. By the time Rich was in high school, others saw her intelligence and high seriousness and were a bit terrified of her.

While she was still at Radcliffe College — she was, with Ursula K. Le Guin and Rona Jaffe, in the class of 1951 — Rich’s first collection of poems, “A Change of World,” was selected by W. H. Auden and published in the Yale Younger Poets series. Rich would become known for the intensity of her public readings, and already she drew crowds.

One man who wasn’t impressed was John Simon, who would become famous as a sclerotic and blazingly chauvinistic, even by the dictates of his time, literary and film critic. About a reading Rich gave at Harvard in 1952, he commented: “To appreciate it fully, one would need the combined attributes of a Homer and a Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness.” It’s almost a running gag in this biography, watching Simon pop up at various points to take aim at Rich with his pea shooter.

Rich was not born a rebel. She wore heels and stockings to her classes at Radcliffe, while other women wore more sensible shoes, and wanted to marry young and have children. She got engaged to a serious young Harvard man who wore a coat and tie every day. When she broke off the engagement, he was shattered and began developing the mental illness that plagued him for life. The loss of Rich’s affection could apparently be devastating. When years later she announced she was leaving her husband, the economist Alfred H. Conrad, and their three young sons, Conrad drove to Vermont and committed suicide near the family’s summer house.

She’d met Conrad before she left for Oxford, where she went to study and write. There she fell in with a crowd that included the poets Donald Hall and Geoffrey Hill. She began publishing poems in The New Yorker, rare for someone in their 20s, while there. The magazine gave her a first-reading agreement and paid her an annual stipend.

The couple married in 1953 and moved to New York City, where Conrad taught economics at City University and Rich wrote and taught at several schools. As the 1950s became the 1960s, both became increasingly political. Rich had been plagued by rheumatoid arthritis since her 20s, and she could not march in the streets. Conrad did enough of that for both of them.

Rich’s political awakening became a feminist one. She began to see her father as a tyrannical patriarch, for good and ill. She saw how Harvard shunted women off to the side at Radcliffe. She sensed she was a token female in the largely male poetry world. The oink of male chauvinism, she found, was impossible to evade.

Her husband traveled a good deal and their marriage frayed. Holladay’s biography builds, in many ways, toward a scene in 1970 in which Rich declares, to her husband and friends, including the poet Hayden Carruth, that she “planned to give away her pots and pans and do a lot less cooking.” It was the first step into a new life.

Rich’s first real relationship with a woman was with her older, imposing analyst, Lilly Engler. (Engler had slept with Sontag, as would Rich.) Rich’s time with Engler informed the poems that would announce her coming out as a lesbian, collected in “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978). The eroticism in these poems was radical for the time; Rich wrote of strong tongues and “my rose-wet cave.”

Rich’s sexuality was forceful and complicated. She and Conrad, for a time, had an open marriage. Rich slept with Robert Lowell, among others. Later she would have an affair with the poet June Jordan. (Rich paid for Jordan to see a therapist after she left her.) Her friend Audre Lorde attempted to seduce her — Rich preferred to remain friends. Rich met the woman with whom she would spend the final decades of her life, the Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff, in 1976. At the time Cliff was a copy editor at Norton, Rich’s publisher, working on one of Rich’s books.

There is so much in this book that can only be hinted at in a review of this length. How Louise Glück, the new Nobel laureate, was no admirer of Rich’s teaching practices at Columbia University when Glück was a student there. (Rich’s remarks on her student’s poems were often limited to a comment like, “I don’t dig it.”) How Anthony Burgess sublet Rich’s New York apartment, tore it up, then wrote a novel that satirized its feminist contents. The rave review from Margaret Atwood of Rich’s masterly collection “Diving into the Wreck,” on the front page of The New York Times Book Review in 1973, which pushed Rich’s career into orbit.

Helen Vendler and Francine du Plessix Gray were among the writers who took issue with aspects of Rich’s essays and poetry. If Holladay’s solid biography has a weak spot, it’s that she makes it difficult for anyone to criticize Rich’s work, for any reason whatsoever, and not be thought complicit in the grinding machinery of misogyny.

Holladay, whose previous books include a biography of the Beat writer Herbert Huncke, is a sensitive reader of Rich’s poetry. She also explicates Rich’s windswept moods. She could be imperious and ungrateful. She dropped friends easily and often. She was, as the critic Elaine Showalter comments, “not the sort of person you’d cozy up to.”

Late in her life, Rich became interested in her Jewishness, conversations about which her father had suppressed. Her family name had long before been changed from Reich to Rich. In one essay she would recall watching newsreels of the concentration camps when young and thinking, “Are those men and women ‘them’ or ‘us’?”

A writer is both field and farmer. With Rich, each half is worth confronting.

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