Adrienne Rich, Poet of Change

Adrienne Rich, a poet and essayist whose righteous, resonant voice transformed American literature and consciousness, passed away last Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, California. Beloved by the feminist and LGBT communities, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and more than 30 books. Though honored with a bevy of prizes (including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant), she remained resolutely outside the establishment, her radicalism seeming only to gather steam over time. When President Bill Clinton, for instance, offered her the National Medal of Arts in 1997, she famously declined. Taking heroic advantage of the ensuing press, she criticized the cynicism of an administration willing to honor a handful of token artists while slashing funding for the arts. “Art,” she said, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.”

Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929, to a milieu of scholarship and comfort. Her father was an esteemed professor at Johns Hopkins, her mother an erstwhile musician. At 21, while still a senior at Radcliffe, Rich’s first collection of poems was bestowed with the Yale Younger Poets Prize by W.H. Auden. In his notoriously paternalistic introduction to that volume, Auden wrote, “Miss Rich’s poems … are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” Such genteel misogyny was, of course, endemic to the time and place: Though a published author, Rich, as a woman, couldn’t enter Harvard’s Widener Library unescorted. In 1953, she married economist Arthur Conrad, with whom she had three sons. 

The 1970s proved pivotal to Rich’s life and career. In that decade, she was widowed, declared herself as a lesbian, and met her longtime partner, the writer Michelle Cliff. She also began to write and publish the poems that would establish her not merely as a major poet, but also as a leader of the burgeoning feminist movement.

Throughout the '70s, Rich entered that uncrowded pantheon of American artists whose work actually drives political discourse. The poet and memoirist Honor Moore describes Rich’s poems and readings as revelatory to the women of her generation, and definitive in her own development as an artist. “Her poems led me to my voice,” Moore says. “In the middle '70s, right into the ‘80s, you heard that Adrienne was giving a reading, and you’d go, and it was an event. You’d hear, for the very first time, some magnificent, iconic, life-changing poem, like "Diving into the Wreck." And those rooms were packed with women and men, there to hear her extraordinary voice, so direct and un-stylized, with the slightest, almost indiscernible tinge of a Southern accent, and that face gleaming into, say, the 92nd St. Y.”

At a time when American women were casting aside antiquated modes of being, Rich crafted a language of change, articulating a gleaming vision of a future transformed by feminism. “She made us feel,” says Moore, “that we were moving forward together. For instance, in those lines from ‘Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev’ that go, A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies/burning together … We stream/into the unfinished the unbegun/the possible. At that time, many of us felt monstrous and uncertain, and she made us feel that we were these constellations of something coming into being.”

Such transformation was, to Rich, among the ultimate ambitions of her art. Her landmark poem, "Planetarium," ends with the following lines:

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 the mind.

“Adrienne Rich,” says the poet Suzanne Gardinier, “found a love for language and a thirst for justice to be inextricable.” This rare pairing of passions resulted in poems that never sank to the level of mere agit-prop, and inspired generations of readers with a belief in the potential revolutionary power of their most intimate truths.

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