Adrienne Rich, Feminist Poet and Essayist, Dies at 82
so long and thanks for all the fish
Adrienne Rich, one of the most influential writers of the feminist movement of the mid-20th century, has passed away at the age of 82 from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. A poet and essayist, Rich wrote about the oppression of women and lesbians from the perspective of a creative writer, distinguishing herself from fellow feminists Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) and Gloria Steinem. We have lost a subtle, but loud and strong voice whose mission was to contribute to “the creation of a society without domination.”
From reading about her, it seems like Rich’s life was centered around her finding her true identity. Born to a Christian mother, who gave up her career as a composer to be a mother, and a Jewish father, Rich later embraced her Jewish heritage. She unofficially came out as a lesbian in 1976, when her book of poetry about sex between women came out (Twenty-One Love Poems). Before that, she was married to Harvard economist Alfred Haskell Conrad and gave birth to three boys with him. They eventually became estranged by 1970, when Rich found herself admitting she was more attracted to women; Conrad later died of a gunshot wound, which was ruled a suicide.
Active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, Rich found herself relating to the struggles of other groups of people and wrote poetry about the struggles of Holocaust survivors, black women, and even the “stifling minutiae” of bored housewives. And while she stayed humble about what she accomplished with her poetry, it made a huge impact on women at the height of women’s lib. She won several high-profile awards for her work, but she basically refused to accept them. When she won the National Book Award in 1974 (an award she shared with Allen Ginsberg), she brought fellow poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker up to accept with her, on behalf of all women. And when she won the National Medal of the Arts, the highest government honor, she declined the prize altogether, claiming that she can’t accept the honor due to the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice” and that the government chooses to honor an elite (like her) over “the people at large.” Rich did, however, accept the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
And it was all for words like this, from her 1973 book Diving Into the Wreck, for which she won that National Book Award:
I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. …
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
Rich is survived by her partner of more than 30 years, writer Michelle Cliff, as well as her three sons, a sister, and two grandchildren.