In Memoriam: Adrienne Rich

“It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.” — Adrienne Rich

source: Jezebel (re-sized here)

When I heard that Adrienne Rich had died (March 27), I immediately re-read some of her poetry, which I hadn’t done in a while. And after I’d read it, I thought about words I would use to describe her and what she wrote. I came up with several: fierce, brave, uncompromising, intellect, passion, visionary, unrelenting, inspiring. There are many others, but because of her work as a poet, it’s not necessarily about how many words you place on a page. It’s the words you choose and how you place them.

One of the most influential writers of the feminist movement for decades, Rich was also one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She was one of the first to articulate the personal as political, and myriad women’s studies programs launched with her work as their basis. As journalist/author Margalit Fox notes in the New York Times, she was

“…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 wrote nearly two dozen volumes of poetry, and over a half-dozen of prose. Her poetry alone has sold 800,000 copies, and her work has been widely anthologized and widely taught.

“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.”
(Fox, NYT)

I came of age in the 1980s. Adrienne Rich had a good 40 years of adulthood on me, but she was part of a canon that I learned in the search for myself, and for my place in a world in which I would be defined, many times over, by my sex, how I expressed my gender, and my sexual orientation. At various times throughout my life, any one of these things or a combination of them has locked me out of conversations and dialogues both local and national, and I have often been forced into boxes with those labels on them, and stacked on the margins of the sociopolitical and economic stage.

Rich knew those boxes well, but she refused to let them sit on the margins, and she refused to allow others to paint the labels on them. What she sought to do was to destroy the boxes entirely. She used the tools of poetic infrastructure to write “impeccable verse,” but also to subvert the paradigms in which women had been relegated to barely second-class in public and non-public life. Fox states,

She had learned the lessons of her father’s library well, or so it seemed. … Ms. Rich had begun, with subtle subversion, to push against a time-honored thematic constraint — the proscription on making poetry out of the soul-numbing dailiness of women’s lives.

This was an act of revolution, both literary and cultural, and Rich would go on to write the political and personal through poetry. She was honored numerous times, but remained true to the lessons she learned as a woman, a Jew, and a lesbian, and turned some down. She turned down the 1997 National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest award bestowed on artists, for example:

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.”
(Margalit Fox, NYT)

Something else she said that continues to resonate with me: “The most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.”

Rich was a constant throughout the years of my coming of age, partly because I am the generation just after the foment and feminism of the 1970s, and in many ways, on a cusp between that and the burgeoning “Queer Nation” sensibility of the 1990s. I was aware of her, the things she did, the things she wrote, and the role she played in the decades before mine, but also in the ripple effect that she had beyond them.

Poet and associate professor of English D.A. Powell said in the San Francisco Chronicle that

“Every generation has to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ensure the freedoms and rights of all…Adrienne did about five generations’ worth. I thought she would live forever. Her work had that kind of power.”
(Meredith May, SFGate)

I never imagined she could die, that her physical self would cease to allow her to continue, because in my mind, she will always be a constant through the volumes of work she left behind, and the impact she had on so many of us who — whether consciously or not — have taken her words to heart, and hold them close in our own battles for our own truths. Rich once said, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”

I hope that I may have a modicum of her strength, and of her bravery to tell my own truths, and to continue the heavy lifting.

“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.” — Adrienne Rich
(as quoted in SFGate)

For more on Rich:
Poetry Foundation: Adrienne Rich bio and bibliography

NPR on Rich’s death

Another NPR piece that includes a bit of her poetry

HuffPo piece on Rich and her poetry, with links to some of her poems

Read this: Interview in Paris Review, Kate Waldman and Adrienne Rich
The story behind that interview is here, at

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