Adrienne Rich is Dead

Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929. Rich’s father was a pathologist who cultivated his daughter’s early affections for literature and her mother was a concert pianist who’d given up her career in favor of marriage and child-rearing.

Adrienne Rich would eventually go on to study at Radcliffe (Harvard’s college for women at the time), where all of her teachers were men and one of them was W.H. Auden. Auden praised the poems in 21-year-old Rich’s first volume of poetry, A Change of World (1951), as “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.”

Adrienne Rich remained, as she grew up, neat and modestly dressed. But she ceased speaking quietly, instead becoming one of the most influential poets and thinkers of the 20th century, known for her radical feminist politics, anti-war activism, literary prowess and contributions to lesbian scholarship and discourse. During a time when women’s liberation seemed focused solely on the needs of white middle-class straight women, Rich was uniquely outspoken on the importance of issues facing lesbians and women of color.

All of us — especially all of us here, the queers and the women — are indebted to Adrienne Rich and all the words she wrote and spoke during her 82 years on earth. Yesterday, March 27, 2012, was the last day of those 82 years.

She died + a famous woman+ denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds + came + from the same source as her power

- from “Power” (The Dream of a Common Language)

In The New York Times Book Review, Carol Muske wrote of Rich that she began as a “polite copyist of Yeats and Auden, wife and mother. She has progressed in life (and in her poems …) from young widow and disenchanted formalist, to spiritual and rhetorical convalescent, to feminist leader…and doyenne of a newly-defined female literature.

**

“The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”

**

Before sitting down to write this, I decided to do a quick scan of my personal library to see what Adrienne Rich writings I had on hand to pull from and I realized that I didn’t know where to start looking. See, Adrienne Rich is just so awesomely and uniquely prolific. My books are arranged by genre and Rich could be anywhere on those shelves — Poetry, Feminism, Queer Theory, About Writing, Essay Anthologies. She just did so many things. I’ve read Adrienne Rich’s work in at least three entirely unrelated college courses and like Rich, I’m a Jewish feminist lesbian writer who cares about literature and also about social justice. So she comes up a lot.

The first thing I found was a copy of The Dream of a Common Language (Poems 1974-1977). My friend Meg gave it to me twelve or so years ago, when I was living in Michigan and she was still living in New York. My copy is an early printing (1978, I think), bound and covered in tan cardstock with the title and other relevant information printed in large, understated red and black letters.

Meg stuck a post-it note on page 23 for me, and it’s still there:

“I thought you might like these ’21 Love Poems.’ I like some of these other ones too. I hope you do. Hope you don’t mind used edition, but obviously cheaper. There’s a good used bookstore on 12th street right next to where I work…. dangerous. xo meg”

I did like the 21 love poems and many of the other ones, too.

Rain on the West Side Highway,
red light at Riverside:
the more I live the more I think
two people together is a miracle.

- from Love Poem XVIII (The Dream of a Common Language)

Then mostly I just found things here and there — like her 1984 essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” included in The Essential Feminist Reader. The intro describes the essay like so: “In this essay, Rich acknowledged her own ‘politics of location’ as a North American, white, jewish lesbian, and she criticized ‘the faceless raceless classless category of all women as a creation of white, western, self-centered women.”

**

A portrait of Adrienne Cecile Rich (1950s)

Adrienne Rich got married in 1953 to a Harvard economics professor named Alfred, and consequentially birthed three sons. Rich was gifted grant after grant after award after grant after Guggenheim Fellowship. She published her second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters, in 1955, but she hates that book now.

She felt weird about her life back then, like how she’d gotten married and had babies and yet lacked all the accompanying feelings society had promised her went along with marriage and babies.

**

“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance.”

- Adrienne Rich’s journal, 1960

**

In 1966, the family moved to New York City. By this point Rich was becoming increasingly politically and socially conscious, both as a woman and simply as a citizen, and while teaching at Columbia University she got heavily entrenched in the New Left activity happening at the time. In addition to publishing in feminist journals, she participated in various political actions and threw fundraising parties for The Black Panthers and anti-Vietnam protestors. Her husband was okay with her political passion at first and then less okay with it. He told his friends that Adrienne was losing her mind and was “becoming a very pronounced, very militant feminist.” They divorced. Shortly thereafter, Alfred drove into the woods with a gun and committed suicide. Rich and her children were devastated.

