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Adrienne Rich, a life of poetry and activism
by Jamie Anne Royce
2012-04-05

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Lesbian-feminist poet Adrienne Rich, 82, died in her Santa Cruz, Calif., home March 27, from complications of rheumatoid arthritis.

Rich's writing explored various social-justice themes—including women's rights, racism, sexuality, lesbianism, classism and socialism—bringing identity politics to the forefront.

The elder of two daughters, Rich grew up in Baltimore during the 1930s and 1940s. Her Protestant mother and Jewish father, a doctor and medical professor at Johns Hopkins University, encouraged her poetry at an early age.

Beginning her writing career at Radcliffe, Rich received a bachelor's degree in English in 1951, publishing her first poetry collection "A Change of World," which later was selected as part of the Yale Younger Poets series. Her 1963 collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, thrust Rich onto the national stage.

Rich married economist Alfred Conrad in 1953, giving birth to three sons. This experience influenced her writing "Of Woman Born," a groundbreaking feminist critique of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. She left her husband in 1970, at least in part because she began to recognize her attraction to women.

By exploring themes of sexual love between women with the publication of "Twenty-One Love Poems" in 1976, Rich effectively came out publicly as a lesbian. She later partnered with fellow writer and editor Michelle Cliff.

"She was someone who believed all of us are connected. She believed we needed to live our lives consciously, remembering the kinds of oppression affecting everyone," said Jewelle Gomez, author of Waiting for Giovanni: A Story About James Baldwin.

Gomez met Rich through Audre Lorde when they all lived in New York, organizing in the women's movement during the 1970s.

"Her work has remained significant for me both as a writer and as a teacher," said Gomez

"I got to read with her, and as the next generation coming along, I felt she was immensely supportive and very encouraging … In part, that was connected to her amazing political vision, and she took the concept of community very seriously."

But Rich has received criticism for disparaging attitudes toward transgender women. She lent her insight to the 1979 book "The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male" by Janice Raymond. In the chapter "Sappho by Surgery," Raymond discusses a conversation she had with Rich, in which Rich describes transgender women as "men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration."

Rich published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction. Her books published by W.W. Norton have sold between 750,000 and 800,000 copies, a high amount for a poet.

Her work garnered many awards, including the National Book Award for her collection of poems Diving into the Wreck in 1974. Rich originally declined the award on her own behalf, but later accepted it on behalf of all women with two of the year's other finalists, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker.

She also has the National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection, The School Among The Ruins, in 2004, among other honors.

However, Rich never let awards get in the way of her politics. When then-President Bill Clinton awarded Rich the National Medal of Arts in 1997, the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on an artist, she refused to accept it because she disagreed with his administration.

"[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage," Rich wrote in her letter declining the award.

Rich, among other poets, also refused to attend a 2003 White House symposium on poetry in protest of the Iraq War.

Throughout her career, Rich also taught writing at institutions such as Swarthmore College, Rutgers University and Stanford, among others.

Rich's survivors include Cliff; three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob; a sister, Cynthia Rich; and two grandchildren.

"She stayed focused. The fact that she could write through the pain that she had is a testament to how much resolve she had," said Gomez. "A visionary can be tough when they're calling out the oppressions people face, that's rough. But what really drives people like Adrienne is the vision of what the world could be like."


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