May 16, 2017
Happy eighty-eighth birthday of Adrienne Rich, everybody
by Melville House
The world is a crazy medley of cymbals and cuckoo-clock noises, and it’s an excellent moment to reach for ballast to the writing of Adrienne Rich, who would have turned eighty-eight today. She died in 2012.
Born in 1929, Rich first rose to prominence in 1951, when her manuscript A Change of World was selected by W.H. Auden as a winner in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition — other winners, over the years, have included such luminaries as John C. Farrar (co-founder of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Muriel Rukeyser, John Ashbery, Margaret Walker, and our own James Agee.
She would go on to write more than twenty books of poetry, including landmark collections like Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language, and eight books of essays.
Here she is reading “What Kind of Times Are These”:
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
Rich’s poetry is loved for its ferocious politics, particularly its vocal feminism and celebration of lesbian eros, as well as its stances again poverty, war, racism, and other violences. The Yale Younger Poets Award was the first of many such recognitions — she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1992, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994, the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2010, and plenty of others. In 1974, she won the National Book Award for Diving into the Wreck, and showed up for the ceremony with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker—both also nominated—to accept the award jointly “in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain.” They added, “We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry—if it is poetry—exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison.”
In 1997, she was named a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and wrote a letter to National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander in which she said she must decline the honor
because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration…. There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.
Beneath the signature, Rich wrote, “cc: President Clinton.”
For more information, check out the Poetry Foundation’s excellent biography, this terrific essay on the importance of poetry in dark times that the Guardian published in 2006, or PennSound’s career-spanning trove of audio and video recordings of Rich’s readings.
Then watch this video of Rich reading her poem “North American Time” (“Poetry never stood a chance / of standing outside history.”):
And then this video of Rich being memorialized shortly after her death on Democracy Now!, including remarks by Alice Walker and Rich’s legendary agent, Frances Goldin:
You can also watch this video of the 92nd Street Y’s tribute program, featuring Mark Doty, Cathy Park Hong, Elizabeth Willis, Philip Levine, and others reading Rich’s poems and sharing their own recollections of her:
Finally, here is the video of a complete reading Rich gave at Wellesley College late in life: