The Essential Adrienne Rich


We were saddened yesterday to learn that Adrienne Rich, the incomparable feminist poet and essayist, passed away at 82. The poet, whose work has been an essential part of the American poetic canon for the last fifty years, was much-lauded in her many years of activity, receiving (among other honors) a Yale Younger Poets Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 1997, she was awarded the National Medal for the Arts, the most prestigious award an artist can win, and refused it, writing to then-president Clinton that “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate… A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Rich’s body of work is massive and varied, and there are several nearly all-inclusive collections floating around (our guess is that there are about to be a few more), but here we’ve collected what we feel to be the essential books from this incredible poet, who will long be remembered as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

The Will to Change , 1971

Many critics consider the late ’60s and early ’70s to be the pinnacle of Rich’s work — a time at which both the American social and political climate and transformations in Rich’s own personal life were coming to a head. “Rich’s transformation has been astonishing to watch,” wrote critic Ruth Whitman. “In one woman the history of women in the 20th century, from careful traditional obedience to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time.” Plus, this collection is home to the outstanding “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” which attacks both the war in Vietnam and gender inequity in Rich’s increasingly loose, lovely style.

Diving into the Wreck , 1973

Despite the eye-rolls of some of our experimental poet friends, we’ve always loved the influential and oft-anthologized Rich poem that shares its title with this collection. When we first heard the lines:

“the thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth the drowned face always staring toward the sun”

we were totally floored. Yes, we thought, the wreck and not the story of the wreck — that, friends, is what life is about. Don’t take it from us and our undergraduate swooning, however — the collection won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974, sharing the prize with the equally worthy Allen Ginsberg.

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience, 1976

Rich once reflected that “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me,” and if that’s the truth, we’re damn glad that she became a mother. In this classic feminist text, her first published book of nonfiction, Rich blends excerpts from her personal journals with historical, political, and literary angles on the subject of motherhood. This book is a powerful, candid look at one of the most important relationships that humans can experience.

An Atlas of the Difficult World , 1991

This collection heaped up a fine number of prizes — including the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award, the Commonwealth Award in Literature, and the 1993 Poet’s Prize — and with good reason. We can’t say it better than feminist academic Carolyn G. Heilbrun, who wrote, “In An Atlas of the Difficult World Rich says: ‘We write from the marrow of our bones.’ So she has written since the 1960s, saying what we longed to say, but could not, or dared not. She is a crucial poet: each volume more courageous, newly elegant. In this book she makes me, even in these harsh times, brave, toughened by her boldness, her skill.”

Midnight Salvage , 1999

This collection, fiery as it may look, is more internal than some of her earlier work, looking back at her life and focusing on, according to critic Rafael Campo, “the problem of defining ‘happiness’ — in an American society that continues to exploit its most defenseless citizens, and in the face of a larger world where contempt for human rights leads to nightmare.” The book, one of her most beautiful, is indeed filled with windows, for looking out from one’s own self and viewing the world clearly — or perhaps not so clearly.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve , 2010

Of what would be her last collection, Rich wrote, “I believe almost everything I know, have come to understand, is somewhere in this book.” It’s filled with black wit and searing observation, even as it dissects illness and continues Rich’s favorite themes of injustice and ignorance and the perils of human society. If only she could have kept on writing forever.