Pioneering feminist poet Adrienne Rich dies at 82

Adrienne Rich, who grappled publicly, artistically, and graphically with her feminism, lesbianism, and Jewish identity for decades in her groundbreaking poetry and essays, died at 82 on March 27.

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In the wake of her death, Rich was described as “pioneering,” “one of America’s foremost public intellectuals,” and “one of the country’s most honored and influential poets,” among other categorizations lauding her accomplishments and impact.

Rich won, among many other plaudits, the Yale Young Poets prize, Yale Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, National Book Award, Dorothea Tanning Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, Academy of American Poets Fellowship, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, and National Medal for the Arts in 1997, which she refused. In her letter of refusal, the provocative poet wrote to then-President Bill Clinton: “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.”

“No other living poet . . . has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life,” Dana Gioia, a poet and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 1999.

Her 1973 work, “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), won her the National Book Award. The title poem had “layers of meaning about treasure hunting, failed relationships and male-female hierarchies, (that) is “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women’s movement,” literary scholar Cheryl Walker wrote.

The poem begins with these lines:

I put on
the body armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

In later years, she began to explore her Jewish identity, which she had been forced to hide or suppress in her youth. Collections such as Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time’s Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1988), and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991 (1991), Rich begins to address the Jewish heritage that she was forced to hide during her early life.

She was born in Baltimore to Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor and assimilated Jew, who taught at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, was a Christian pianist and composer who, had her daughter baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

In the first of three sections in Your Native Land, titled, “Sources,” Rich "portrays herself as a perpetual outsider: ‘split at the root . . . neither gentile nor Jew.’ After delving into her possible roots in the Jewish half of her identity, she emerges with the sense that she will be forever unable to determine her “sources” racially or geographically, but perhaps only sexually–as a woman."

In the collection, “What is Found There,” according to Peter Erickson of Kenyon Review, Rich “does not find that her Jewishness cancels or mitigates her whiteness but instead explores both as valid aspects of her identity. Although Rich’s Jewish affiliation is strongly in evidence here, she is also eloquent about the effects of her own whiteness.”

One of her final works, the school among the ruins (2004), depicts the many and disparate realities of the early years of the 21st century with references to Israel and Jewish terminology. “In one poem, Rich “interviews” an Israeli soldier who regrets some of the orders he carried out; in another, she questions what we are carrying into the current era and answers herself: ‘Sacks of laundry/of books… Pet iguanas/oxygen tanks/The tablets of Moses.’

Her ambitious and talented parents pushed her into writing poetry in her childhood, but something in it spoke to her. “I loved the sound, the music of poetry from the very beginning,” she said in 1987. “Things could be said in poems that could be said in no other way.”

Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, the year she published her first book of poetry, A Change of World, She married economist Alfred Haskell Conrad in 1953 and had three sons. She said she was radicalized by the civil rights movement, and she became a prominent critic of the Vietnam War. By 1963 she was writing in a feminist voice. Diving into the Wreck’s militant feminism alienated many early fans. But writer Erica Jong said at the time that "Rich is one of the few poets who can deal with political issues in her poems without letting them degenerate into social realism." Jong also denied that Rich was anti-male.

By the end of the decade her lesbianism had become public and embedded in her work. Poet and novelist Michelle Cliff became her life companion. The two lived in Santa Cruz, California.

The New York Times noted that for all of Rich’s output – dozens of volumes of proes and poetry, public appearances and interviews, she “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…. “the creation of a society without domination.”

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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