A Life Written in Invisible Ink

By Sandra M. Gilbert

Adrienne_Rich-6In her rebellious and much-celebrated poetry, Adrienne Rich both deciphered and created the feminist world she inhabited.

I have been standing all my life in the

direct path of a battery of signals

the most accurately transmitted most

untranslateable language in the universe

—“Planetarium”

Adrienne Rich was, without question, the unofficial poet laureate of 20th-century American feminism. Over the years, as she evolved from a stereotypical “daddy’s girl” and a precocious disciple of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens into an aesthetic, critical, and political pioneer, she became a prophet for both the women whose causes she championed and the country whose flaws she lamented and whose transformation she envisioned. Many critics thought her crotchety or, worse, “strident,” while she herself sometimes said that she spoke from a marginalized perspective. Even women who might have been sympathetic to her ambition complained about her. Two éminences grises of The New York Review of Books castigated her feminism: Susan Sontag dismissed it as “a bit limited,” and Elizabeth Hardwick fretted that she “deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” Yet during her lifetime, Rich won countless prizes, including a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Bollingen Prize, and the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. When she died at 82, in 2012, Margalit Fox, who composed her New York Times obituary, aptly characterized the ambiguity of her position, describing her as “a poet of towering reputation and towering rage.”

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