Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich—A Great Voice is Stilled

The news of Adrienne Rich’s death spread like wildfire across my Facebook news feed last night.  Obits, bios, quick reminiscences of brief encounters, and simple wails of grief were posted, mostly by women but also from men who dare to admit that they read and love poetry.

She was 82 when she died yesterday in California, a long way from the life of privilege and learning into which she was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929.   

Her father was a noted professor of medicine at prestigious Johns Hopkins and her mother had been a concert pianist.  He was a secular Jew, she a lady like Southern Protestant.  Adrienne and her sisters were raised, not very intensively as nominal Christians.

Both parents cherished learning.  Before she was of kindergarten age Adrienne was reading from their vast library, mostly English poets.  Not trusting their bright children to drab public education, Adrienne and her sister were educated at home in that library until the fourth grade.  In her later years she was sent to a fine girl’s school, Roland Park Country School, which she later credited with providing “fine role models of single women who were intellectually impassioned.”

The progression to Radcliff College for her undergraduate degree was a natural one and she continued to flourish in the all women environment.  She also took classes, mostly in poetry, at very male Harvard.  Her very first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was written as an undergraduate, selected by none other than W.H. Auden for publication as the Yale Younger Poets Award winner.  Auden wrote a thoughtful introduction lauding her technical competence, craftsmanship and “…elegance and simple and precise phrasing.”

Thus impressively launched on a noteworthy literary careers she traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.  Part way into the year she abandoned formal study to linger in Italy.

On returning to the United States in 1953 Rich married Harvard economist Alfred H. Conrad and settled into the life of an academic wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Her first child, David was born in 1955, the same years as her second collection, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, earned praise and garnered awards.  Two more sons were born and she struggled to balance the demands of marriage, motherhood, and writing.  She felt a failure at all of it.

Despite continuing to publish successfully, Adrienne could have been the model of the kind of accomplished, highly educated woman stifled by conventional domesticity that Betty Friedan wrote about in Feminine Mystique.

The themes began to emerge more forcefully in her poetry.  She abandoned the carefully crafted lines of metered rhyme which characterized her earlier work and began to work in blank verse.  The poems became more frankly autobiographical. Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law in 1963 delved into that struggle followed in 1966 with Necessities of Life.

Now both a recognized literary superstar and open feminist, Rich’s career began to eclipse that of her husband.  He moved with her to New York City when she accepted a post at Swarthmore.  She latter also taught in the Graduate School of Columbia University, and a free style “open university” at the City Colleges of New York.  During this period she became deeply and publicly involved not only in the feminist movement, but in opposition to the Vietnam War, and moved in increasingly leftist circles.  She hosted events for the Black Panthers and was a noteworthy signatory of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest to the war.

Her poems were now overtly political.  The publication of Leaflets, an examination of the turmoil of the 1960’s, secured Rich’s place as a leading radical voice.

But all of this placed a strain on her marriage.   He husband felt she was literally losing her mind and moved out.  He was quite wrong.  She hadn’t lost her mind, but had decided to become the quintessential class traitor.  Three months after the separation Alfred Conrad shot and killed himself.  It was a naturally traumatic event to Rich and her children.

Ye the accolades and award continued to pile up. There was the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry Magazine, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, another Guggenheim Fellowship, and various prestigious academic appointments.

She reached perhaps the pinnacle of her literary career with the publication in 1973 of Diving into the Wreck.  This was the most intensely personal work yet, anguished and angry yet clear of thought and expression.  She was picked to share the National Book Award in Poetry with Allan Ginsberg in 1974, but declined to accept it as an individual. Instead she made national headlines by going to the podium with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept the award on behalf of all women writers.

Rich’s life and work changed dramatically in 1976 when she began her life long relationship with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff.  She would later say that her lesbianism was both the natural fulfillment of desires and yearning suppressed since girl’s school and a political statement.  Her writing began to express this new life, both philosophically in works like Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, her first significant prose work, and lyrically in frankly erotic poetry, the pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems.

She has continued to hold important teaching posts at Rutgers, Scripps College of San Jose State University, and Cornell.  She dedicated more time to essays, literary criticism, and political theory, publishing several well received books.

Rich and Cliff settled in California and co-edited an important Lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom in 1981.  She published three more books of poetry in the 1980 and garnered more literary awards-- the Ruth Paul Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters from NYU, and the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry both in 1989.

A revived interest in her Jewish identity and what it means to be a leftist Jew led her to found. Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends in 1990.

An Atlas of the Difficult World, published in 1991, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, and the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award, Commonwealth Award in Literature as well as the Poet’s Prize in 1993.  In 1994 she became a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner.  All the while she served in mentoring positions to women writers around the world.

In 1997 Rich made headlines by publicly snubbing the National Medal of Arts in protest to a House of Representatives vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts and policies of the Clinton Administration. She told reporters “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.”

In the new century Rich was slowed by advancing rheumatoid arthritis but continued to speak out publicly, especially against the looming war in Iraq.  

She was named a chancellor of the board of the Academy of American Poets in 2004  That decade she produced four more collections of poetry, the last being Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 and three more collections of essays.

In 2006 she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters followed in 2010 with the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Poetry Prize

That’s more than enough official honors for anyone.  But Adrienne Rich’s legacy cannot be measured in plaques, certificates, and engraved bowls.  It is in the hearts of all of the readers whose lives she touched and enriched, all the students she nurtured, all of the writers she encouraged.

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything?  Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Adrienne Rich

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