Unlearning “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: The Evolution of Adrienne Rich’s Poetry

Angel Chaisson

Unlearning “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: The Evolution of Adrienne Rich’s Poetry

            Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was an American poet and essayist, best known for her contributions to the radical feminist movement. She notably popularized the term “compulsory heterosexuality” in the 1980’s through her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience,” which brought her to the forefront of feminist and lesbian discourse. Her article delves deeply into men’s power over women’s expression of sexuality, and how the expectation of heterosexuality further oppresses lesbian women. My purpose is not to question Rich’s assessment of sexuality and oppression, but rather to examine how the institution of heterosexuality as depicted in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience” impacted her life and career.  Before elaborating on Rich’s argument, it is important to clarify her definition of compulsory heterosexuality as sexuality that is “both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women” (“Compulsory” 24). One of the defining arguments of the essay is that heterosexuality is a tool of the oppressors, playing into politics, economics, and cultural propaganda— that sexuality has always been weaponized against women to perpetuate the inequality of the sexes (“Compulsory” 32). The foundation of Rich’s argument is Kathleen Gough’s “The Origin of the Family,” in which Gough attributes men’s power over women to various acts of repression, such as denying or forcing sexuality onto women, commanding or exploiting their labor, controlling reproductive rights, physically confining or restricting women’s movements, using women as transactional objects, depriving them of creativity, and barring them from the academic and professional sphere (“Compulsory” 9). Although Gough only describes such oppression in relation to inequality, Rich believes these behaviors are a direct result of institutionalized heterosexuality; her determination to dismantle said institution drives the anger and passion present in both her essays and her poetry.

As stated before, Gough mentions that a method of male control is stifling women’s creativity and hindering their professional success. Part of the control stems from the heavy scrutiny on female professionals such as Rich, who explains that men force women into limiting boxes: “women [. . .] learn to behave in a complaisantly and ingratiatingly heterosexual manner because they discover this is their true qualification for employment” (“Compulsory” 13).Women writers, for example, would be more likely to receive praise from male critics for corroborating a positive portrayal of marriage instead of depicting real and serious struggles faced by wives. In fact, it is not difficult to find intense criticism of Rich’s feminist ideals by men who sought to silence her. In the essay “Snapshots of a Feminist Poet,” Meredith Benjamin states that Rich faced the typical backlash that other feminist poets did— her writing was “too personal, too close to the female body, not universal, and privileged politics at the expense of aesthetic and literary merit” (633). The personalization of her poetry was heavily scrutinized, even by her own father, Arnold Rich. He found her writing “too private and personal for public consumption” and rejected her casual exploration of the female body, or in his words, the “wombs of ordure and nausea” (Benjamin 6). The intensity of such criticisms further support Gough’s notion of men suppressing female creativity, fueling Rich’s fire.

Lesbian women suffer even further beneath this heteronormative structure— heterosexist prejudice, in Rich’s terms— because of their sexuality and gender expression. Lesbians must fall within the typical expression of femininity and cannot be “out” on the job; they must remain closeted for the sake of their personal safety and the possibility of success. Although she does not make the connection herself within her essay on the topic, Rich’s personal and professional life centered around maintaining outward heterosexuality. Her experiences fit well within her own descriptions of lesbian suffering; having to “[deny] the truth of her outside relationships or private life” while “pretending to be not merely heterosexual but a heterosexual woman” (“Compulsory” 13). During her seventeen-year marriage to Alfred Conrad (1953-1970), she reluctantly filled the roles of mother and wife, her experience with both drastically changing her poetic approach. It was not until six years after Conrad’s death that Rich established herself as a lesbian through the release of Twenty-One Love Poems in 1976 and her public relationship with writer Michelle Cliff the same year. Rich’s deeply personal style of writing allows one to construct a distinct line of growth and development through her poetic work, which was fully intentional on her part. In his essay “Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics,” Craig Werner quotes Rich on her decision to include dates at the end of every poem by 1956, viewing each finished piece as a “single, encapsulated event” that showed her life changing through a “long, continuous process” (Werner). Over the years, Rich’s struggles were documented and immortalized through her ever-changing poetic voice and style. I will examine the timeline of Adrienne Rich’s poetry from 1958 to 1976 to determine how Rich’s work evolved from the beginning of her marriage all the way to her divorce and eventual coming out. Each poem offers a unique glimpse into Rich’s inner conflict with compulsory heterosexuality and the institution of marriage. Each poem mentioned in this essay can be found in Barbara and Albert Gelpi’s 1995 publication, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose.

