Poet, Feminist, Yiddish Translator
Adrienne Rich’s career as a poet and public intellectual began in the 1950s and continued with books as recent as 2009. Throughout her long, brilliant career her work and thought was always developing, but she is perhaps best remembered for her writings on radical feminism, motherhood, and the anti-war movement. Rich contributed to the recovery of Yiddish women’s writing through her translations into English of great Yiddish women poets.
Adrienne Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was Jewish, a renowned pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, who was a concert pianist before marrying, was a Protestant and their daughters were raised Christian, although Adrienne Rich identified as a Jew.
Her parents had high hopes for Rich, which simultaneously exposed her to great literature, developed her talents as a writer, and put great pressure on her to meet their expectations. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and her first collection of poetry, “A Change of World,” won the W.H. Auden Prize.
In 1953 Rich married Alfred Conrad, and had three sons by 1959. In 1963 Rich published her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” which reflected on the experience of married life and motherhood and marked the first major shift in her work toward a more critical and feminist perspective. In the course of the 1960s Rich became a civil rights, anti-war, and feminist activist. Rich taught at Swarthmore College, Columbia University and Brandeis University. In 1974 she won the National Book Award for Poetry but refused to accept it individually, instead sharing it with the two other women nominees, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.
Rich did not write about her relationship to Jewishness until the 1980s, in her collections “Your Native Land, Your Life” (1986) and “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991). In her last collection of essays, “A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society” (2009), she writes about the work of the historian Isaac Deutscher and describes his concept of the “non-Jewish Jew” in her own words: “Not a Jew trying to pass, deny, or escape from the wounds and fears of the community, but a Jew resistant to dogma, separatism, to ‘remembering instead of thinking’ in Nadine Gordimer’s words — anything that shuts down the music of the future. A Jew whose solidarity with the exiled and persecuted is unrestricted. A Jew without borders.”
In addition to her poetry and essayistic writing, Rich worked as a translator, contributing translations of the Yiddish poets Kadia Molodowsky, Anna Margolin, Celia Dropkin and Dvorah Fogel to the 1969 Collection “A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry,” edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. In her 1972 essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” Rich wrote:
“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival…this drive to self-knowledge, for woman, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”Adrienne Rich