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Farewell to Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich, an acclaimed lesbian writer whose poetry, essays and activism defined the Second Wave of feminism and promoted lesbian-feminist ideals, died on March 27. She was the Virginia Woolf of our time.

The brilliance of Rich’s poetry was recognized by the arts establishment, which honored her with many literary awards and grants. But her greater, incalculable legacy is in the standards of feminist and lesbian ethics she articulated and in the transformative influence she’s had on two generations of women who found their deepest disappointments and aspirations reflected in her writing.

The New York Times published a detailed obituary of Rich. In the hundreds of comments afterward, many readers expressed anguished mourning, as though her death was a personal loss. They told how reading her poetry helped them identify and overcome their own problems or how they were simply transported by the beauty of her language and expression. Some related anecdotes about kindnesses Rich extended to them at chance meetings.

I compared Rich to Virginia Woolf. They were different in some ways, of course. Although they both wrote non-fiction, Woolf is primarily known for her novels, Rich for her poetry. Woolf took her own life at age 59; Rich hung in there until complications of rheumatoid arthritis claimed her at 82.

But Rich and Woolf are united in their blending of art and politics, specifically their focus on women’s lives and the restrictions and expectations that stifle women’s personal fulfillment. They are united as well in identifying the problem: male-dominated institutions and definitions of women and their “place,” what unregenerate feminists like me continue to call patriarchy.

Rich published several volumes of poetry before hitting a universal chord with women readers with her 1973 collection “Diving Into the Wreck.” With startling imagery and heart-wrenching honesty, Rich reflected on her loss of identity and purpose within an unfulfilling marriage. It is sometimes compared in impact to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which helped launch the women’s movement.

All of her poetry after “Diving” is intensely personal and deeply political. Among the best collections (whose titles convey the beauty of the verse) are “The Dream of a Common Language,” “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far” and “Your Native Land, Your Life.”

In 1976, Rich published “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.” In this work, she expressed this cornerstone of feminist ethics: “The most notable fact that culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.”

Rich taught at universities, lectured widely and published essay collections. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” a must-read from 1980, can be found in “Blood, Bread and Poetry.” In another great essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” she shatters the image of a timorous, asexual Dickinson, craving approval a la “The Belle of Amherst.” Rich sees Dickinson as an artist of rigorous intellect and purpose whose passion for women is evident throughout her work and whose poetry is revolutionary even by today’s standards.

Adrienne Rich was a woman of remarkable integrity. In 1997 she declined the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, which would have been conferred at the White House. She cited “the radical disparities of wealth and power in America” and said the president “cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Rest well, sister.

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