Adrienne Rich: May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012
The literary world lost one of our most unique and influential voices last week. Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who wrote eloquently about feminist issues, died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, a condition from which she had suffered for many years. Rich was 82.
Rich’s talent was recognized early on. In 1951, while still an undergraduate at Yale, poet W.H. Auden selected Rich’s work for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series Award. She continued to write and receive numerous awards, but famously turned down the usually coveted National Medal of Arts in 1997 because she was incensed at then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s drive to end funding for the Arts. You can listen to Rich’s impassioned speech about her refusal to accept the award here.
Throughout her long career, Rich’s beautiful, image-rich poems championed the causes of women in general and lesbian women in particular. Rich talked about her poetry, life, and activism in an hour-long interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Particularly interesting are her musings about mother/daughter relationships. She said:
“I think that it is perhaps that tendency that we have to try to correct the mythologies that we feel have harmed us, the mythologies that deny the strengths and the powers that women have passed onto women, that mothers have passed onto daughters. And these are very real, and we know that they are very real. But at the same time, there are other stories, and I feel as though there needs to be a corrective to the corrective, if you will. We tried in the early years of the feminist movement to look under and behind the myths, the legends that always depicted the stepmother as cruel, the bad mother, the myths in popular psychology of the evil mother, the evil mother-daughter bond. We tried to correct those, and in so doing, I think we unearthed a great deal that was real and important and useful. To idealize, to sentimentalize, to mythologize that—those powers, those strengths, those teachers—takes us into yet another place where I think we are disempowered.”
To close, here are a few of my favorite verses from Rich’s poem, “Tattered Kaddish,” which serve as a fitting goodbye:
Praise to life though it crumbled in like a tunnel
on ones we knew and loved
Praise to life though its windows blew shut
on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved
Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough
Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us
Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable.
Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.