‘The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography’
By Hilary Holladay
c.2020, Nan A. Talese
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” declared the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Many who love poetry believe this to be true.
Yet, few would argue that poets, apart from queer bards Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, are household names.
Except for Adrienne Rich. Rich, the lesbian poet and essayist who lived from 1929 to 2012, was as famous as a rock star. Her death was front page news. A queer icon, Rich was beloved by poetry aficionados and all who worked for justice. (Rich donated $1,000 to Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for social change.)
“I contain multitudes,” Whitman said.
Rich gave Whitman a run for his money. During her life, Rich, born in Baltimore, was many things: a poet, scholar, teacher, married woman, radical feminist and an out lesbian. Baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, Rich later in life discovered her Jewish identity.
Rich’s fans ranged from renowned hetero poet Robert Lowell to lesbians and gay men who stood in line to hear her read. Looking into her eyes as Rich signed your book at a reading, you felt as if this distinguished, award–winning poet cared about you.
“The Power of Adrienne Rich” by Hilary Holladay is the first biography of this iconic poet. Writing a bio of an icon is a tall order. How do you present your subject with their talents, heroic qualities and failings without falling into hagiography or smackdown?
Holladay, a biographer, novelist, poet and scholar of modern and contemporary American literature, deftly pulls off this daunting hat trick. With the skill of a novelist, she illuminates Rich’s life from her birth in Baltimore in 1929 to her death in Santa Cruz, Calif, in 2012.
From early on, Rich had a life filled with privilege and success. Her father Dr. Arnold Rice Rich was a prominent Johns Hopkins pathologist. From early on, Dr. Rich considered his daughter to be a “baby genius.” By age 4, she was playing Mozart on the piano). She wrote a small volume of poems when she was six.
Rich graduated from Radcliffe in 1951. Queer poet W. H. Auden chose her first poetry collection “A Change of World” (published in 1951) to be published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Soon after receiving this honor, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and was studying at Oxford.
She taught at universities and colleges — from the City College of New York to Swarthmore and wrote more than 24 poetry collections and six volumes of prose. At the same time, she engaged in political activism. In 1997, Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest award for artists. In her letter declining the award, she deplored the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice.”
Rich’s husband, Alfred Haskell Conrad, killed himself shortly after he and Rich separated. Rich came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. Her poems “Twenty-One Love Poems” were among the first lesbian love poems to be widely read. I’d wager that every lesbian remembers where she was when she read them when they were published in 1978. Later, Rich became a staunch supporter of queer men who had AIDS. Rich and the late writer Michelle Cliff were partners for more than 30 years.
In the midst of her complex and busy life, Rich, who for most of her life had rheumatoid arthritis, endured pain and surgeries.
The many honors Rich received include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994, a National Book Award in 1974 and the National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2005.
Like everyone, Rich had her quirks. She could be imperious. Sometimes Rich drank too much or abruptly dropped friends she’d been close to.
Poetry for Rich “was as close to a religion as anything she would ever know,” Holladay writes.
In the “Power of Adrienne Rich,” Holladay helps us to know a queer literary icon – not as a god, but as a vibrant, three-dimensional human being. Amen to that!