The Power of Adrienne Rich by Hilary Holladay

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I wanted to read the biography of the famous poet and feminist because I know so little about this person whose name is so familiar. I am left thinking I learned about her personal life, but do not have a grasp of her influence.

Adrienne’s father was determined to make her a successful and well-educated person; she turned her attention to writing poetry and in her third year at Radcliffe her first book of poetry was published. Though she was at Radcliffe, it was the men who taught at Harvard she wanted to emulate. The author says although she later wanted her readers to know she had read women poets like Elizabeth Bishop,  “Before the 1960s her chief role models were the male poets she considered true masters of the form.”

As a young woman, she saw herself as the wife of a faculty member, supporting her husband in that world, and raising children. By the time she became pregnant with her third child, she was feeling overwhelmed by the work of caring for small children and the social life in the late 1950s of a faculty wife. She knew she had to remake her own life. She was friends with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick and had a fling with Lowell; despite her time-consuming family life, she moved in rarified circles, both through her work as a poet and socially.

In the upheavals of the late 1960s, she and her husband were in New York where they both taught and were a part of those changing times. Adrienne joined in the sexual revolution, telling friends of having slept with this man or that one. Several years later both she and her husband had mental health issues and Alfred Conrad killed himself. She turned to the therapist Lily Engler for help, and by 1974 they had become lovers, her first lesbian love. A few years after recovering from the end of this affair, she began the relationship with Michelle Cliff which continued to the end of her life.

The review of Of Woman Born in The New York Review of Books written by Helen Vendler pointed out that “Rich had a habitual way of looking back at her experiences in life with an angry severity she did not express at the time.” The author says of Rich, “In retrospect things typically grew much darker, even her greatest literary triumphs became the trappings of a token whose early acclaim felt given, not earned.” This was disconcerting to friends who thought she was happy and doing what she wanted.

She became a radical lesbian feminist. The author says, “She saw women’s culture, especially lesbian culture as a potentially utopian world in itself, not a subset of something else….she thought lesbianism needed to be understood as the center of women’s culture not something running parallel to heterosexuality or gay male sexuality.”

In the mid-70s she spoke at an event to honor of the new women’s center at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. According to the report in the local paper, she said women in higher eduction are “not merely asking for ‘rooms of their own’ in the patriarchal mansion, but rather creating what they need and building anew. Acknowledging the powerful and vicious forces against us, Miss Rich explained that feminism is not about women becoming equal in the existing society, but about the destruction of male privilege out of which will arise new ways to live, work and relate.” In another speech when a male audience member asked a question, she said she did not take questions from men.

The author says that a very hierarchical person lurked inside Rich; while she had an anti-hierarchical mask, her hierarchical person could come out. Just because she spoke out for equal rights didn’t mean she wanted to cede her power and authority even to someone she loved and respected.

In later years she turned more toward issues of race when she wrote that white feminists centered their own concern over those of black feminists. She observed a parallel of her recent past with Ronald Reagan’s politics. She asked, “Is there a connection between this state of mind, the Cold War mentality, the attribution of all our problems to an external enemy, and a form of feminism so focused on male evil and female victimization that it too allows for no differences among women, men, places, times, cultures, conditions, classes, movements? Living in the climate of an enormous either/or, we absorb some of it unless we actively take heed.” A very good question.

A clear message of the book is that Rich had many unappealing traits, making it hard to assess her influence on societal views of women. Although she was an effective and active speaker, her message seems harsh and not persuasive to me.  An assessment of how her poetry affected society is a separate matter, one I am ill-equipped to speculate on. I don’t want to end without noting Rich’s incredible will and determination. She was afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis at age 22 and despite suffering from it, she was impressively active. She maintained a surprisingly optimistic view of the future.

Hilary Holladay, The Power of Adrienne Rich, Doubleday, 2020, 478 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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