Adrienne Rich: Inspiring radical feminist & poet of unswerving vision May 16 1929 - March 27 2012 Print E-mail

 London ~ Saturday March 31 2012, page 55

Adrienne Rich obituary

Radical poet revered by feminists and literary critics alike

By Julie Bindel
Adrienne Rich in 2006. Her non-fiction book Of Woman Born is a brutally honest account of motherhood. (David Corio/Getty Images)

Adrienne Rich, who has died aged 82 of complications arising from rheumatoid arthritis, was one of the most influential and political American poets of the last century. The author of more than 30 widely read books of poetry and prose over six decades, she believed that art and politics are indivisible. Her radical focus on feminism, sexuality, civil rights, Jewish identity and the anti-war movement positioned her as a leading activist as well as writer.

In her poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) she described the drudgery of marriage and domesticity before feminism had properly found its feet: "Banging the coffee-pot into the sink / she hears the angels chiding, and looks out / past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky." Motherhood was another sacred cow tackled by Rich; her non-fiction book Of Woman Born (1976) is a brutally honest and personal examination of motherhood, and a classic feminist text.

Rich soon became one of the leading lights of the women's liberation movement. Tiny in stature, but with a big presence, she captivated audiences. I heard her read on several occasions and was always struck by the reverence she inspired in literary critics and feminists alike.

Coming out as a lesbian in 1976, at a time when it engendered extreme hostility, she began a relationship with the editor and writer Michelle Cliff, who was to become her lifelong companion. That year, Rich published Twenty-One Love Poems, her homage to lesbian passion: "Whatever happens with us, your body / will haunt mine – tender, delicate / your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern in forests / just washed by sun."

In 1980, Rich published the essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, in which she argued that it was necessary to break the taboo about lesbianism and reject the heterosexuality routinely forced upon women. Prior to this, the almost universal assumption – even among the most radical of feminists – was that sexual preference was biologically determined as opposed to a social construction that benefited patriarchy.

Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, who encouraged her to read poetry from early childhood, was a pathologist; her mother was a former concert pianist. In 1951, Rich graduated from Radcliffe College, Massachusetts, and published her first book, A Change of World.

In 1953, she married Alfred Conrad, a professor at Harvard University, with whom she had three sons. The family moved to New York in 1966 and Rich took a teaching post at Columbia University. During this time she became involved in civil-rights activism and the early feminist movement. She left Conrad in 1970, as the women's liberation movement was gathering pace in the US. Conrad took his own life later that year.

In 1986, on being awarded the Ruth Lilly poetry prize by the American Council for the Arts and the Modern Poetry Association, Rich declared that poetry was not the private preserve of academics. "It's not just something for scholars to write about. It is for people." Her other commendations included the National Book award, the Academy of American Poets fellowship, and a MacArthur "genius" award. In 1997, she made headlines when she turned down the National medal of arts from President Bill Clinton, for what she called "political reasons". Raging against the inequalities in American life, she expressed her dismay that the president should honour "a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured".

Her poem Ballade of the Poverties, from the collection Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, outlines her commitment to the fight for social equality: "There's the poverty of the cockroach kingdom and the rusted toilet bowl / The poverty of to steal food for the first time / The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck."

Rich remained involved in feminist activism throughout her life and was an active member of a number of campaigns, including Sisterhood in Support of Sisters, in South Africa, and the Boston Women's Fund. "When a woman tells the truth," she once proclaimed, "she is creating the possibility of more truth around her."

Rich is survived by Cliff and by her sons.