Pre-Divorce Poetry (1953-1970)

            The first collection of poetry published after Adrienne Rich’s marriage to Alfred Conrad was The Diamond Cutters: and Other Poems, released in 1953. According to Ed Pavlic’s essay “‘Outward in Larger Terms / A Mind Inhaling Exigency’: Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems,” the collection is largely ignored, likely because Rich herself “disavow[ed]” the work as “derivative” (9). The poems largely reflected the formalist tradition of poetry, much different than the poetry Rich would write in the late 1950’s and beyond. Regardless, it is worth examining some of the work from that time to establish a foundation for Rich’s growth as a writer; there are already inklings of dissatisfaction with the heteronormative framework of love. Here are the opening lines from “Living in Sin”:

               She had thought the studio would keep itself;

               no dust upon the furniture of love.

               Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,

               the panes relieved of grime. (Rich et al. 6).

The speaker of the poem seems to be assessing her belief that the “furniture of love” would maintain itself. Describing love as furniture conjures up the image of something solid and fixed in place. Without careful attention, furniture collects dust and dirt over time and becomes a tarnished version of what it once was. She acknowledges this later in the poem when the speaker dusts the tabletops and cleans the house, declaring that she is “back in love again” by the evening, “though not so wholly” (Rich et al. 6, lines 23-24). The progression of events shows that the doubt the speaker feels is persistent; the dust will always return, no matter how often it is swept aside. The poem calls into question the expectations she had of her recent marriage: did she expect her relationship to survive without nurturing? Was she hoping that she could still thrive as a woman and a writer under the strict heterosexual constraints of marriage? In “Friction of the Mind: The Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich,” Mary Slowik cites this early poetry as the breeding ground for Rich’s anger: “Rich makes an uncompromising examination of the secure world she must leave behind and an even more painful inquiry into the disorderly and isolated world she must enter” (143) .The new life Rich enters is dominated by a heterosexual framework— it would only take a few more years for her experiences as a wife and mother to radicalize her feminism and transform her poetry.

“Snapshot of a Daughter-in-Law” (dated 1958-1960) is featured in a collection of the same name and is arguably one of Rich’s most prominent earlier works. Although the poem barely scratches the surface of her steadily growing anger, it represents “early attempts at understanding a world of deep displacements, painful isolation and underlying violence” (Slowik 148). The collection received much attention due to its innovative form and feminist themes; it contrasted starkly with Rich’s previous collection and potentially the “reinvention” of her career (Pavlic 9). The poem itself is divided into ten numbered sections, each one with an ambiguous female voice. The pronouns cycle through “I,” “you,” and “she.” Although the speaker seems to change throughout the poem, one cannot ignore that each voice seems to offer some observation or criticism about domestic life, or the role women must play in relation to men. Slowik states that behind each pretty line of verse is a “grotesque, vicious, and unexpected violence” (154). Section 2, particularly the last two stanzas, perhaps receives the most observation due to the portrayal of a housewife committing subtle acts of self-harm:

… Sometimes she’s let the tap stream scald her arm,

a match burn to her thumbnail

or held her hand above the kettle’s snout

right in the woolly steam. They are probably angels,

since nothing hurts her anymore, except

each morning’s grit blowing into her eyes. (Rich et al. 9, lines 20-25)

The woman that Rich portrays in this section is one who has become numb to her way of life. The only stimulus that elicits any feeling is the pain of waking up each morning in the same unfulfilling role. In fact, each of the various voices seems to be dealing with some sort of displeasure or pain, such as being “Poised, trembling, and unsatisfied,” stuck singing a song that is not her own (lines 54-60). These women exemplify the pitfalls of institutionalized heterosexuality, forced to maintain a certain image of womanhood and femininity at their own expense. Furthermore, Benjamin asserts that the sections are indeed “snapshots” as the title suggests, implying that they all refer to “a daughter-in-law, if perhaps not the same one” (632). Regardless, Rich joins them all together in the final line of the poem, which is simply the word “ours” (line 122). The cargo mentioned in line 118 suddenly belongs to every voice in the poem, joining them under a shared weight— a similar baggage. It hardly matters if Rich is depicting various aspects of herself, relating her woes to those of other women, or creating characters entirely for the sake of the poem; the brewing dissatisfaction within her is clear through her carefully chosen words.

            “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties,” written in 1961, is a bittersweet account of romance between a couple who is holding onto the passionate past while living in a much less passionate present. The connection the speaker has with her husband feels superficial; the only outright compliment paid to him is in stanza 3, when she commends how well time has treated his appearance. She remembers how she felt reading his old letters, but in the present, they are “two strangers, thrust for life upon a rock” (Rich et al. 15, line 33). The image of the rock implies that the speaker feels stranded with her husband, even if they feel a spark every now and again. In the end, they are still strangers with differing intentions. The speaker poses the question: “Will nothing ever be the same” (line 39). The question comes across as genuine concern. Will the couple remain strangers forever? Returning to the notion of compulsive heterosexuality and marriage, the speaker does not outright consider removing herself from the situation; marriage was often viewed as being a life-long commitment. Rich’s own concerns seem to shine through here, eight years into her own marriage, as she depicts an emotionally distant couple. A poem written two years later in 1963 titled “Like This Together, which is addressed to A.H.C— Alfred H. Conrad — stands out among the others because it is distinctly in Rich’s voice, a direct message to her husband. Lines 8-13 evoke a similar emotion to conflict within “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties”:

            A year, ten years from now

            I’ll remember this—

            this sitting like drugged birds

            in a glass case—

            not why, only that we

            were like this together.

The imagery of drugged birds in a glass case is not pleasant: two creatures, in a stupor, on display for the world to see. Rich stating that she will remember this moment for years to come still feels like reminiscing. Perhaps she is conscious that the couple is “drugged,” going through the motions, but appreciates the time they spent together—perhaps more akin to friendship than romance. Both “A Marriage in the ‘Sixties” and “Like This Together” feature a sort of emotional tug of war; one moment, the speaker feels comforted by their marriage, but in the next moment, she feels isolated or betrayed. Rich portrays that in stanza 4 of “Like This Together” with the metaphor of her husband being a cave, sheltering her. She finds comfort in him, but she is “making him” her cave, “crawling against” him, as if she must force that intimate connection (Rich et al. 23, lines 44-46). Compulsory heterosexuality is at work within this poem, once again showing how the institution of marriage can make a woman feel trapped. Rich is doing everything she can to make something out of nothing, even though their love has been “picked clean at last” (line 54).

            Rich’s examination of the heterosexual relationship dynamic continues in the 1968 poem “I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus,” a feminist reading of the ancient mythological tale.  The speaker wanting to become the death of Orpheus implies a role switch, perhaps turning the patriarchal structure on its head— what if Orpheus’s fate had been in Eurydice’s hands? Lines 2-4 corroborate a feminist lens: “I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain powers/ and those powers severely limited/ by authorities whose faces I rarely see” (Rich et al. 43, lines 2-4). While the mention of Orpheus may once again aim to criticize marriage or the husband, the overall tone of the poem seems to be a broader rejection of the strict heterosexual lifestyle forced on women. In the essay “The Emergence of a Feminizing Ethos in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry,” Jeane Harris cites this poem as a drastic shift in Rich’s poetry, that “the [feminizing] ethos began to take its measure” with a “a deeply self-scrutinizing attitude” (134). Harris’s interpretation forces readers to revisit the poem; as much as Rich is damning the patriarchy, she is also damning herself. She recognizes her own power, but it is a power she cannot use. She has “nerves of a panther,” but she is still wasting the prime of her life filling a role she does not want to fill. Perhaps Rich is criticizing herself for being stuck in the heterosexual sphere for too long, knowing that she is missing out on valuable time.

