Why Read Biography? New Biographical Writing on Adrienne Rich (on Hilary Holladay’s The Power of Adrienne Rich and Ed Pavlić’s Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes)

“I do not even understand why people read biography! They should just read the poems to understand Rich.” This impassioned, frustrated interjection by a friend was in response to Hilary Holladay’s The Power of Adrienne Rich. The days and weeks that followed the book’s November 2020 release were filled with similar reactions as comrades read the many reviews that greeted this biography, the first for Rich, with its prurient revelations about her life. Reactions varied from “she slept with whom?” to “why should anyone care with whom she shared a sexual tryst?” Lesbian and feminist communities shared simultaneously a sense of pride about recognition for Rich’s work and a sense of protectiveness, wanting to shield her even after her death from intrusive glares or leering revelations. My friend’s direct refutation of biography as an art and as a source of reading pleasure, however, flustered me. Without an easy response when confronted with this passion, I wondered, why should anyone read biography? Perhaps more importantly, what function does biography serve in the world of arts and letters? These questions sit beside Rich’s own refusal of biography; she never authorized one during her life and closed substantial portions of her archives to resist biographic impulses. They also raise further questions of how biographers engage writers’ lives, an issue that nagged me as I read two recent posthumous accounts of the life and work of Adrienne Rich: Holladay’s biography and Ed Pavlić’s Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes. 

Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library houses Rich’s archive; much of her correspondence is closed until January 1, 2050, and even a cursory review of the finding aid for her materials demonstrates that she considered access to her papers carefully, making modifications as recently as 2011, a year before her death. Rich was mindful of interest in her life and deeply aware of the worlds of public and scholarly engagement. Neither she nor her estate authorized a biography. Yet Holladay was persistent and assembled an impressive array of material about Rich—and a lively narrative—working around the author’s restrictions. In addition to drawing on Rich’s archive, Holladay collected materials from the papers of other literary figures, including Hayden Carruth, Kathleen Fraser, Donald Hall, Karla Jay, Philip Levine, Audre Lorde, Catherine Nicholson, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Mab Segrest, and many others. She combines this archival material with interviews and other personal accounts of Rich. In a 2021 interview with the Biographers International Organization podcast, Holladay offered a persuasive argument for her project: preserving information and stories about Rich from living people who knew her is important, and it reveals valuable knowledge and information about Rich for future writers and scholars. Intellectually that rationale is compelling, though it does not answer the question, why read biography? 

Holladay begins with Rich’s “first volume of poetry . . . published when she was six years old,” then backtracks to provide information about her family’s life in Baltimore with her father, Arnold, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school, and her mother, Helen, who trained as a professional musician but like many white middle-class women of her era spent most of her life in homemaking and caretaking roles. Holladay summarizes Rich’s parents’ influence, arguing that “she wrote for and against her powerful, overbearing father in her poetry” and “for and against her emotionally absent mother in her greatest work of prose, Of Woman Born.” These pithy summaries are Holladay’s signature moves, and the book is, on balance, a pleasant and, at times, exciting read, but there are three elements of the biography where Holladay misses the mark. First, Holladay invests too much in the family narrative, making it determinative of Rich’s life. Second, she does not capture the heady exuberance of feminism and lesbian-feminism in which Rich found herself during the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, while Holladay labors to capture Rich’s genius, indeed titling the first chapter “Baby Genius,” in the end what emerges is not a woman with a profound, capacious, and enduring mind, but a rather flat persona with an almost pitiable intellect. 

Holladay’s book conforms to biography’s most conventional structures and to normative narratives about women’s lives. Both obscure the radical transgressions of Rich’s own life and particularly her feminist theoretical interventions. Structurally, Holladay composed The Power of Adrienne Rich with studied equal emphasis on all the years of Rich’s life; the first two hundred pages take Rich to age forty, while the final two hundred pages take the reader to her death in 2012 at the age of eighty-two. This symmetry suggests that each year and phase of her life was of equal importance; the story that emerges suffers from a linear narration lacking dynamism and insight. While this structure may be necessary for a first biographical draft of Rich’s life, it does not serve her protean intellect nor her continually developing and emerging political consciousness. 

