During the more than 40 years of her literary career, Adrienne Rich has evolved from a dutiful poet following the masculine poetic tradition of Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, and William Butler Yeats to a radical, lesbian feminist with a commitment to a global perspective. She began this evolution in 1951 with her first volume of poetry, published in the same year that she graduated from Radcliffe. This volume entitled A Change of World won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and contains a foreword by Auden, in which he suggested that the new generation of poets, in which he included Rich, would follow the tradition established by the "modern" generation of poets (T. S. Eliot, Frost, Yeats) because there had been no societal revolutions that would enable a poetic revolution. Auden, writing in 1951, had no way of foreseeing the impact of the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements on poetry in the coming decades. Those movements, as well as the writings of James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir, created dramatic changes in Rich's world view and resulted in revolutions in her poetry. Particularly, Rich's developing feminist consciousness, which can be seen as early as 1963 in such poems as "Planetarium," led to an increased awareness of her lesbianism. These alterations in Rich's world and self view created the contradictions of her life that appear in her art. She demands that she be accountable for every part of her identity. In "Split at the Root," a 1982 essay published in Blood, Bread and Poetry which begins to examine the contradictions of her life, Rich lists her various identities: "The middle-class white girl taught to trade obedience for privilege. The Jewish lesbian raised to be a heterosexual gentile. The woman who first heard oppression named and analyzed in the Black Civil Rights struggle. The woman with three sons, the feminist who hates male violence.... The poet who knows that beautiful language can lie, that the oppressor's language sometimes sounds beautiful." Rich claims that each of these selves must be investigated in her work and in her life. Rich's unrelenting self-analysis in her prose and in her poetry has not always been well received by critics. However, Rich demands an honesty of self and a continual critical examination of self.
Part of Rich's continual evolution as a writer includes her struggle to critique and define women's voices, particularly lesbian voices, in her writing as well as in that of others. She has worked to create a poetry and prose that investigates the hidden, the silence, that surrounds what we say about ourselves as lesbians, as women, and as women of color. More particularly, Rich questions what lesbians and women in general purposely do not say or reveal about themselves and why. Although she understands the real problems of unemployment and economic survival, she questions the lesbian who creates art in an environment of self-imposed censorship. In "Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women," an essay originally written as the foreword to the anthology, Working It Out: 23 Women Artists, Scholars and Scientists Talk about Their Lives and Work, Rich points out that the "whole question of what it means or might mean to work as a lesbian might have occupied an entire essay in this book." Subtly, Rich indicates that the failing of the lesbian artists in this volume occurs on the level of awareness of self and commitment to self-exposure. These women artists, scholars, and scientists might have written an essay on what it means to work as a lesbian, but no such essay appears. Awareness of self and of the history of one's community (whether that community is lesbian, gay, women's, African American, Hispanic, etc.) is critical for Rich. For the lesbian to find her history she must interpret "the silence and denial that has enveloped lesbianism" and "the social taboos [women in the past] lived among."
As part of a larger awareness of self and in an effort to create community among women, Rich has been working at least since 1976 to persuade all women to see the "lesbian in us." This figure of woman, the lesbian, causes much tension in the women's community. It is precisely for this reason that Rich critiqued the tension produced by heterosexism that inhibits women's communion with one another in "It is the Lesbian in Us ..." and in her landmark essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In these essays, Rich proposes that women, both lesbian and heterosexual, critically examine heterosexism as an institution that oppresses all women. This critique can range from redefining the words that have been used to oppress lesbians ("dyke," "butch," "bulldagger") to coining the phrases "lesbian continuum" and "lesbian existence" as ways of re-visioning women's relationships with each other outside of the heterosexist framework. The terms "lesbian continuum" and "lesbian existence" have been misunderstood and misapplied by many Rich readers. Rich is concerned that the phrase "lesbian continuum" has been used "by women who have not yet begun to examine the privileges and solipsisms of heterosexuality, as a safe way to describe their felt connections with women, without having to share in the risks and threats of lesbian existence.... Lesbian continuum—the phrase—came from a desire to allow for the greatest possible variation of female-identified experience, while paying a different kind of respect to lesbian existence—the traces and knowledge of women who have made their primary erotic and emotional choices for women."
Rich has been working to create connections and to foster community among women in her poetry as well as in her prose. Twenty-one Love Poems is a series of sonnets concerning the problematics of lesbian love in a society that insists on the invisibility of lesbians. Rather than dwell on the problem of lesbian invisibility, Rich finds strong images of women in the landscapes that surround her. These images of power involve figurative and literal representations of women's bodies. In poem XI, "Every peak is a crater. This is the law of volcanoes, / making them eternally and visibly female. / No height without depth, without a burning core, / though our straw soles shred on the hardened lava." Rich creates a powerful image of a woman's body and sexuality in a landscape which has been raped and wasted because it has been depicted as female in a patriarchal society. This creation of new images of the female body and sexuality stems from Rich's stated desire in "Diving into the Wreck." She desires "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth."
Because Rich finds that language cannot express the whole of experience and its shifts, she dates her poems; she believes that each poem expresses the feelings and thoughts of the poet at that moment. She does not pretend to write universal, transcendent truths. Rather, her poems are a way of understanding experience. In such volumes as Your Native Land, Your Life, Time's Power, and An Atlas of the Difficult World, Rich explores the responsibility of a poet to her words and images. In these volumes, lesbianism becomes less a subject in itself than a fact of the poet's world, intrinsic to her experience. Lesbianism does not disappear, but becomes a part of a matrix of issues that Rich brings to her poetry, including an awareness of political movements and global feminisms. This matrix attests to Rich's commitment to making minority voices heard, to making the invisible visible. Rich insists on the complexity of our lives and carefully, with a keen sense of language, records that complexity in her poetry and prose.
In a letter written in November of 1990 to David Montenegro and published in Points of Departure, Rich discusses forms of censorship and the costs of artistically trivializing minority voices—including lesbian, gay, working-class, and African American—through stereotype and caricature, in a society that cares little for those voices. According to Rich, capitalism conspires against those minority voices by making certain books and experiences unavailable to those uninitiated in that experience—making minority voices invisible to the greater public. In order to combat the erasure of these experiences, Rich suggests that we "insist in our art on the depth and complexity of our lives, to keep on creating the account of our lives, in poems and stories and scripts and essays and memoirs that are as rich and strange as we ourselves. Never to bend toward or consent to be rewarded for trivializing ourselves, our people, or each other."
What Rich envisioned as a strategy in 1990 has characterized her literary production for some time. By continually investigating the contradictions of her life, Rich presents to the world not a cardboard stereotype of a lesbian, not an easily categorized vision of the world that surrounds us, but the complex vision of the world written by a Jewish-lesbian-feminist-mother who is "rich and strange" and wonderfully so.