                                                            Post-Divorce Poetry

            “Re-forming the Crystal” was written in 1973, three years after Adrienne Rich’s divorce from Alfred Conrad and his subsequent suicide. Despite the poem’s target being deceased, Rich does not hold back—the verse is raw, scathing, and honest. Therefore, “Re-forming the Crystal” deserves extensive analysis regarding both Rich’s personal development (sexuality, identity) and artistic development (poetic style and content). The poem itself has a striking format, incorporating both stanzas and blocks of prose poetry; once again, Rich is disrupting the formalist poetic tradition in favor of something more authentic to her own style, breaking free from the constraints that had limited her for so long during her career. The break from traditional form surely fits the theme of the poem: denouncing the heterosexual institution of marriage and facing her feelings about her ex-husband.

The first stanza and the third stanza, when paired together, reveal the speaker’s resentment for the subject. The poem begins with “I am trying to imagine/ how it feels to you/ to want a woman,” as the speaker attempts to place herself in the subject’s shoes (Rich et al. 61, lines 1-3). Stanza 3 heightens the tension, almost sounding accusatory: “desire without discrimination/ to want a woman like a fix” (Rich et al. 61, lines 8-9). The speaker wants to know how it feels to desire without limits; a man is allowed and even encouraged to want women within the heterosexual framework, but a woman is forbidden to want another woman. In the block of prose poetry following the first three stanzas, the speaker hammers in her resentment toward the subject. She says her excitement was never directed toward him; “you were a man, a stranger, a name, a voice on the telephone, a friend; this desire was mine” (lines 14-15). From here on, it can be said with near certainty that Rich is talking directly to Conrad, as she did in previous poems. Although the husband figure is described as a stranger in both “A Marriage in the 60’s” and “Re-forming the Crystal,” Rich expresses uncertainty regarding her relationship in the former that is no longer present in the latter. The emotions felt toward her ex-husband beforehand are no longer up for debate as romantic love. She goes on to say that she is also a stranger to herself: she is the person she sees in pictures, and “the name on the marriage-contract” does not belong to her (line 28). The poem, then, is about Rich rediscovering her sense of self. She is not just denouncing her marriage, but also the person she became during those years. Having to play the part of a heterosexual woman compromised Rich’s politics, art, and identity, all of which she must reevaluate after her divorce. The final point of reconciliation for Rich is understanding the role her relationship with Conrad played in the oppression she experienced: “I want to understand my fear both of the machine and of the accidents of nature. My desire for you is not trivial; I can compare it with the greatest of those accidents” (lines 33-36). Perhaps Rich means for her frustrations not to be directed fully at Conrad, but on a broader scale, heterosexuality as an institution—the “machine.” The marriage itself may have been a result of the heterosexual institution, but the relationship formed between Rich and Conrad is the accident she refers to, a mere coincidence that may have happened with or without outside factors. The distinction is important, as it saves Conrad from being the sole oppressor and object of her anger.

Rich’s first blatantly lesbian work, Twenty-One Love Poems, came out in 1976. The collection was arguably the biggest risk Rich had taken with her poetry up until that point. Although she had always been criticized for her techniques and feminist themes, she was now directly rejecting the heterosexual framework she had placed herself in publicly for her entire career. Harris also comments on this risk when identifying the emergence of Rich’s feminizing ethos: “Perhaps the most costly and potentially damaging position taken in Rich’s poetry is that of lesbianism. Unable to exist in the world ruled by the patriarchy, Rich must create a place for a lesbian ethos to exist” (Harris 136). Twenty-One Love Poems is a result of Rich trying to create that lesbian space, an attempt to radicalize her art along with her politics. As is true with many of Rich’s defining works, the collection incorporates a distinctive form—each poem is numbered from I-XXI (except for “The Floating Poem,” which appears between XIV and XV); and together, the poems tell a cohesive narrative. The overarching story is the growth and decay of an intimate relationship between two women, without the resentment present in Rich’s past poetry. The following paragraphs will analyze the collection based on which poems best exhibit Rich’s personal and artistic growth, prioritizing discussion based on content rather than numerical order.