Holladay roots Rich’s life in a family-of-origin narrative that she posits as both formative and ultimately determinative. While this strategy aligns with some common structures of biography as well as the prevailing American conventions of reifying natal families, chronological biography embraces the idea that the family to whom one is born and the early experiences of one’s life shape and determine the contours of that life indelibly. These elements are important in individual lives, but vital feminist critiques, including from Rich herself, reject this determinism. For nearly a century now, feminists have debated the roles of nature and nurture in people’s lives, informed by scientists like Sandra Harding and Joan Roughgarden among others, and had lively discussions about whether women are born or made, dating back to de Beauvoir and following various philosophical genealogies. These conversations combine with feminist observations of new forms of kinship documented by Kath Weston’s Families We Choose (1991) and Anndee Hochman’s Everyday Acts and Small Subversions (1994). Recent biographies grapple with these ideas in their structure and narration, reflecting the political and social commitments of radical or transgressive women. Carole Boyce Davies’s stunning biography Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (2007) interweaves a linear chronology with thematic treatments of Jones’s work, particularly centering an intersectional lens on her life and work. Leslie Brody’s Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy (2020) grapples with archival absences and mid-century repression of lesbians with aplomb. These biographies respond to challenges by feminists, particularly the nodes of feminism that Rich helped to shape with her poetry and essays, to embrace familial choice, the idea that women—and men—can choose different paths for their lives. In these feminist constellations, being born to a wealthy family in Baltimore that rejects its Jewish heritage does not determine who one is in the future or how one lives her life. In these feminist circles, the experience of going to Radcliffe, the years of being a wife and mother, do not shape exclusively what one does subsequently. Rich embraced the possibilities; she embraced notions of change and liberation. The biography too often elides or minimizes these politics—and values—of Rich.

Throughout her life, Rich stood up for her beliefs, even when it resulted in intense negative pressures. Her refusal of the National Medal of Arts from then President Clinton is an oft-cited example, but another is her separatist practice in the late 1970s and 1980s. For a period, Rich refused to take questions from men in her readings and public talks, and, when possible, she limited her readings to women-only audiences. Holladay explains, “In a nation, and world, where men routinely decided what women could and could not do with their bodies and their lives, she believed women had a right to take a break from the opposite sex if they chose to. It was a form of turnabout that alienated people who thought she was going too far, but she did it anyway as a matter of principle and politics.” This political act in the world of literature was filled with contentious challenges and roiling debates, but Rich felt that woman-only spaces created more possibilities for women “to speak bluntly and unconstrainedly about their own lives and experiences, to commiserate and collaborate; and to devise ways to make the social order better for all women, not just themselves.” Her commitment to a separatist practice for a period was transformative for Rich and for women in her orbit. This principled engagement with the structures of the world and how to intervene to transform them is a fundamental element of Rich’s life and legacy, one that, while recounted in the narrative of the book, is absent in its structure.

The energy, excitement, and possibilities of the growing women’s liberation movement of the 1970s that enticed thousands of women, including Rich, falls flat in The Power of Adrienne Rich. The burgeoning feminisms—lesbian-feminism, socialist feminism, anti-racist feminism, woman of color feminism, Black women’s feminism, and dozens of other formations that women discussed, analyzed, debated, and offered to one another in this exciting time—were a palpable force that women believed would both challenge and permanently alter the myriad racist, heteropatriarchal systems that shaped people’s lives. The pulse of change charged the people plugged into its electricity. Yet for Holladay, this is a period not of discovery but of “limbo between [Rich’s] past as a married heterosexual woman and her future as a partnered lesbian,” reducing Rich to primary sexual relationships and describing her as “waiting, it seems, for the right woman to lead her out of her liminal state of half-articulated desire.” Ascribing agency not to the poet herself, but to others around her, seems both an affront to Rich and a dismissive reading of the political visions of the times. 

In writing about the 1973 release of Diving into the Wreck, Holladay describes “the women’s movement swelling the ranks of [Rich’s] readers” and her readings attracting “awestruck young women who followed her around.” She describes a reading at Womanbooks for Diving where “Rich was welcomed as a sort of messiah.” In fairness, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe Rich in this same time period as “increasingly taking on the role of a prophet for feminism,” but reducing women’s liberation to an audience-building tool for poets and describing Rich in the manner of patriarchal religions is exactly the mode of thinking that Rich would eschew. Holladay draws these analogies repeatedly. In describing The Will to Change (1971), she writes, “one might even call it high feminism (akin to the high modernism of The Waste Land) in its rendering of a stance at once startling, recognizable, strange, and new.” These metaphors, aligning Rich and her work in power systems that she critiqued and sought to dismantle, also fail to recognize the complex meanings of the historical period. Women’s liberation and Adrienne Rich were co-constituted; they worked on one another, making each other possible. The relationship was not messiah to acolyte, not high literary criticism to low, not seer to follower, rather flower stamen to bee hair, not in a binary, singular relationship but in a bountiful atmosphere filled with bees and pollen. Rich and every other woman inspired by women’s liberation are both stamen and hair at different moments, kaleidoscoping through abundant experiences. Rich and women’s liberation made one another.

