In more than 60 years as a published poet, Ms. Rich examined the evolving lives of women in modern society and embodied many of those changes herself. She was a precocious child of a privileged Baltimore family, then a young wife and mother, and later dedicated herself to the ideals of feminism.
In the 1970s she became one of the first mainstream poets to write from an avowedly lesbian point of view. Her subtle poems and uncompromising essays brought Ms. Rich a loyal following that extended far beyond the measured world of poetry.
“No other living poet . . . has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life,” Dana Gioia, a poet and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 1999.
Ms. Rich’s first volume of poetry, published in 1951, was praised by W.H. Auden. In the 1950s, she was a friend of writer Sylvia Plath, who described her as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparking black eyes . . . honest, frank, forthright and . . . opinionated.”
But as she began to chafe at the traditional role of mother and housewife, her writing took on a sharper edge. Her 1963 collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” represented one of the country’s first literary nods to feminism.
By 1968, in her poem “Planetarium,” ostensibly about a 19th-century female astronomer, Ms. Rich was writing from the perspective of a woman seeking an independent identity:
I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images … for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of my mind.
One of Ms. Rich’s most celebrated books of poetry, “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), won the National Book Award and put her in the front rank of American poets. The title poem, with its layers of meaning about treasure hunting, failed relationships and male-female hierarchies, is “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women’s movement,” literary scholar Cheryl Walker wrote in the Nation.
The poem begins with these lines:
I put on
the body armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
Ms. Rich wrote almost as many essays as poems, often taking a bolder tone than the carefully sifted language of her verse.
In her 1976 essay collection, “Of Woman Born,” Ms. Rich declared her feminist credo and wrote for the first time from an openly lesbian viewpoint: “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.”
In another memorable passage, she wrote, “All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body.”