            Poem I establishes the basis for the collection with one simple line: “No one has imagined us” (line 13). Rich is treading on new ground by depicting lesbian romance, likely creating an image of women that others may have failed to consider—existing separate from men, loving each other, experiencing nuanced passion and lust. She is also entering a territory unknown to herself, describing love in a manner that completely clashes with the dynamic created within her past writings. In poem II, she writes:

…You’ve kissed my hair

to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,

I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .

and I laugh and fall dreaming again

of the desire to show you to everyone I love,

to move openly together

in the pull of gravity, which is not simple. (lines 9-16)

Already, Rich has presented a level of intimacy that was virtually absent from her older works—her love for her partner is genuine and giddy. The poem metaphor perhaps serves two purposes: to show that she is experiencing a new kind of love, and that her poetry is changing as a result. However, she is facing a roadblock that comes with this new way of life. She wants to show her partner off to everyone she loves; but due to the stigma around lesbian relationships, it is impossible to express that level of joy. In “Compulsory Sexuality and the Lesbian Experience,”Rich states that lesbianism is often regarded as a conscious choice made by women who are “acting-out of bitterness toward men” (3); aside from the societal bias against homosexuality, Rich faced the risk of people invalidating her expression of love because of the public falling out she had with her husband. Although she was no longer directly oppressed by her marriage, she was not free from the effects of institutionalized heterosexuality. Rich brings institutional oppression up again in poem IV: “And my incurable anger, my unmendable wounds/ break open further with tears, I am crying helplessly/ and they still control the world, and you are not in my arms (lines 19-21). Rich uses strong words to describe her anguish— “incurable,” “unmendable,” “helplessly”—all indicating that her emotions are a symptom of the patriarchal system and cannot be erased. Considering previous works in which Rich harps on her resilient nerves or impenetrable will (rebelling against notions of softness and weakness), the vulnerability shown in this poem is interesting as well as refreshing. Escaping the stereotype of the frail, dependent heterosexual woman only comes with more stigma—lesbians were considered hardened and bitter. The poem is not the “meaningless rant of a ‘manhater’” that Rich discusses in her essay, but rather one meant to humanize the lesbian struggle (“Compulsory” 23).

            Rich further elaborates on the differences between her experiences with heterosexuality and lesbianism based on the way her relationships have affected her. In poem III, she acknowledges that she is no longer young, yet she feels more alive than ever: “Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty / my limbs streaming with a purer joy?” (lines 4-5). She spends every possible moment making up for the time she lost as a careless young adult, living in the heterosexual framework. More importantly, she accepts that even though this relationship is blissful, it will not be completely perfect: “and somehow, each of us will help the other live/ and somewhere, each of us must help the other die” (lines 15-16). The tug-of-war described in poem III is starkly different than the one described previously in poems such as “Like This Together” or “Marriage in the 60’s”; instead of woefully predicting a bitter end to their relationship, Rich’s close connection to her partner allows her to accept the possibility of splitting up. “The Floating Poem” also supports this notion with the phrase, “Whatever happens to us, your body/ will haunt mine—tender, delicate” (lines 1-2). “Tender” and “delicate” throw off the typically negative connotation that “haunt” has. Rich knows that her partner has changed her forever, and she fully accepts whatever fate has in store for them. Another interesting disparity between the heterosexual relationship(s) depicted in past works and the relationship depicted in Twenty-One Love Poems is the notion of the partners being too different. In past works, Rich referred to her husband (or the representation of a male partner) as a stranger on multiple occasions, the relationship crumbling because their minds were too dissimilar. Poem XIII, however, celebrates differences. Rich and her partner are from different worlds, have different voices, all while having “bodies, so alike…yet so different” (line 11). All that matters to Rich is what ties the women together: “[they] were two lovers of one gender/ [they] were two lovers of one generation” (line 16-17). Regardless of their differing pasts, experiences, and ways of life, they are a part of a new, shared future.