Holladay’s inability to capture the heady excitement of the times stands in stark contrast to Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents: The Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s (2020). Doherty, in a spirit infused by the feminism that her subjects both define and embody, narrates generous stories about five women in the early cohorts of Radcliffe fellowships: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, painter Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen. The Equivalents captures not only the lives of its subjects but also the era of the late 1950s and 1960s, both in Doherty’s description of the time and in the stories of how the women experienced and resisted the constraints of their historical moment, all with dynamism in both the telling of the story and in the placement and development of the book’s subjects. It is a form of collective biography that sings by animating the women subjects and also by explaining the world in which they lived in full color and with vivid textures. By contrast, Rich in Holladay’s hands feels caught in time by assumptions and ideologies that she herself was crucial to challenging and ultimately transforming, processes Rich understood, resisted, and wrote against.

While Holladay misses these important dynamics, she does capture generational nuances of Rich in relationship to women’s liberation. As women’s liberation swelled across the United States, awakening women of all ages to different possibilities for their lives, Rich was a mature woman. She was the mother of three sons. To many women swept into the excitement of women’s liberation in their late teens, twenties, and thirties, Rich was a matriarch. Yet she seemed to understand the change afoot; feminism was changing everyone, herself included. Rich changed her own life because the times demanded change, and she enabled change in contemporary thinking, aware that people grasped the possibilities given to them by the broader world and giving them new possibilities through her work. This, to me, is one of the vital lessons of Adrienne Rich’s life: change is possible and continues to be possible. This energetic commitment emerges in conjunction with the vibrant feminism of the 1970s, yet Holladay does not capture the dynamism of its emergence. Holladay does not misunderstand the period willfully. She is sympathetic to Rich and her cohorts, but she flattens this moment of change.

Biography is shaped by its sources, and while Holladay argues strongly for capturing interviews with people who knew Rich, I wonder if part of why she missed the mark in both the sparkle of the time and the heft of Rich’s intellect is a result of her reliance on these conversations. There are moments in the biography, particularly descriptions of alcohol use by both Rich and her beloved Michelle Cliff, that seem petty and small-minded; Holladay writes that they both “drank heavily” and that perhaps Rich forgot things “in a tipsy fog.” She notes that Rich and Cliff’s friends in western Massachusetts “sometimes wondered if Cliff and Rich would last as a couple, but the two took their problems to therapists and teetered onward.” These references tend to come from interviews with people who perhaps still carry old jealousies and rivalries. The reduction of Cliff and Rich to a teetering couple feels unduly dismissive of the realities that these two important lesbian-feminist writers faced forging an interracial relationship during a decade hostile to lesbians.

Throughout her work, Rich searches constantly for new understandings, new ways of being in the world, modes of being thoughtful and responsive to its conditions. My readings of Rich are encounters with a profound intellect. For her, everything was open to examination, to consideration and reconsideration and change. Holladay describes Rich’s insistence on reading to woman-only audiences as “not asking too much” and “not even asking,” rather “teaching,” an astute observation of how Rich enacted her political commitments. Rich was willing to revise not only the words she put on the page but also her own life. She demanded the same from her readers. I think Holladay as a reader and writer understands the heft of Rich’s intellect, but it never shines in the biography. As Stein wrote, voicing Toklas, “I have met many important people, I have met several great people, but I have only known three first class geniuses; and in each case, on sight, within me something rang.” I imagine discerning people like Toklas heard this ring when they encountered Rich. Even on the page, the bell of Rich’s genius rings clearly. In the end, however, Holladay fails to animate Rich as a genius, poet, or person. Holladay concludes, “She had spent her life searching for a viable identity and never found one that fully fit. Even the notion of having multiple selves was not quite what she was after.” For Holladay, “the power of Adrienne Rich, her triumph” was in the statement “I am my art,” from the poem “A Long Conversation.”



