Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday, 27 March, at her home in Santa Cruz, California. The 82-year-old succumbed to complications from the rheumatoid arthritis that had plagued her for years. Known for her outspoken views, she “consistently challenged the myths of the American dream,” said Pink News, and was “celebrated as much for deeply personal reflections on her own life as for sometimes-biting social commentary,” said Steve Gorman of Reuters. Rich is survived by her partner, Michelle Cliff; her three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob Conrad; her sister, Cynthia; and two grandchildren.
Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929, to a Jewish professor of pathology and an Episcopalian concert pianist. In 1951, she graduated with an English degree from Radcliffe University and W.H.Auden selected her first collection, “A Change of World,” for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series. Two years later she married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economics professor. They had three children, but in 1970 she left him and he killed himself. In 1976, Rich began a lifelong relationship with the Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff, reported Pink News.
Rich taught widely, including at Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell and Stanford Universities. She wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry and more than half a dozen of prose, the poetry alone selling nearly 800,000 copies since the mid 1960s. Her works are “widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught,” reported Margalit Fox in the The New York Times.
Award-winning writing. Rich received “a galaxy of honors,” reported Steve Gorman of Reuters, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and National Book Award. The latter was awarded in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck”, now considered her masterwork and a frequently anthologised piece. In 2003, she won the Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, and “was applauded by the panel of judges for her ‘honesty at once ferocious, humane, her deep learning, and her continuous poetic exploration and awareness of multiple selves’,” reported Pink News.
A feminist voice. “Adrienne Rich was a voice for the feminist movement when it was just starting and didn’t have a voice,” said Barbara Gelpi, a professor emeritus of English and women’s studies at Stanford University, told The Los Angeles Times. “She expressed the sources of women’s pain when women were coming to a sense of their own history and potential.”
A lesbian voice. “Ms. Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of ‘Twenty-One Love Poems,’” reported the New York Times. The poems’ exploration of “sexual love between women” was considered “disarming and dangerous.” In 1981, she published an influential essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence “, in which she argued that “heterosexuality is a political institution that benefits heterosexual men and disempowers everyone else,” claimed Los Angeles Times. She went on to co-edit the lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom, with her partner Michelle Cliff from 1981 to 1983.
“Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy… Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard,” said Rich, on receiving the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2006, quoted in The New York Times.
Political. Although Rich was “best known as an advocate of women’s rights”, she “also engaged with sexual politics and foreign policy, especially in her strong anti-war stance,” reported the Pink News. In 1997, she refused to accept the National Medal of Arts from the then president, Bill Clinton, writing that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration,” reported Reuters. She added, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
Plaudits. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet WS Merwin told the BBC that Rich was “very courageous and very outspoken”: “She was a real original, and whatever she said came straight out of herself.” The New York Times obituary described her as “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.”
Twitter tributes. @MarthaPlimpton wrote: “Adrienne Rich, Rest in Peace. 1st female poet I ever loved who didn’t kill herself or live in a cage. Lionhearted woman”, while @ginatrapani began with a favourite quote: “‘You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.’ Rest in peace Adrienne Rich, my heroine in poetry & politics.” @eveensler: “The great poet and most extraordinary feminist activist AdrienneRich has died. She created the path I walk on. Please read her. Cherish.”And a final, apt quote from @citylightsnc: “’Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.’ – AdrienneRich.”
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