**

“in the nineteenth year and the eleventh month
speak your tattered Kaddish for all suicides:

Praise to life though it crumbled in like a tunnel
on ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though its windows blew shut
on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved

Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough

Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us

Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable.

Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.”

― “Tattered Kaddish”

**

The Guardian in 2002 wrote of what happened next: “For many, the revelation that [Rich] was a lesbian came as a shock. Observant readers of Rich’s work, however, would have noted that, as early as A Change of World , a poem called “Stepping Backward” had dealt with breaking off a close female relationship.”

She kept on publishing: Necessities of Life in 1966, Leaflets in 1969. 1973’s Diving into the Wreck, which won the National Book Award in 1974, is perhaps her most celebrated volume of poetry.

**

The only real love I have ever felt
was for children and other women
everything else was lust, pity,
self-hatred, pity, lust

- from “The Phenomenology of Anger” (Diving into the Wreck)

**

Rich and Allen Ginsberg shared the National Book Award that year, but Rich refused to accept her award individually, and instead brought up fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde with her to accept “on behalf of all women.”

Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, Adrienne Rich (1980)

In 1976, Rich met Michelle Cliff, a Jamaican-born novelist and editor who would remain Rich’s partner for life. Rich by then was churning out some world-changing shit, like Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, a pioneering work that focused on “how and why women’s choice of women as passionate comrades, life partners, co-workers, lovers, community, has been crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding.”

 **

“[Responsibility to yourself] means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives.”

-Adrienne Rich, “Claiming an Education

**

She published the controversial and widely influential Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution in 1976. There, she described her lesbianism as both political and personal, writing of her sexual evolution: “the suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.”

She wrote more books of poetry, like Twenty-One Love Poems, which was more like a “pamphlet” and ultimately was folded into the book I have, The Dream of a Common Language. In 1979 she published On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978.

**

Men have been expected to tell the truth about facts, not about feelings. They have not been expected to talk about feelings at all.

Yet even about facts they have continually lied.

We assume that politicians are without honor. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandals of their politics: not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie…

Lying is done with words, and also with silence.

- “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”

**

I had that book — On Lies, Secrets and Silence — but I can’t find it today. I must have lent it to somebody. I remember transcribing big chunks of it for the straight girl I was sleeping with, using Rich’s words to make some kind of passive-aggressive point. I wish I still had it.

**

Cliff and Rich eventually relocated to Santa Cruz, where the couple took over the editorship of lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom. Then more teaching, and more writing: six years at Cornell, three volumes of poetry, more prizes, more grants.

She started Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990 and became active on the advisory boards of  the Boston Woman’s Fund, National Writers Union and Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.

**

“We [poets] 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.”

**

In 1994 she received the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and in 1997, Rich was awarded The National Medal for the Arts but famously turned it down in protest against the House of Representative’s vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts. She has said of that choice: “I am not against government in general, but I am against a government where so much power is concentrated in so few hands.”

She told President Clinton, in a letter: “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.”

Rich continued publishing poetry and essays, like 1981’s A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far and 2001’s The Fact of a Doorframe. She continued participating in anti-war efforts, and became a chancellor of the board of the Academy of American Poets.

I could write about her all day. I’ve already written 1964 words, this is already too long, and all I’ve done so far is lay out the facts. I’ve not yet gotten into the feelings. She was such a good woman, so uncompromising in her politics, so dedicated to her work. But this is already too long, and I’ve only just gotten started.

**

At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

- From “Love Poem III”

**

Profile photo of Riese

Riese is the 33-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1758 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute. Rich touched my life through her words and actions, helping me to learn and grow as a feminist, free-thinker, writer, and lesbian. I am so saddened to learn of her death, but so grateful that she not only lived, but thrived.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Sometimes I feel like I lived under a rock (but really it was just the Charismatic Church community), but I’m grateful to find people like Adrienne Rich through Autostraddle. So thanks for sharing the work of such a wonderful artist.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Rich was the first queer poet I read, too.