Book Cover image of Expanding SolitudesEd Pavlić’s book Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes is a welcome addition to the posthumous conversations around Rich’s poetry. In his other work, Pavlić, a poet himself and a literary critic specializing in African American diasporic cultures, has deepened understandings of James Baldwin and African American contributions to modernism. In Outward, his own expansive curiosities and creative facilities enable unique comprehension of Rich’s prodigious output across genres. Through his writing and storytelling, Pavlić captures Rich’s keen intellect. Outward is neither biography nor literary criticism, but rather a close reading of Rich’s poems that functions as a companion text to either reading Rich’s collections book by book or the substantial Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (2016). In this way it is an extraordinary pleasure.

Pavlić describes Outward as charting “a radical geography: Rich’s creation of an ever-shifting, subversive, and socially engaged sense of creative ‘solitude.’ ” Pavlić imagines the journey through the book as a messy creation, exploring “how Adrienne Rich’s career remade the lyric into an ever-evolving public and political—as opposed to strictly private and personal—vehicle” and argues that Rich understood that lyrical forces “could not be owned, [they] had to be shaped” and that they “could be—even had to be—generated mutually and collectively; very often [they] were the products of relationships.” Divided into five chapters, Outward pivots around the idea of solitude refracted through four conceits: relational solitude, social solitude, fugitive and dissident solitude, and finally radical solitude. Holladay’s biography charts Rich’s relationships in the world and seeks to lend insight into her inner life; Pavlić’s central concern is how Rich thought about the world and how she made meaning in the world through her work.

Pavlić and Rich were friends. He writes, “We met when she chose my first book of poems for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize” in 2000. They began an epistolary relationship that evolved into a friendship; it lasted until Rich’s death in 2012. Pavlić describes the relationship as “friends and colleagues, partners, of a sort, maybe of a strange sort.” Pavlić’s organizing conceits around solitude offer the flexibility to read Rich closely and generously, and in these readings Outward sings. Most significantly, he grapples with a core element of Rich’s work: her understanding and thinking about race. The civil rights movements of the 1960s inspired both Rich and her husband, Alfred Conrad. Rich came to understand experiences of African Americans, Latinx people, and immigrants in the United States in part through teaching in the SEEK program of the City College of New York and through her own practices of intense observation and careful listening in the world. As Pavlić writes, she read and admired work by Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, Eldridge Cleaver, and James Baldwin, among others, and this work influenced her poetry. 

Pavlić maps Rich’s complex thinking and writing about race over a lifetime, nodding to multiple relationships as sites of engagement. In feminist scholarship, much has been written about Rich’s friendship with Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and other Black feminists she met through SEEK, and certainly Rich’s connections with feminism and its movements shaped her thinking about race. She also thought about race in other circles, with her husband, and in her correspondence with Hayden Carruth. Seeking a deep understanding of race and its lived experiences as well as racial injustice, Rich grappled with how to locate herself in the complex milieu. Pavlić traces a long thread in Rich’s life that centers her grappling with race, ethnicity, and solidarity as well as its imbrications with nation, class, and economics. Reading Rich as both “fugitive” and “dissident” in her work, Pavlić explores how she wrote about race and ethnicity from early poems written as a young mother in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), through her crucial 1984 essay “Notes toward a Politics of Location” and later work. He contends that Rich’s explorations of whiteness, Jewishness, and solidarity weave throughout the entirety of her work and that her work written in the 1990s and 2000s “scripts relation in ways that capital cannot police into place and purpose.” His sensitive exploration of this vibrant thread in Rich’s work is a valuable contribution to understanding her work as a poet—and her life.

I have two quibbles with Pavlić’s book, and though they are small points considering its overall achievements, they are significant to feminist historiography and literary criticism. First, Pavlić, perhaps unwittingly, suggests progressivism to Rich’s life and work. As the book unfolds, he finds greater and truer meaning in her poetry as it develops over the course of her lifetime, as though writing poetry were part of an epic heroic journey to a triumphant end. For instance, he writes of her work at the end of her life that “those impressions were never really final; with Adrienne there was always a sense of furthering.” This tension between the progression of words on the page, of pages in the book aligning with progression of life and thought, is a crucial element of biography and historical, critical work, but the reality of lives and work is less linear, messier and more recursive. Pavlić recognizes this conundrum in the book and at some moments resists an inevitable temporal progression, but in other moments he falls into it. 

