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BOOK REVIEW

A powerful, poetic life: The complexities of Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich pictured in 1969.
Adrienne Rich pictured in 1969.LARRY C. MORRIS/NYT

In the title poem of her 1963 collection “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” Adrienne Rich wrote that “Time is male,” and that “our crime” was “only to cast too bold a shadow/or smash the mold straight off.” The verse prefigures her evolving feminism, which would make her an icon of the women’s movement.

Born to privilege, educated at Radcliffe, and spared the suicidal seductions of peers such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, Rich attained both popular acceptance and critical acclaim over a more than six-decade-long career. Hilary Holladay’s highly readable biography, “The Power of Adrienne Rich,” takes aim at a similar sweet spot.

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Holladay, who is also a novelist, poet, and scholar of American literature, benefits from propitious timing. Writing in the aftermath of Rich’s death, at 82, in 2012, she secured the cooperation of many of the poet’s intimates. Among Holladay’s sources are Rich’s long- estranged younger sister, Cynthia; the feminist activists Robin Morgan and Catharine MacKinnon; and Rose Marie Carruth, whose ex-husband, the poet Hayden Carruth, was one of Rich’s most treasured friends and correspondents.

The resulting volume, written from a feminist perspective, is a largely admiring portrait of a protean, prodigiously gifted woman that stops short of hagiography. Holladay depicts Rich as emotionally volatile, intellectually restless, and politically committed, even if those commitments shifted over the years.

Rich was allied, for instance, with anti-pornography activists before switching over to the free-speech side of the debate. And the feminism expressed in her poetry of the 1970s and “Of Woman Born,” a 1976 meditation on motherhood, was later subsumed into a more sweeping leftist politics.

Rich’s personal life was also, for many years, a work in progress. Her long marriage to a pioneering economist, Alfred Conrad, which produced three sons, gave way to identification as a lesbian. In therapy, Rich reached for the forbidden fruit of her therapist, Lilly Engler, with whom she had a passionate, doomed affair. She eventually settled into a lasting interracial partnership with the Jamaican novelist Michelle Cliff.

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Holladay views Rich’s complicated relationship with her overbearing father, the pathologist Arnold Rice Rich, as the central force in her life. The biographer describes him as a “prod and a scourge, a man whose love of knowledge far exceeded his knowledge of love.” Rich would later term her father, from whom she was eventually estranged, “the embodiment of patriarchy.”

Growing up in Baltimore, Rich was a homeschooled prodigy who authored her first poetry collection at age 6. Her mother, Helen Jones Rich, a pianist and composer, cultivated her daughter’s considerable musical talents, but remained “emotionally absent” from her life.

To attend Radcliffe, then Harvard’s sister school, in the late 1940s and early 1950s was to experience gender-based exclusion — from libraries, classes and literary organizations. Rich nevertheless secured male faculty mentors and even an introduction to Robert Frost, later a good friend. She became a campus literary sensation after W.H. Auden chose her debut collection, “A Change of World,” for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Though Rich had some early attractions to women, her initial romantic and sexual involvements were with men. She and Conrad (like her father, an assimilated Jew) were intellectually well-matched and politically compatible, and enjoyed, according to Holladay, “a strong sexual connection.” Nevertheless, they opened up their relationship, and Rich’s multiple affairs included a brief liaison with the poet Robert Lowell.

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After the marriage foundered, Conrad, gripped by depression, committed suicide. The act haunted Rich all her life. In her 1972 poem “For the Dead,” anticipating its reverberations, she wrote: “The waste of my love goes on this way/trying to save you from yourself.”

Holladay underlines the fact that Rich herself lived with the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis. She also describes her as a problem drinker, though she attaches the label “alcoholic” only to her partner, Cliff. Whatever the reasons, Rich was “a volatile woman who experienced deep depressions and sometimes indulged in screaming fury.”

Rich cultivated profound, if tumultuous, friendships with other poets — including Carruth, Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, and Audre Lorde. And she could be generous, with both advice and money, to younger writers. But she had a habit of freezing out friends and family when they displeased her. Holladay writes that “when someone angered or disappointed her or just wore her out, she cut ties, often with little warning.”

Holladay is an unalloyed admirer of Rich’s poetry, which over time grew less formal and took on “an unapologetic, even flagrant, raggedness.” Her 1973 collection “Diving into the Wreck” was a co-winner of the National Book Award. She would continue to accumulate honors, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, and the National Medal of Arts (which she rejected on political grounds).

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One of the great virtues of Holladay’s narrative is how skillfully it integrates jargon-free textual analysis of the poetry and uses it to trace Rich’s personal and political metamorphoses. While Rich is most familiar as the lesbian feminist of the 1970s, Holladay also makes the case for her later political poetry and her efforts to wrestle with her Jewish identity, ambivalently bequeathed to her by her father. “She had made a Talmud out of her life, the multiple meanings of which demanded endless study, debate, and interpretation,” Holladay writes.

Holladay takes her biography’s title from Rich’s 1974 poem “Power” in the collection “The Dream of a Common Language,” which she regards as Rich’s finest. The poem pays tribute to Marie Curie, a Nobel Laureate in both chemistry and physics for her work on radioactivity, whose effects ultimately killed her.

Rich ends the poem with these lines: “She died a famous woman denying/her wounds/denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” For Rich herself, Holladay suggests, this valedictory was “the controlling metaphor of her life,” reflecting the poet “in all her complicated glory.”

The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography

By Hilary Holladay

Doubleday, 478 pages, $32.50

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.