Adrienne Rich, feminist poet who wrote of politics and lesbian identity, dies at 82


Adrienne Rich has died at 82. (Stuart Ramson/AP)
March 28, 2012

Adrienne Rich, one of the country’s most honored and influential poets, whose finely tuned verse explored her identity as a feminist, a lesbian and an agent for political change, died March 27 at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

She had complications from rheumatoid arthritis, her son Pablo Conrad said.

In more than 60 years as a published poet, Ms. Rich examined the evolving lives of women in modern society and embodied many of those changes herself. She was a precocious child of a privileged Baltimore family, then a young wife and mother, and later dedicated herself to the ideals of feminism.

In the 1970s she became one of the first mainstream poets to write from an avowedly lesbian point of view. Her subtle poems and uncompromising essays brought Ms. Rich a loyal following that extended far beyond the measured world of poetry.

“No other living poet . . . has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life,” Dana Gioia, a poet and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 1999.

Ms. Rich’s first volume of poetry, published in 1951, was praised by W.H. Auden. In the 1950s, she was a friend of writer Sylvia Plath, who described her as “all vibrant short black hair, great sparking black eyes . . . honest, frank, forthright and . . . opinionated.”

But as she began to chafe at the traditional role of mother and housewife, her writing took on a sharper edge. Her 1963 collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” represented one of the country’s first literary nods to feminism.

By 1968, in her poem “Planetarium,” ostensibly about a 19th-century female astronomer, Ms. Rich was writing from the perspective of a woman seeking an independent identity:

I am an instrument in the shape

of a woman trying to translate pulsations

into images … for the relief of the body

and the reconstruction of my mind.

One of Ms. Rich’s most celebrated books of poetry, “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), won the National Book Award and put her in the front rank of American poets. The title poem, with its layers of meaning about treasure hunting, failed relationships and male-female hierarchies, is “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women’s movement,” literary scholar Cheryl Walker wrote in the Nation.

The poem begins with these lines:

I put on

the body armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

I am having to do this

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

Ms. Rich wrote almost as many essays as poems, often taking a bolder tone than the carefully sifted language of her verse.

In her 1976 essay collection, “Of Woman Born,” Ms. Rich declared her feminist credo and wrote for the first time from an openly lesbian viewpoint: “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.”

In another memorable passage, she wrote, “All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body.”

She often described men as either cruel toward women or as emotionally needy and dependent. Some of her readers — not all of them men — began to cringe at what they saw as a reflexive anti-male bias.

“It is vexing to see such a dedicated feminist playing the dangerous game of using the oppressor’s tactics,” critic Francine du Plessix Gray wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1976. “Rich indulges in stereotypes throughout the book.”

For her part, Ms. Rich made no apologies for her writing or herself.

“I write as woman, lesbian and feminist,” she told The Washington Post in 1981. “I make no claim to be universal, neuter or androgynous.”

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born May 16, 1929, in Baltimore. Her father, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, was Jewish. Her mother, a onetime concert pianist, was a Protestant from the South.

Ms. Rich was raised Christian but began to explore her Jewish roots from a young age. “I went to downtown Baltimore to see newsreels of liberations of the concentration camps,” she said in 1987. “I knew it had something do do with me.”

She studied English at Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1951. She received two Guggenheim fellowships to study in Europe and many other awards, including a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1994.

Ms. Rich wrote more than 20 books of poetry, most of them published by Norton, and taught at many universities, including Cornell, Rutgers and Stanford. In 1986, she won the first Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for career achievement.

In 1953, Ms. Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor. After their marriage broke up in 1970, he committed suicide.

Her partner since 1976 has been Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff. Other survivors include three sons from her marriage, David Conrad and Pablo Conrad, both of Brooklyn, and Jacob Conrad of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.

In 1997, Ms. Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts to protest proposed funding cuts to the arts and what she saw as a growing gap between rich and poor.

She wrote at the time, “The very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this Administration” and that art “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage.”

Despite increasing debility from rheumatoid arthritis, which she had struggled with since her 20s, Ms. Rich continued to write until the end of her life.

She recalled that her father had a well-stocked library and encouraged his daughter’s writing as a child.

“I loved the sound, the music of poetry from the very beginning,” she said in 1987. “Things could be said in poems that could be said in no other way.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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