March 29, 2012
Hail & Farewell: Adrienne Rich
by Dennis Johnson
Poet Adrienne Rich died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, California, after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Rich was 82. As a San Francisco Chronicle obituary by Meredith May notes, her “eloquent yet enraged poems ushered in the women’s movement and galvanized the lesbian community for more than half a century.” A New York Times obit by Margalit Fox put it even more forcefully, declaring her “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 …”
Rich first shot to fame when she was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for her first book, A Change of World, in 1951, while she was still an undergraduate at Radcliffe College. Rich continued to publish poetry into the 1960s, when, as the Chronicle obit notes, “the content of her work became increasingly confrontational – exploring such themes as women’s role in society, racism, and the Vietnam War. The style of these poems also revealed a shift from careful metric patterns to free verse.” During that time, Rich also married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad and had three sons.
But as the Times notes, her take on the world began to change 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.
Rich continued to steadily publish collections of her poetry, including such well-known volumes as The Dream of a Common Language, The Fact of a Doorframe, and An Atlas of the Difficult World, as well as essay collections, such as On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, and Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.
And her work won numerous awards, although, as the Times piece notes,
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.”
Of course, she did accept a few biggies, including the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
But not everyone appreciated her mix of pootry and politics. In a review of her Your Native Land, Your Life for the Times, poet William Logan complained that “she allows what once was an instrument in her hands to become just a blunt instrument … One senses in her the wish to integrate the realms of her experience — poetry and politics, art and activism. The more she tries to fuse them, however, the more deeply they remain divided; in her work what is poetry isn’t political, and what is political isn’t poetry.”
Asked what she thought of this criticism by Nan Richardson for a Times profile, Rich responded, “One man said my politics trivialized my poetry. I don’t think politics is trivial — it’s not trivial for me. And what is this thing called literature? It’s writing. It’s writing by all kinds of people. Including me.”
She reads her poem, “What kind of times are these?” in the video below.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives