Adrienne Rich RIP
From Gaelick Contributor Niamh
Adrienne Rich, a resoundingly powerful poet and intellectual and one of the most influential feminist and lesbian voices of the last century, died on Tuesday, aged 82. She’s survived by her partner of over 30 years and her three sons.
Born in 1929, Rich had a finger in the most important political pies of the last six decades. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1951 and her last, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve was released in 2010. She was the author of 24 books of poetry and seven books of prose, frequently contributed to anthologies, gave interviews and taught in universities including Cornell, Columbia and Stanford.
Rich commented on movements and issues ranging from the Holocaust (she self-identified as Jewish), to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, to the anti-war movements of the 21st century and the employment of torture and rendition by the US in the last decade. In discussing the recent history of violence and torture, Rich emphasised the difficult tension between the sensual body and the suffering body.
However, above all Rich’s legacy is in her outstanding, courageous, rage-filled contribution to the progress of feminism. The New York Times suggests that
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.
Rich was a highly gifted poet in formal terms, and used that ability to mould and even subvert traditional form to communicate a feminist message.
She received many literary awards, including the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement (recognising contributions to gay and lesbian writing), the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. However, her most famous award was one she refused to accept.
In 1997 she turned down the incredibly prestigious National Medal of Arts, objecting to the continuing inequality in the US and arguing that “art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage”.
In 1976 Rich, who had three sons with her late husband, began a lifelong relationship with a Jamaican novelist, Michelle Cliff and essentially came out as a lesbian with her volume Twenty One Love Poems. From that point onwards her poetry dealt frequently with sexual and romantic relationships between women.
She also became one of the first serious theorists of lesbianism, publishing essays on identity, including Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, questioning why passionate relationships between women had been “crushed, invalidated, forced into hiding”.
On Twitter last night, the most poignant tributes to Rich were paid in her own words. In keeping with that, Rich observed that
it’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting and painful.
Her life and work are an awakening of consciousness; often painful but enduringly exhilarating.