• Adrienne Cecile Rich, poet, essayist and feminist, born 16 May 1929; died 27 March 2012
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 Saturday March 31, 2012

The ‘purely moral loneliness' of Adrienne Rich

By Ranjit Hoskote

 FEMINIST POET AND ESSAYIST: A June 6, 1986 photograph of Adrienne Rich holding her certificate that announces the $25,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in Chicago. (AP)

Adrienne Rich was that rare figure, a lavishly gifted poet and splendid intellectual who readily dirtied her hands at the barricades of social revolution. She collaborated with activist colleagues to claim social and political space for women and people of alternative sexuality during the 1960s and 1970s, even as she composed some of the most memorably sensuous and intellectually supple poems of that turbulent era. In ‘Autumn Sequence,' a poem published in her landmark 1966 collection, Necessities of Life, she wrote:

There must be a place, there has come

a time ­

where so many nerves are fusing ­

for a purely moral loneliness.

That ‘purely moral loneliness' was a position Rich, who died this Tuesday aged 82, was never afraid to occupy. In a figurative sense, she inherited it by birth as a person of part-Jewish descent, at birth as a woman, and when she arrived at the discovery, as a married woman and mother, that she was lesbian. Rarely was the feminist motto, ‘The personal is the political,' as physically and viscerally true of anyone as it was of this fierce visionary, whose lifelong battle with rheumatic arthritis did not prevent her from engaging in debate and dialogue with a variety of interlocutors, both allies and antagonists.

Artist and activist
Her greatest achievement was to have led a vibrant life as artist and activist, without ever allowing her activism to degenerate into tokenism or permitting her poetry to descend to mere slogan and polemic. Hers was a complex and many-sided consciousness: if she could shape the poem into an anthem on the anvil of liberation, she could also craft it delicately into a pensive meditation on love and absence, or weave it into a philosophical reflection on the transience of desire and the unquenchable hope of retaining the gift of passion. In one of the sequence of ghazals that she composed during the late 1960s in homage to Ghalib (she was one of the seven American poets who had been drawn by Aijaz Ahmad into an ambitious project of translating, or transcreating, the stellar Mughal poet), she wrote:

When I look at that wall I shall think of

you

and of what you did not paint there.

Only the truth makes the pain of lift

ing a hand worthwhile:

the prism staggering under the blows

of the raga.

The vanishing-point is the point

where he appears.

Two parallel tracks converge,

yet there has been no wreck.

To mutilate privacy with a single fool-

ish syllable

is to throw away the search for the one

necessary word.

When you read these lines, think of me

and of what I have not written here.

Born in Baltimore in 1929 to a father who was an assimilated Jew and a Christian mother, Rich was raised in the Episcopal Church. Her Jewish ancestry remained a powerful source of cultural significance to her, as well as a marker of difference and the experience of suffering stigma, ostracism and marginalisation. The future poet grew up in a household that prized intellectual achievement, valued artistic and literary gifts, and embodied high bourgeois culture at its best. Her father, Arnold Rich, was a doctor and an academic; her mother, Helen Rich, was a pianist and had been a composer. It was a home that prepared her for the way she would make for herself in a world that was still, when she first published her poems in the early 1950s, dominated by influential men.

By the time Rich won the prestigious National Book Award for her 1974 collection, Diving into the Wreck, authoritative female voices had gradually come to be on the ascendant.

One of the lasting achievements of Rich and her contemporaries is the dissolution of the patriarchal control over positions of privilege and articulation that had once been the norm. At the risk of being branded as willful, disruptive harpies, these courageous women paved the way for progressive reform with struggle, sacrifice, painful self-questioning, and a tenacious demand for institutional changes in government, academia and the law.

Across a six-decade-long career inaugurated with the publication of her 1951 collection, A Change of World, Rich's poetic self transmigrated into various personae, including those of the pearl diver, the woman scientist who discovered and was killed by radium, the astronomer, the lover, and the fugitive in quest of a common language in which all anguish can be shared, all trauma resolved, all ecstasy gathered into the throbbing stillness of communion. As exemplar and inspiration, Rich opened up a space for other American women poets to articulate themselves both as innovative artists and as political selves, including Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, and Louise Glück. The corpus of her work, extending through more than 25 volumes, stands at the head of a post-World War II lineage of American poetry that has resonated, and will continue to resonate, for poets and readers throughout the Anglophone world.

(Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. He is the author of I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (2011) and editor of the forthcoming Dom Moraes: Selected Poems.)
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 March 29, 2012, page A1

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism

Adrienne Rich in 1987. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)
By MARGALIT FOX
Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work ­ distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity ­ brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.

Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.

Triply marginalized ­ as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew ­ Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.

For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front. While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse ­ often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing ­ sounding like that of few other poets.

All this helped ensure Ms. Rich’s continued relevance long after she burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.

Her constellation of honors includes a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.” That volume, published in 1973, is considered her masterwork.

In the title poem, Ms. Rich uses the metaphor of a dive into dark, unfathomable waters to plumb the depths of women’s experience:

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. ...
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Ms. Rich was far too seasoned a campaigner to think that verse alone could change entrenched social institutions. “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” she said in an acceptance speech to the National Book Foundation in 2006, on receiving its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. “Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”

But at the same time, as she made resoundingly clear in interviews, in public lectures and in her work, Ms. Rich saw poetry as a keen-edged beacon by which women’s lives ­ and women’s consciousness ­ could be illuminated.

She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor and assimilated Jew, was an authority on tuberculosis who taught at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, a Christian, was a pianist and composer who, cleaving to social norms of the day, forsook her career to marry and have children. Adrienne was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

Theirs was a bookish household, and Adrienne, as she said afterward, was groomed by her father to be a literary prodigy. He encouraged her to write poetry when she was still a child, and she steeped herself in the poets in his library ­ all men, she later ruefully observed. But those men gave her the formalist grounding that let her make her mark when she was still very young.

When Ms. Rich was in her last year at Radcliffe (she received a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1951), W. H. Auden chose her first collection, “A Change of World,” for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series, a signal honor. Released in 1951, the book, with its sober mien, dutiful meter and scrupulous rhymes, was praised by reviewers for its impeccable command of form.

She had learned the lessons of her father’s library well, or so it seemed. For even in this volume Ms. Rich had begun, with subtle subversion, to push against a time-honored thematic constraint ­ the proscription on making poetry out of the soul-numbing dailiness of women’s lives.

A poem in the collection, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” depicting a woman at her needlework and reprinted here in full, is concerned with precisely this:

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

Once mastered, poetry’s formalist rigors gave Ms. Rich something to rebel against, and by her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” published by Harper & Row, she had pretty well exploded them. That volume appeared in 1963, a watershed moment in women’s letters: “The Feminine Mystique” was also published that year.

In the collection’s title poem, Ms. Rich chronicles the pulverizing onus of traditional married life. It opens this way:

You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time. ...
Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.

Though the book horrified some critics, it sealed Ms. Rich’s national reputation.

She knew the strain of domestic duty firsthand. In 1953 Ms. Rich had married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and by the time she was 30 she was the mother of three small boys. When Professor Conrad took a job at the City College of New York, the family moved to New York City, where Ms. Rich became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

By 1970, partly because she had begun, inwardly, to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.

Ms. Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” whose subject matter ­ sexual love between women ­ was still considered disarming and dangerous. In the years that followed her poetry and prose ranged over her increasing self-identification as a Jewish woman, the Holocaust and the struggles of black women.

Ms. Rich’s other volumes of poetry include “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978), “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far” (1981), “The Fact of a Doorframe” (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991) and, most recently, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” published last year.

Her prose includes the essay collections “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” (1979); “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1986); an influential essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” published as a slender volume in 1981; and the nonfiction book “Of Woman Born” (1976), which examines the institution of motherhood as a socio-historic construct.

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter to Jane Alexander, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the award, she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

Ms. Rich’s other laurels ­ and these she did accept ­ include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

She taught widely, including at Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell and Stanford Universities.

Ms. Rich’s survivors include her partner of more than 30 years, the writer Michelle Cliff; three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob, from her marriage to Professor Conrad; a sister, Cynthia Rich; and two grandchildren.

For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing ­ and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being ­ in just seven words.

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reprinted from “Collected Early Poems” by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1993 by Adrienne Rich. With the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.