Twenty-one Love Poems serves yet another purpose outside of exploring and documenting sexuality—establishing Rich’s renewed relationship with writing. Rich was known for her anger, and her continuous suffering was the muse for her art and career. She conceptualizes her pain in poem XX: “a woman/ I loved drowning in secrets, fear wound her throat” (lines 6-7). Rich seems to be discussing someone else, but she reveals that she was “talking to her own soul” (“XX,” line 11). The woman Rich used to be was stuck between a public lie and a personal truth, dealing with the constant agony of performative womanhood. However, in poem VIII, she declares that she will “go on from here with [her lover]/ fighting the temptation to make a career out of pain” (lines 13-14). Although heterosexuality as an institution constricted Rich’s freedom and creativity, her work seemed to thrive there; her entire career at that point was spent occupying a different persona altogether. Suffering, in other words, was familiar, comfortable, and reliable. Poem VIII is Rich’s vow to prioritize her own happiness over that reliability. “The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead,” she writes, “I am her descendant” (“VIII,” lines 10-11). She accepts the strength of the person she was before, and all the sacrifices she made, but recognizes that it is time to let go. Poem XXI, the last poem of the collection, is the process of Rich doing just that— finally moving on from the mind’s temptation of pain and loneliness with the phrase, “I choose to walk here” (line 15). She is establishing her effort to break through the heterosexual framework and establish her own path in life.  Twenty-One Love Poems marks a monumental shift in Rich’s life and writing, no longer embracing her own suffering as the main avenue for her work.

Between her unfulfilling marriage and the start of a new life with a female partner, Adrienne Rich’s poetry experienced a drastic transformation from subtle feminist criticism to outright expressing her displeasure with the heterosexual life she was living. Her anger with the world became the core of her art, which trapped Rich into a corner: Could she successfully liberate herself from the confines of the heterosexual framework and continue her career? With every new publication, Rich continued to take risks and push boundaries until she reached a breakthrough—fully embracing her feminist politics and identity. Between The Diamond Cutter and Twenty-One Love Poems, Rich’s poetic and political motivations merge into one cohesive unit; she no longer feared the backlash she would face as an outspoken, radical woman. This groundbreaking confidence would be the defining trait of Rich’s work; nothing, not even the looming influence of the patriarchy, could force her into silence again.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Meredith. “Snapshots of a Feminist Poet: Adrienne Rich and the Poetics of the Archive.” Women’s Studies, vol. 46, no. 7, Oct. 2017, pp. 628–645. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.2017.1337415.

Harris, Jeane. “The Emergence of a Feminizing Ethos in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1988, pp. 133–140. JSTOR


Pavlic, Ed. “‘Outward in Larger Terms / A Mind Inhaling Exigency’: Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems: 1950-2012: Part One.” The American Poetry Review, vol. 45, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 9-14. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.456674446&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Rich, Adrienne, et al. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: Poems, Prose, Reviews and Criticism.

W.W. Norton, 1993.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 4, 1980,

pp. 631–660. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3173834.

Slowik, Mary. “The Friction of the Mind: The Early Poetry of Adrienne Rich.” The

Massachusetts Review, vol. 25, no. 1, 1984, pp. 142–160. JSTOR,


Werner, Craig. “Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Thomas Votteler and Elizabeth P. Henry, vol. 73, Gale, 1993. Gale Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1100001540/LitRC?u=lln_ansu&sid=LitRC&xid=96381f70.  Originally published in Adrienne Rich: The Poet and Her Critics, by Craig Werner, American Library Association, 1988.