The Myth Itself: Diving into the Life of Adrienne Rich

Hilary Holladay’s biography The Power of Adrienne Rich  

FF2 Guest Post by Anne Graue

Adrienne Rich is a literary icon. She was a winning poet, essayist, and feminist literary critic most known for Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) which garnered her a National Book Award in 1974, and Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience (1976), both important works that attempted to shatter the myths about sexuality and identity perpetuated by American society.  She died in 2012 at the age of 82.

Born to a father determined to have his daughter succeed and a mother whose “influence on her, or lack thereof, had its own significance,” Adrienne Rich wrote her way through life against a patriarchal misogynist backdrop that biographer Hilary Holladay illuminates and unfolds in careful prose that integrates research, critique, and history in her biography of the poet and feminist icon. Rich’s dominating father and acquiescent mother instilled in her a desire to work hard to succeed in the literary world. They influenced her throughout her life from birth through her years in Cambridge and New York City and beyond as she took her place in the canon of American poetry. Highlighting successes and illuminating at what costs these were attained given the U.S. patriarchal society at its height in the 1950s, Holladay focuses on the pivotal events and relationships in Adrienne Rich’s life. Holladay’s research, critiques, and interviews add to a story of determination, purpose, and resistance that will engage readers of Rich’s poetry and secure her place in the pantheon of American letters.

Holladay’s prose style presents an intricately woven text that follows a chronology as indicated by section titles while incorporating information that enlightens the reader to the results of events on the timeline of Rich’s life. Within the chapters, Holladay quotes from carefully chosen poems throughout the biography and demonstrates significant parallels between Rich’s life and work. The poetic passages interspersed with anecdotal evidence of Rich’s art imitating her life throughout the biography in quick-paced prose often hints of what comes later on in the timeline or how it relates to something in Rich’s past. Poems from the years under scrutiny in each chapter are excerpted within the stories that most likely provided their impetus. With titles such as “The Making of Adrienne Rich,” “Brilliant, Mad, Human, and Irreplaceable,” and “In the Name of all Women,” Holladay illuminates a corresponding thematic timeline to accompany the years as they pass.

Within the biography, additional smaller biographical moments highlight poets within Rich’s circle of acquaintances and friends. Robert Lowell, Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes all make early appearances. These revelatory mini-bios are essential to Rich’s story but also add another level of interest for readers wanting to understand the literary community within which major poets dwelt. Holladay asserts, “As young women, Rich and Plath both bought into a submissive feminine ideal. That they accepted this, even longed for it, shows just how pernicious and insistent the stereotyping was.” The biographer carefully places these important women within a persistent patriarchal society of writers.

Knowing Rich’s early poetic mentors and connections is crucial to understanding how changes in her work were received and reviewed by her peers and critics in the writing community. Holladay acknowledges Rich’s more complicated relationships with those who had sometimes championed her work:

…although she repeatedly benefited from good deeds done on her behalf, she refused to feel obligated to return favors. Her resistance was a matter of principle, which could make her seem cold and ungrateful even as it reminded the people around her that she could not be co-opted or bought.

Later friendships inform Rich’s work, and Holladay includes them in the years of significant transformation from heterosexual wife and mother to lesbian radical feminist. Among these influences were her therapist, Lilly Engler, writer Susan Sontag, and poets Robin Morgan, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde.

Perhaps the most intriguing, somewhat scandalous tidbits throughout the biography are references to love affairs, misunderstandings, or intellectual arguments that affected Rich and those within her sphere of influence who knew her personal idiosyncrasies.  Holladay corroborates this type of information by citing sources of research and correspondence that include communication with Rich’s close family and friends as well as those who were estranged or had been extricated from her life, sometimes suddenly. Holladay writes:

Friends in her inner circle, such as the biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, saw a pattern in Rich’s behavior. She was willing to give her time, thought, and money— to say nothing of the glorious heft of her name—to her friends’ various causes. She was exceptionally generous in that way. But when someone angered or disappointed her or just wore her out, she cut ties, often with little warning.

The personal, professional, and familial connections, both sustained and broken, are all part of a life story focused on poetry, feminism, and politics.

Rich’s stance on political and social realities changes over the course of a life devoted to poetry and its importance. Holladay writes, “In researching the story of her life, I found that the absence of a fully knowable self was her deepest wound and her greatest prod.” The biography includes revelatory pieces of information regarding Rich’s staunch beliefs and defense of feminism and equal rights after many years as a poet within a community of male mentors. At one point, Holladay reveals, “As a poet, [Rich] was in the business of creating personas and portraying her multiple ‘selves’ in ways that were no less true for their changing nature. And so it was that she took off the mask of radical feminist that she had worn long and well and liberated herself from the women’s liberation movement,” an indication that Rich’s focus was never fixed on one point for too long.

All biographers must decide what pieces of a life to include and exclude in the story of complex human beings, especially those who have made publishing and publicity part of their raison d’être. Holladay’s biography culminates in a final chapter entitled “I Am My Art” in which she comes full circle with her subject to place Rich, however awkwardly or with contradictions, and with Rich’s own words in a “poetic and political tradition—part of something much greater than one’s own individual career, one’s individual poetry, one’s individual time,” and in doing so allows Rich to claim her place in the literary world with all of its conflict and paradoxes.


© Anne Graue (7/27/21)—Special for FF2 Media® LLC.

Anne Graue is the author of Full and Plum-Colored Velvet (Woodley Press, 2020) and Fig Tree in Winter (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in SWWIM Every Day, Rivet Journal, Mom Egg Review, New Verse News, Into the Void, and numerous print anthologies, including The Book of Donuts (Terrapin Books, 2017) and Coffee Poems (World Enough Writers, 2019). Her reviews of poetry collections appear in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Rupture, Whale Road Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Rumpus. She is a poetry editor for The Westchester Review.

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Featured Photo (FF2 crop) & Below: “Adrienne Rich Memorial Utility Box” by J. Maughn is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Bottom Photo (FF2 crop): Audre Lorde, Meridel LeSueur, & Adrienne Rich in a workshop, 1980. (Photo by K. Kendall) licensed with CC BY 2.0. All Rights Reserved.


Tags: Adrienne Rich, Anne Graue, biography, Hilary Holladay, literary criticism, poetry, The Power of Adrienne Rich

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