ADRIENNE RICH, a pioneering feminist poet and essayist who challenged what she considered to be the myths of the American dream, died on this date. She was 82.
The recipient of such literary awards as the Yale Young Poets prize, the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Dorothea Tanning Award given by the Academy of American Poets, Rich died at her home in Santa Cruz of complications from long-term rheumatoid arthritis according to her son, Pablo Conrad.
She came of age during the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s and was best known as an advocate of women’s rights, which she wrote about in both her poetry and prose. But she also wrote passionate antiwar poetry and took up the causes of the marginalized and underprivileged. She has been called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century.”
From her first book of poems in the early 1950s, Rich, a Baltimore native who attended Radcliffe College, showed her feminist bearings.Twenty years later, her image was set when universities began introducing courses in women’s studies and Rich was among the most likely writers to be included.
In 1976, Rich began her lifelong partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff. In her controversial work Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published the same year, Rich acknowledged that, for her, Lesbianism was both a political as well as a personal issue, writing, “The suppressed Lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” The pamphlet Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), which was incorporated into the following year’s Dream of a Common Language (1978), marked the first direct treatment of lesbian desire and sexuality in her writing, themes which run throughout her work afterwards, especially in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) and some of her late poems in The Fact of a Doorframe.
Selected for the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, the highest award given to artists, Rich refused it. “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote in a letter addressed to then-President Clinton. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
One of my personal favorite quotes from Ms. Rich: “We might possess every technological resource… but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be “revolutionary” but not transformative.”