Some deaths knock the breath out of you. The world stops spinning on its axis for a second, maybe more, and you wonder how life goes on without this person in it.
Adrienne Rich died March 27, six weeks shy of her 83rd birthday.
For me, Rich was the first great female poet. It’s not that I didn’t worship Emily Dickinson or Christina Rossetti prior to discovering Rich when I was a college freshman. But for me, Rich presented a level of brilliance and smart, exacting, thrilling poetics mixed with polemics that propelled me forward as a poet. I had already published my first book of poetry just before my 19th birthday, having been taken in hand by an older poet, a professor at school. But I had fallen in thrall with male poets, deeply and seemingly irrevocably. I immersed myself in Rimbaud, Verlaine and the more obscure Symbolists. I couldn’t get enough of Rilke. I carried tattered foreign paperbacks of these poets of poison. I lived poetry in those days and performed frequently in Philadelphia and New York with a coterie of older male poets who had taken me under their wing as a kind of female mascot.
But then came Adrienne Rich and my life as a poet changed, my life as a student of letters changed. I was caught not just in the web of her words, but in the weft of her ability to express her politics so keenly, so succinctly, with such force and breadth. I didn’t forget my tortured Europeans, but the break-up was swift and clean.
I was hers.
And she was mine–she led me to the world of female poetry, she lead me to the understanding that I could be a feminist poet, a feminist writer, a feminist in all things. Rich opened the world to me as a woman writer in a way I had only glimpsed fleetingly in the work of Dickinson and Rossetti, the Bronte sisters and the Georges Eliot and Sand, because she lived her poetry.
Several quotes of hers are taped to the mirror in my bathroom. In one, she writes, “The serious revolutionary, like the serious artist, can’t afford to lead a sentimental or self-deceiving life.” In the other, she asserts, “If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.”
She maintained that perspective throughout her writing life. In 2005, she said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, “For me, socialism represents moral value–the dignity and human rights of all citizens. That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible.”
Rich was a cartographer of her times. Born May 16, 1929, she grew up in Baltimore, where she was home-schooled until she was ten. She attended Radcliffe College, where she studied poetry and writing, graduating in 1951. Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was chosen soon after for the Yale Younger Poets Award, having been picked by W.H. Auden.
That auspicious beginning propelled her forward to a Guggenheim Fellowship, a year in Italy where she wrote continually, and then back to the U.S. where she married Alfred Conrad, the father of her three sons–David, Paul and Jacob. Conrad was an economics professor at Harvard whom she met at college. The marriage was fraught from the start, as Rich wrote. But it was motherhood that propelled her into her feminism and, as she wrote, “radicalized me.”
The family moved from Cambridge to New York Where Rich was to become deeply involved in the civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Her involvement became so entrenched, that it sundered her relationship with Conrad. They separated in June 1970 after he accused her of “losing her mind” because her politics had become pre-eminent in their lives. (She was giving Black Panther parties and feminist salons at their New York apartment.)
In October 1970, Conrad shot himself to death. Their youngest son was only eleven.
Rich went on to raise her sons and maintain an increasingly strong poetic and political voice. She published six books of poetry between the time of her husband’s suicide and the beginning of her relationship with writer Michelle Cliff, with whom she became involved in 1976. Cliff was 17 years her junior.
The 1970s were a period of intense work and political action for Rich. She had embraced many of the lesbian-feminist writers of the period, most notably Audre Lorde, with whom she had a complicated and sometimes fractious friendship. Rich had always lived a life of privilege–her father was a world-renowned pathologist and her mother was a concert pianist–and some lesbian-feminists questioned her “credentials” in that period of extreme activism and the intensity of the Second Wave of American feminism where class privilege was discussed in earnest for the first time since the 1930s. While there were many women who left their husbands for other women in those years, suspicion still hung over those women and Rich was, coming out in her 40s, for a time, among them. But she declared in an interview with the London newspaper, The Guardian, in 2002, that after her husband’s death, “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.”
