Two decades into the 21st century, we’re circling back to the vitality and innovations of postwar American poets, particularly women, as in Maggie Doherty’s “The Equivalents,” which conjures the artistic connection between Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, and Heather Clark’s magnificent biography of Sylvia Plath, “Red Comet.”
Now comes Hilary Holladay’s taut, engaging “The Power of Adrienne Rich,” which plumbs the career of one of our more complex writers and activists, who, early on, tracked along the same trajectory as Plath and Sexton, but then rocketed into an orbit that blended poetics with politics in dazzling, uncompromising fashion.
That Rich (1929-2012) outlived Sexton and Plath by decades allows Holladay to pick the locks on the poet’s myriad selves, decade by decade. Rich was born in Baltimore, the older daughter of a prominent Johns Hopkins physician, who pushed her relentlessly, like a male Jewish Mama Rose. His wife, Helen, an aloof WASP, had traded her aspirations as a concert pianist for the background role of an academic’s wife.
Raised nominally Christian, young Adrienne learned to read mixed messages well, blazing a path for her father’s approval, a pattern played throughout her early triumphs: W.H. Auden’s selection of her debut for the Yale Younger Poets prize while Rich was a senior at Radcliffe; early Guggenheim fellowships; and then marriage to an economist, Alfred Conrad (nee Cohen). Motherhood and more acclaimed works quickly followed.
But Rich was “sleepwalking,” as she later observed, a deadness at her core. As the staid 1950s gave way to the swinging 1960s, she and Conrad agreed to an open marriage until her desire for a divorce tipped her depressive husband to suicide. Psychotherapy unleashed new energies in the poet: She asserted her feminist identity, shattered forms (which she now considered patriarchal) and embarked on a long-term relationship with Michelle Cliff, all while not entirely escaping her father’s shadow. “Her resemblance to him was one of the great revelations of her life. In her mature writings, she would come back to it again and again, surprised, pained, and newly unburdened with each retelling.”
Her white-hot re-creation was beautifully charted in her most famous collection, “Diving Into the Wreck,” which won the National Book Award in 1974. Holladay leans into hagiography on occasion, content to look away from Rich’s affluent socialization, but she delivers the goods. The poet’s swerve toward enjambment and erasure of punctuation were political acts; and as politics became Rich’s lodestar, so did her compulsive need to discover herself: “It was always the Jew in her, even before the woman, the lesbian … who yearned and needed to be heard and seen. … She had made a Talmud of her life, the multiple meanings of which demanded endless study, debate, and interpretation.”
“The Power of Adrienne Rich” announces its thesis in its title, but Holladay is a fair-minded and meticulous critic of the poet’s life and art. This elegant, assured biography underscores Rich’s essential place in our literary pantheon.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
The Power of Adrienne Rich
By: Hilary Holladay.
Publisher: Nan A. Talese, 496 pages, $32.50.