Fabulous feminist foremother Adrienne Rich has died at the age of eighty-two. I once went to a reading of hers. It was unforgettably powerful. I have read most of her books including her non-fiction “Of Woman Born.” I loved her and always will. She was brilliant. She was fierce. She was unapologetically feminist and unapologetically lesbian. From her New York Times obit tonight:
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….
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….
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….”
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.”
Sleep well, sweet inspirational sister.