      I was on vacation with my family, aged 18, in 1998, in San Francisco. I wasn’t out. I managed to persuade them to let me visit bookstores on my own. I bought piles of queer books that I smuggled home and kept hidden. Rich was among them, I loved her essays.

      I’m so sad that we have lost this thinker and poet. I’m so glad her contribution is being recognised.

      Thank you Riese.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I have been standing all my life in the
    direct path of a battery of signals
    the most accurately transmitted most
    untranslatable language in the universe
    I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
    luted that a light wave could take 15
    years to travel through me And has
    taken I am an instrument in the shape
    of a woman trying to translate pulsations
    into images for the relief of the body
    and the reconstruction of the mind.

    she’s kept me breathing and i’m very grateful

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    “Trusting, untrusting, / we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves / downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered / over the unsearched. … We did this. Conceived / of each other, conceived each other in a darkness / which I remember as drenched in light. / I want to call this, life.”

    -from “Origins and History of Consciousness” in The Dream of a Common Language

    Rich’s work makes me feel that being a poet is not an entirely hopeless calling. She will be greatly missed.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I am remembering back to the time I heard her read some of her compelling, grasping, lovely poetry and all of the meanings her poems held for me at various points of my life and missing her from the depth of my intellectual soul. Thank you for this.

  6. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    Ms. Rich was a great poet and feminist. But she was also a big time transphobe who edited Janice Raymond’s hate opus “The Transsexual Empire.” People and artists are complicated. I think it’s a shame that, for a woman who was so much about keeping one’s eyes open and experiencing the world with heightened perception, she was never able to do that herself when it came to trans women.

    http://tal9000.tumblr.com/post/20103243891/adrienne-rich-has-been-a-very-special-friend-and

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      wow, thank you gina, i had no idea. (and sorry for the late response, yesterday was crazy-busy and i’ve been super-sick for the last two days and hadn’t kept up on comments.) so, thank you for educating me.

      that is epically disappointing on so many levels… i didn’t know she was acknowledged in that awful awful awful book. out of curiosity, is there anything out there that rich said herself about trans women? i know she was quoted by raymond, but raymond is a huge liar so i’d be interested to know what else is out there. i’m not challenging the idea that rich harbored prejudices or at the very least was ambivalent towards trans women (clearly if she’d supported trans women she would’ve spoken out against raymond’s book, as she has spoken out against so many other against-the-grain ideas), i’m just wondering what’s out there.

      i’ve always had nice feelings about rich because of how inclusive she was in other regards and seemed to do so with unique humility (it never seemed patronizing). how sad that she would be so inclusive about women of color, women in other countries, women of different classes and orientations, and — i think? — trans men? — and apparently still trans misogynist. i guess in a lot of ways it would be difficult to find a second-wave feminist who didn’t harbor a great deal of trans misogyny, but ensuring the next wave doesn’t go in the same direction will have to include, as you suggest, taking a critical eye to the unchallenged prejudices of our elders. and being disappointed and angered, as i am right now, in the ways they failed other members of our community.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        I haven’t dug through Rich’s public statements and poetry (I admit, I have a hard time reading anyone who was associated with _The Transsexual Empire_ and similar transmisogynistic tracts from radical feminists), but I haven’t seen anyone cite her on the topic. Equally, I haven’t seen anything from Rich repudiating Raymond’s work, Raymond’s discussion of her views, or showing respect for trans people, especially trans women. I’ll quote from the following excellent essay on Rich’s legacy:

        http://rafeposey.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/my-complicated-mourning-rip-adrienne-rich/

        “In “Resisting Amnesia” she challenges her readers to look at their curricula, their classwork, their reading lists, and their own work and figure out which women are missing, and then to change that, with respect and sincerity. Nowhere in the list of which women are missing does she mention trans women. I gather that she believed trans women were not women, which I find both misguided and abhorrent, and that dilutes my mourning.”

