Poets, women (queer and straight), people of color, anti-war activists and others who have struggled for justice, will remember where they were when they heard the news that renowned lesbian poet and intellectual Adrienne Rich died on March 27 at age 82 from complications of rheumatoid arthritis at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Lesbian poet and scholar Julie R. Enszer’s post on Wom-po, a women’s poetry listserv, mirrors the shock so many of us felt on learning of Rich’s passing. “Her absence is so palpable to me on this gorgeous afternoon in Maryland,” Enszer wrote, “It feels wrong that the sun should shine on a day we must endure this loss.”
Rich, a feminist opposed to all forms of oppression, became in the 1970s, one of the first poets to write openly from the perspective of being a woman and being a lesbian. She came out at a time when being queer wasn’t spoken of in polite society — when being gay had only recently (in 1973) ceased to be considered a mental illness. (Rich also wrote about what it meant to her to be Jewish.)
“The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs,” Rich wrote in her volume of essays “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.”
Rich’s intense, vibrant, incredibly crafted poetry speaks to many more readers than those who are queer or female. Most everyone has felt, at times, like the narrator of these lines from the title poem of her collection “Diving Into the Wreck”: “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.”
Yet, Rich disdained false universalism. “I write as woman, lesbian and feminist,” she told The Washington Post, “I make no claim to be universal, neuter or androgynous.”
Rich’s career spanned six decades, beginning with the publication of “A Change of World,” which was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1951. Her many volumes of poetry include: “Snapshots of a Daughter-in Law,” “Diving into the Wreck,” “The Dream of a Common Language,” “Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995,” “The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004″ and “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010.” She wrote several provocative essay collections, including, most notably, “Of Women Born.”
The list of prizes that Rich received is mind-boggling. Her honors included: a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.
Yet what’s most striking about Rich is the way in which she transcended the prize-envy of the “po biz.” In 1974, Rich and Allen Ginsberg were awarded the National Book Award for poetry. Rich then insisted on, along with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, that year’s finalists, accepting the award for all women. In 1997, she turned down the National Medal of Arts, the government’s highest award given to artists. Rich deplored the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice” and honoring “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored” in a letter to then-National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander.
“Adrienne Rich was the mother of us all,” Sarah Browning, director of the biennial Split This Rock poetry festival emailed the Blade. “She spoke for … the victims of greed and unbridled capitalism and of war.”
Though her health prevented her from traveling to the poetry and social justice festival in D.C., she sent moral and financial support for the gathering, Browning said. “Thank you for your belief in the freeing power of language and action,” Rich told the gathered poets.
We thank you for your life and work, Adrienne, R.I.P.