American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich has been gone for over a year now, following her death at the age of 82 in March 2012. We should not forget what her work meant, however.
Born in 1929, Rich was always a poet and a writer. She was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize by W.H Auden himself in her graduation year in 1951 for A Change of World and published a second volume of poetry, The Diamond Cutters in 1955. Her talent is undisputed.
What is interesting about Rich is how her poetry and the changes in its content over the years reflected her own personal struggles as well as what was happening in the world at the time. She was married in her early twenties to a Harvard University economist named Alfred H. Conrad and had three sons before the age of 30. During this time her poetry was described by Randall Jarrell as, “The poet [behind these poems] cannot help seeming to us a sort of princess in a fairy tale.” In a time of female suppression, when women were merely the perfect domestic goddesses with no careers, finances or rights, it is no surprise that Rich’s poetry took on fairy tale proportions. However, her unease as a woman and a wife in this type of society is already implied. In Living in Sin she writes:
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
Sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
Declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
Rubbed at his beard, when out for cigarettes,
While she, jeered by the minor demons,
Pulled back to the sheets and made the bed and found
A towel to dust the table-top,
And let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
Though not so wholly but throughout the night
She woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
Like a relentless milkman up the stairs.
These first attempts at trying to understand feminism became increasingly confrontational over the next few decades with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and Leaflets exploring issues like a women’s role in society, the Vietnam War, and racism.
By 1997, Rich had completely established an identity as a feminist and an activist poet when she refused the National Medal of Arts and said,
“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. [Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
One of Rich’s most famous collections is Diving into the Wreck, which she wrote during a time of women’s liberation, war and the civil rights movement. It was also during a time when she was struggling with her own sexuality and had separated from her husband. The poems are angry and beautiful and earned her the National Book Award in 1974.
In 1976 Rich and novelist and editor Michelle Cliff began a relationship, which would become lifelong. Her poetry began to explore lesbianism with Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution where she wrote,
“The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.”
Rich’s development as a woman and the way she used poetry to explore these developments, eventually resulting in work that celebrated and came to terms with lesbian sexuality and a new found freedom in a difficult society, is a story of success.
Why it is important to remember Rich is because of how her poems and her words will never die. Her art exists for an eternity as a tribute and a beautiful example of how one woman went from a ‘50s wife to a feminist and an activist who had fully come to terms with her own sexuality. She is an example of how art can change the world and is a reminder of why we should continue to write about the issues currently destroying our own society like lack of education, rape, violence, abuse, unemployment and environmental pillage.
Do not put down the pen.