        Given Rich’s history, I have a hard time accepting her silence on the matter as anything but more transmisogyny, and I think that any fair obituary has to mention Raymond and Rich’s contributions to _The Transsexual Empire_.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        happy to have my eyes opened to this too! i recall finding aspects of “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” problematic upon reading it in college (though i might be in a distinct minority on that), so i’m not altogether surprised she may have held other beliefs that i’d find troubling. i’m happy to have discovered her poetry before her more outright politics, though the two are intrinsically linked

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      I was wondering how long I’d have to read through the comments section before someone mentioned this.

      I’d love to be able to share personal anecdotes as to how Adrienne Rich affected me as a young queer feminist, but all I can say is I vaguely remember reading one of her essays in a feminist theory class I took a few years ago, and I don’t remember the title or what she said, nor do I remember anything else really from that class (that was the point in my college career where the only class I got an A in was Not Paying Attention To Anything Ever 101). But I’m pretty certain her transphobia was not brought up in that class.

      I’m glad that there’s a discussion–albeit one that should have been more widespread before she died–about certain problematic views she had, and the fact that she contributed to “The Transsexual Empire.” I mean, transphobia in anyone is not okay. I don’t think it detracts from her other contributions, and I don’t think it ought to. But we’d be doing ourselves and feminism as a whole a great disservice if we gloss over the fact that Rich, no matter how much she helped you on a personal level when you were still discovering yourself, contributed to something that I would hope most (if not all, and it should be all) of us find abhorrent.

      But I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m drawn to people who are complicated by problematic views. I think it’s important to study Rich for ALL her contributions, both good and bad, in order to learn from her and like-minded second-wavers, so feminism as a movement can grow in a good direction, instead of one that makes it look like a mini-U.S.; one with a glossed-over, altered history because we don’t want to acknowledge the bad, messed up things that some people did or thought or said or perpetuated. Because just like it’s a disservice not to acknowledge Rich’s transphobia, it’s a disservice to completely dismiss her on this account (much like how a lot of feminists try to distance themselves from Valerie Solanas’ “SCUM Manifesto”) because then we won’t learn anything at all.

      …I’m sorry this is so long. It’s five in the morning, and I’m wide-awake and feeling very chatty and ~intellectual~.

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I literally gasped when I saw the headline on the front page. This is terrible news. I love her so much, and I’ve only read Dreams.

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    It bothers me when sites eulogize folks without noting their flaws, like Rich’s contributions to Janice Raymond’s vile book, The Transsexual Empire. There’s not even an easily-dismissed line about how important she is despite her flaws or some other lukewarm pseudo-acknowledgement of her cissexism. Nope, nothing but praise for the woman who was acknowledged as a “very special friend” and helped shape one of the most hatefully anti-trans (especially anti-trans woman) pieces of feminist literature I’ve ever heard of.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Thank you for pointing this out. I have loved Rich’s work for a long time but because I never read, or even wanted to attempt reading, that disgusting travesty by Raymond, I was actually not aware of her contributions to it. While I still believe her poetry is incredibly powerful, I have been incredibly disappointed to learn this about her.

      I still think her poetry can be so incredibly, life-changingly beautiful and powerful, but this has seriously tempered my opinion of her politics.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I remember reading that essay for the first time. It blew my mind. “visionary” is the perfect word to describe it. it’s absolutely essential to the way I now view the world. also, “compulsory heterosexuality” is like the most genius phrase/idea ever.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This was the worst news to wake up to. I learned so much about where poetry comes from and what it needs to do from this woman. To say that her poetry and her essays are big influences on me is to understate the fact. Her essays made me shout out loud, animated me, introduced me to ideas that I began to read around and basically made me the feminist I am today. Her poetry made me keep writing, what she says about poetry lifted me up and gave me so much hope as a queer female poet after reading Eliot, Bloom and the rest of the white male literary canon. I can’t even think how to express the sadness I’m feeling right now. I remember finding a first edition of ‘Snapshots of a Daughter in Law’ in Powell’s a few years ago and crying in the poetry aisle. I bought it and show it off even if the person I’m showing it to has no idea who Rich is. Her words are the title of my thesis: ‘Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome’

    Thank you Riese for writing this. It meant a lot that I could come to Autostraddle where Rich was revered by others as much as she was by me.

  10. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I don’t want to dismiss her accomplishments, nor the positive impact I am sure they have had on many women. But like others, I am disappointed her role in “The Transsexual Empire”.

    “All of us — especially all of us here, the queers and the women — are indebted to Adrienne Rich and all the words she wrote and spoke during her 82 years on earth.”

    Not quite.

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      I agree. I got into her poetry before I learned about her politics, and it’s difficult to express how betrayed I felt when I learned of Rich’s transphobia.

      I think it’s important to acknowledge and remember an artist’s flaws along with her accomplishments. How else will we change things?

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        This is only tangentially related, but have either of you two read/studied Michelle Cliff (as mentioned above, she was Rich’s partner since the late 70s)? Perhaps the comment section of a memorial to Rich’s memory is not the place to bring this up but since no one I know has read Cliff’s work, I’m going to.

        Michelle Cliff is a beautiful and often brilliant writer whose best novel, in my opinion, is “No Telephone to Heaven” (pretend those are italics). In this novel, she created a beautifully strong, passionate, complex trans* character…Harry/Harriet (this character transitions throughout the course of the novel and, depending on the scene referred to is either Harry or Harriet) who is the embodiment of all that is good in Jamaica (Harriet’s and Cliff’s homeland and the setting of most the novel), all that is good in women, all that is good in the world – and yes, this is an incredibly simplistic reading, there is a lot more to the character and the story.

        Harry/Harriet is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction….but in researching the critical history of this novel last term, I read a number of interviews with Cliff herself who referred to the character (the one she loved, and intentionally created as the strongest, most whole character in the novel) as – at best – an effeminate gay man, in spite of the fact that she clearly wrote the character as a trans woman…Throughout multiple interviews over several years, Cliff continuously refuted and denied the identity she so clearly wrote for her character and exposed her own transphobia in doing so. (I would genuinely hope she has at least shifted in her opinions since these interviews took place in the early 90s, but I have no proof either way)

        Anyway, this is way long, but if anyone has read this book or any of Cliff’s work, I would love to discuss it with you.

        And more to the point, although I am so insanely disappointed to learn of her contributions to an incredibly transphobic work, I have loved Rich’s poetry for decades. I would love so much to hear that she later regretted her contributions to that work (and also that Cliff has progressed in her opinions); though her words mean so much to me, they would mean more if I could read them without reservations.

        • Thumb up 0

          Please log in to vote

          i’ve never read “No Telephone to Heaven,” but I have read “Abeng” and it is one of my favorite books ever.

  11. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is such sad news, my stomach got all knotty when I saw the headline.
    Adrienne Rich was a lifeline when I was a scared shy college freshman. She was one the first poets I read that I understood and loved.

  12. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    i do love how her death is this way of waving goodbye: “you are on your own now. all my love, my work, it is all there in the archives.. i have taught you well..”

    we have in fact, learned well. peace, professor!

  13. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’m more or less in the same boat as Lisa (i.e. this is the first I’ve ever read any of Adrienne Rich’s words).

    Thank you Riese for the exposure to such powerful, beautiful poetry and prose.

  14. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Adrienne Rich was a dear friend of my grandmother and very much a part of my life growing up. She was funny and wonderful. My grandmother sometimes reminds me of a hermit with her gestures or phrases, but with Adrienne she would become giddy.

    My mother dated her son, and I used to shift uncomfortably next to her at family dinners. Lost in adolescent narcissism. I only discovered her written words long after I knew her, it’s strange how someone can be two people at once.

    This is too long. I guess I just wanted to add, that even beyond her profound and beautiful effect on poetry, prose, etc. she is deeply missed.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.