When he resists the pull of temporal or linear progressivism, Pavlić astutely teases out themes and ideas in Rich’s work and demonstrates how they recursively return. Pavlić’s opening to a later chapter insightfully reads work across decades of Rich’s life to consider “the role of pain in the tactical enforcement of division.” Tracing different understandings of pain across a lifetime (Rich lived with rheumatoid arthritis, which she developed in her early twenties), Pavlić points to an early declaration proffered in “The Blue Ghazals” (1968–9), where pain made her conservative, and to a later assertion in the poem “Axel Avákar,” written in 2007–8, where Rich writes, “Pain taught her the language / root of radical.” These insights into pain from very different periods in her life (Pavlić also considers a poem from the mid-eighties in his reading) demonstrate how thematically Rich returns to similar ideas, gaining different meanings at various times, while the poet herself holds a complex reality that resists linear narratives. The later-in-life understanding about pain is no more insightful, no more valid, than the earlier reflections. When Pavlić highlights these complex realities about Rich’s poetry, Outward sings.

My other quibble is Pavlić’s failure to put Rich into a broader context with her feminist co-matriots. Though his project is to provide a close reading of Rich’s poetry and his focus is narrowly on her work, rather than critical reception of her work, he primarily cites male literary critics in his readings of Rich, without attending to the voluminous feminist critical writing. Pavlić’s book led me back to Judy Grahn’s collection of essays The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. This collection, published in 1986, builds on Mary Carruthers’s work in an article in The Hudson Review from 1983, “The Re-Vision of the Muse.” Carruthers linked the poetry of Rich, Olga Broumas, Judy Grahn, and Audre Lorde. Grahn argues in The Highest Apple that lesbians have culture and a literary tradition. The book has been out of print for a few decades now and is largely forgotten; the loss of that work enables contemporary work like Pavlić’s to encounter Rich outside of the tradition she worked within—and helped to build and promulgate. 

In part, the failure to contextualize Rich in a broader context of lesbian and feminist poetics allows Pavlić to dismiss identity formations as having no ongoing value and suggests that Rich did as well, holding in the final decade of her life only to Marxism. Perhaps this is true—Pavlić had an intimate epistolary relationship with Rich—but I disagree with his assessment. One example that Pavlić provides is in her 1991 collection An Atlas to a Difficult World. Pavlić quotes the poem “Final Notations,” where Rich writes, “You are coming into us who cannot withstand you / you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you.” Pavlić continues:

What if this so-called threat is not really danger? What if it is the only hope there is? What if it is both a real danger and the only hope? . . . However fearful and challenging, these are the liberating forces of Rich’s accumulating sense of poetic vision, of poetic purpose. Many in her audience of feminists as well as her other audiences were not ready for this. She knew that. Others, distant from her work in the 1970s, maybe some not yet born, were already living these risks. She knew that, too. 

This idea that Rich’s poetic vision exceeded that of her audiences might be compelling if it were true, but it is not. While the largest audiences of feminists that Rich enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s may not have been ready for her visions (an assertion that even as I write it feels untrue), Rich’s closest feminist co-matriots were all in similar places, writing bold new work that responded to the changing and evolving political environments in which these women lived in the 1990s and 2000s. Pavlić describes the poem “An Atlas of a Difficult World” (1990–1) as presenting “no resolving tableaux of existing and possible relations between diverse and widespread actions of human, natural, industrial, agricultural, and political energies.” This assessment of Rich’s poem might apply to an array of poetic work published from feminist communities around the same time—and for the next decade. Later Pavlić continues, “If there was a grand epic to aspire to, by the 1990s, Rich knew it would not be scored in national terms, nor would its connective vocabulary depend on owned identity markers (race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality), which had become, at least from her Marxist-inflected point of view, brand names in the national marketplace of literary culture, each identity for sale in its owned shopwindow.” I argue that Rich came to this conclusion exactly through the writing and insights of the identity politics it is designed to dismiss. While Pavlić may not recognize it, feminisms evolved from their work and formations of the 1970s and 1980s; feminists and feminist communities continued, working in a variety of vibrant nodes and modalities while living inside the risks of the contemporary world and speaking to them with power, fire, and passion. Feminist co-matriot poets like Minnie Bruce Pratt, Olga Broumas, Judy Grahn, Irena Klepfisz, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Cheryl Clarke, Susan Sherman, Marilyn Hacker, and others grappled with these times, building on the insights of lesbian-feminism that they developed collectively in earlier decades and meeting them with new poems and new forms of activism. Rich surely continued to read their work—and work from new writers—and understood the evolving nature of identity formations and their continued vital significance. 