Rich’s anger and frustration with the complexities of her life–as a woman, a former wife, the mother of sons, a lesbian, an undeclared Jew (her father was Jewish but she and her sisters were raised Protestant)–was revealed in her poetry during the years between 1970 and 1980.
What was most complicated for Rich, perhaps, was trying to maintain her position as the most important female poet of her generation among what was still a definitely male institution–the Academy of Letters–when she was also increasingly engaged in lesbian-feminist politics and exploring those politics in her writing.
As she wrote in 1976 in her ground-breaking feminist treatise, “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,” “Much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother. Much male fear of feminism is infantilism–the longing to remain the mother’s son, to possess a woman who exists purely for him.”
In 1976, such statements were still perceived as very avante garde, if not extremist. The book received mixed reviews. The personal nature of her poetry and essays was suddenly suspect. Yet the most defining male poets of her same generation wrote exceptionally personal work. Certainly when one considers the work of the man who granted her first award, W.H.Auden, one can hardly imagine how Rich’s work was somehow more personal than his. But Rich was re-inventing poetry from the vantage point of the female gaze. She was doing what Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston had done as black writers–she was re-creating the writers’ world from the perspective of the permanent underclass that was women. Her concerns were the concerns of women–mothers, wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, lovers, mistresses. In her poetry and essays she was exemplifying what it meant to be female in every aspect of life. As a member of the transitional generation of women–the women of my mother’s generation, who were going to college to find a career and a life of their own and not just an Mrs. degree–she was taking the lives of women as seriously as the lives of men. It was shocking for the Academy and earned her more than one epithet of “shrill” over the years.
Yet her artistry won out.
Perhaps the most defining collection of poems from that period of change for Rich was Diving into the Wreck, for which she won the National Book Award in 1974. Proving that she lived her politics, Rich declined to accept the award individually. Instead, she accepted it “on behalf of all women” with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.
In the title poem, Rich writes, “the words are purposes/the words are maps.” Those words have echoed for me from my college classroom for over three decades.
Rich evolved throughout the past 25 years as a deeply emotional poet whose feminism never wavered, whose politics remained solidly lived. In 1997, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, which she declined. Of her action, she wrote, “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration…[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
Over her literary career Rich won a myriad of awards, including the Bollinger Prize, the Frost Medal, the Wallace Stevens Award, the William Whitehead Award, the Shelley Memorial Award and a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called genius grant). She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Rich taught at some of the most prestigious colleges, including Swarthmore, Columbia, Brandeis and Bryn Mawr.
For more than 20 years, Rich was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. I recall seeing her one year, barely able to walk or sign books. Her son attributed her death to complications of the disease. She had lived in Santa Cruz since the 1980s, but traveled little in recent years.
When I consider the life of Rich–as a literary icon, as an activist icon–I think how fortunate we have been, those of us who were her students, her readers, her compatriots in battle, to have had her words, myriad and deep, illuminating and explicative.
As word of her death reached me, the poem of hers that came immediately to mind was “Power,” which she wrote about Marie Curie, the scientist and discoverer of radium. At the end of the poem, Rich writes, “She died a famous woman denying/her wounds/denying/her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
Rich was one of the most lauded poets of our time, yet was never Poet Laureate–perhaps a political decision, perhaps just an inexplicable oversight. But her oeuvre, her work, her life all combined to break ground for a generation of women and women poets. Her work opened us up to realities and possibilities. She made us believe that women could perhaps cease to be second-class, she made us believe that striving for that day was not just the work of activists, but of writers, of poets, of thinkers.
As she described that venture in Diving into the Wreck, she also continued to describe the journey toward full person-hood for women, queers, people of color, the poor, the incarcerated.
Whatever is unnamed, un-depicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language–this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable.
Rich also told us, “The moment of change is the only poem.” She made her life her poem. We should all read one–or write one–in her memory.