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Rich, Adrienne (1929-2012)  
 
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Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

Rich's unflinching moral vision, constant and courageous interrogations of her selves, and of her own and other writers' philosophical positions and artistic responsibilities, made her, as poet and critic Alicia Ostriker has observed, "a poet of ideas" who "cannot accept either a public or private life not motivated by the will to change oneself, to change others, to change the world," and who "asks us," therefore, "to think that we need to give birth to ourselves."

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In a national poetry industry where creative writing programs pledge allegiance to honing technique and to the commonplace that form is content, Rich, a master of craft and form, unfashionably refused to identify poetry with skillful design and insisted that it must be forceful enough to change lives. Indeed, David Kalstone pronounced Rich's The Will to Change (1971) "an extraordinary book of poems and something else as well."

Readers may agree or disagree with Rich, but no one can read her work and think "oh, it is only poetry" or "oh, here is yet another pretty prose piece by a well-known poet." Her aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics gently yet fiercely urged every reader continually to ask and honestly answer the question doubly posed in "The Spirit of Place," her 1980 poem for Michelle Cliff: "With whom do you believe your lot is cast?"; "(with whom do you believe your lot is cast?)."

Born May 16, 1929, into an intellectual and affluent household in Baltimore, Maryland, Adrienne Rich began writing poetry as a child, encouraged by her father and his "very Victorian, pre-Raphaelite" library. In 1951 she took her A.B. from Radcliffe College and published A Change of World, which W. H. Auden selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award.

In 1953, Rich married Alfred Conrad, an economist at Harvard; she gave birth to three sons between 1955 and 1959, and resided with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until 1966, when they moved to New York City. Both she and her husband became increasingly active in Vietnam War protests.

Rich, drawn by her "swirling wants" ("A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," 1970), left her marriage in 1970. Later in that year, Conrad committed suicide. In 1976, Rich began a relationship with poet and novelist Michelle Cliff. They moved to Montague, Massachusetts, in 1979 and relocated in 1984 to Santa Cruz, California, where they lived until Rich's death in 2012.

Awards and Fellowships and Their Significance

In what can only be called the most distinguished of careers, Adrienne Rich, from her earliest to latest publications, garnered awards and fellowship support.

Besides the Yale prize in 1951, her twenty-odd volumes of poetry (including five volumes of reprinted selected poems) and four collections of prose have been honored by awards from the Poetry Society of America (1955, 1971, 1992), the National Institute for Arts and Letters (1960), Poetry magazine (1963, 1968), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1986), Brandeis Creative Arts Medal (1987), New York University (1989), the National Poetry Association for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry (1989), the Bay Area Book Reviewers (1990), the Common Wealth Award in Literature (1991), the Los Angeles Times and Nation (1992), and the Poet's Prize (1993), among many other fellowships and awards.

In 1974, she won the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck (an honor shared with Allen Ginsberg). In 1990, Rich became a member of the department of literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1991, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

She taught in a wide range of settings, from the SEEK program at City College of New York (1968) to Douglass College of Rutgers University (1976-1979), Cornell (1981-1987), and Stanford (1986-1993), as well as University of California, Santa Cruz. She has received honorary doctorates from Wheaton College (1967), Smith College (1979), College of Wooster, Ohio (1987), Brandeis (1987), City College of New York (1990), Harvard (1990), and Swarthmore (1992).

Her writing was supported by two Guggenheim Fellowships (1952-1953, 1961-1962), a Bollingen Foundation grant (1962), and an Amy Lowell Travelling Fellowship (1962-1963); and she has been a fellow at Bryn Mawr (1975) and the University of Chicago (1989).

In 1981, the National Gay Task Force recognized her accomplishments with the Fund for Human Dignity Award; in 1992, she received the William Whitehead Award of the Publishing Triangle for lifetime achievement in letters; and in 1994, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Awareness of the extraordinary number of distinguished awards she received and the teaching positions she held is important for appreciating, contextualizing, and assessing Rich's position as America's most widely read lesbian poet. It also underscores the courage she showed in assuming responsibility toward the vast majority of women, lesbians, and gay men who struggle in anonymity.

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Adrienne Rich (right) with Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Lesueur in 1980. Photograph by K. Kendall.
  
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