Pavlić’s reading is insistent, however. He doubles down on his argument to dismiss identity formations in his interpretation of her refusal of the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton and the National Endowment for the Arts under the directorship of Jane Alexander. Pavlić writes, “In July 1997, one could say that the fugitive [Rich] was beckoned home and offered ‘citizen’ status in the land of bad faith.” Rather than relying on Rich’s widely circulated public letter, Pavlić quotes extensively from a conversation Rich had with broadcaster Amy Goodman. Rich told Goodman, “I feel as if the relative creative freedom of artists and intellectuals ultimately depends on the conditions everywhere and the conditions of human labor everywhere. We’re all working. We’re all trying to do our work. And the circumstances, the conditions under which working people exist in the society are not something that can be separated and left aside from the position of the artist.” It is a moving statement, but so is her written letter. In it, Rich cited the “increasing brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country” for turning down the award and then in the most quoted line, wrote that “art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” Pavlić asserts that this incident demonstrates that “The bonds of dissident solitude no longer depend on the identity categories of the 1980s. In her explanation, Rich insisted that she acted on behalf of workers, herself among them.” Perhaps, but Holladay’s assessment is more accurate: “this was vintage Rich, showing her mettle as she turned down the medal.” 

Together Outward and The Power of Adrienne Rich illuminate an afterlife for Adrienne Rich, for poets’ afterlives are also dependent on the work of critics—on the existence of scholarly editions, critical engagements, and biography. Holladay understands that for Rich to remain an iconic poet of the twentieth century, for her to not be lost to the future, to lesbians, to poetry, to us all, she needed a proper biography, even if it went against Rich’s wishes, even if it meant there was not cooperation from the estate, even if it meant not having access to materials sequestered until the year 2050 at the Schlesinger. Holladay knew time marches on. New poets emerge. New biographies emerge. Without a thoughtful first draft of Rich’s life, which is how I have come to think of Holladay’s biography, the risk exists that her work may not influence new generations of poets and scholars, even with the estate’s prodigious labors. For these reasons, The Power of Adrienne Rich has value despite its shortcomings.

Similarly, Pavlić’s book contributes to Rich’s emerging afterlife. Pavlić captures Rich most accurately when he describes her work as “widespread skeins of practical skill and care, resources for resistance and survival.” This reading of Rich echoes my own. Pavlić’s description of Rich’s work extends beyond Rich’s poetry and intimates why I read poetry and biography: to understand how poets lived their lives, how they marshaled the time and temerity to write poems. To me, Rich herself provides the assessment she wished of her own life in her introduction to The Fact of a Doorframe (1984). She described learning as a young person that she was “neither unique nor universal but a person in history, a woman and not a man, a white and also Jewish inheritor of a particular Western consciousness, from the making of which most women have been excluded.” This gesture of Rich, to not see herself as unique or universal, indicates some of her ambivalence to the project of biography. It also reflects central values of lesbian-feminism, an enduring social and political formation that Rich helped define. 

My friend, mentioned at the beginning, is a part of this same tradition. Honoring her and honoring Rich, I end by noting that, biographies and critical work aside, in the end the art is what is important; the art is what endures. This endurance, however, is predicated on keeping the art at the forefront of literary and historical conversations. Literary criticism at its best informs and enlightens new audiences by putting work into conversation with contemporary political and social concerns as well as current intellectual issues. The best literary criticism reminds readers of the power of authors’ work to speak to the human condition today. Biography at its very best provides both a rich history of the time and insight into human experiences that transcends the life of a single person. Both literary criticism and biography help new readers and writers understand what it means to live the life of a writer and provide guidance for how to enter that life. While Adrienne Rich is ultimately “a person in time,” the vibrant afterlife from her work continues to unfold, ensuring that “the art”—her art—endures.


An essay-review of

The Power of Adrienne Rich. By Hilary Holladay. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2020. 496 pp. $32.50.

Outward: Adrienne Rich’s Expanding Solitudes. By Ed Pavlić. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 272 pp. $24.95, paper.


Julie R. Enszer is the author of four poetry collections, including Avowed (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), and the editor of OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2022), Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems by Lynn Lonidier (forthcoming), and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974–1989 (2018) and The Complete Works of Pat Parker (2016), both from A Midsummer Night’s Press. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal.