Adrienne Rich, a fiercely gifted, award-winning poet whose socially conscious verse influenced a generation of feminist, gay rights and anti-war activists, has died. She was 82.
Rich died March 27 at her Santa Cruz home from complications from rheumatoid arthritis, said her son, Pablo Conrad. She had lived in Santa Cruz since the 1980s.
Through her writing, Rich explored topics such as women’s rights, racism, sexuality, economic justice and love between women.
Rich published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction. She won a National Book Award for her collection of poems “Diving into the Wreck” in 1974, when she read a statement written by herself and fellow nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, “refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.”
In 2004, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection “The School Among the Ruins.” According to her publisher, W.W. Norton, her books have sold between 750,000 and 800,000 copies, a high amount for a poet.
She gained national prominence with her third poetry collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” in 1963. Citing the title poem, University of Maryland professor Rudd Fleming wrote in The Washington Post that Rich “proves poetically how hard it is to be a woman — a member of the second sex.”
She was, like so many, profoundly changed by the 1960s. Rich married Harvard University economist Alfred Conrad in 1953 and they had three sons. But she left him in 1970 and eventually lived with her partner, writer and editor Michelle Cliff. She used her experiences as a mother to write “Of Woman Born,” her groundbreaking feminist critique of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, published in 1976.
“Rich is one of the few poets who can deal with political issues in her poems without letting them degenerate into social realism,” Erica Jong once wrote.
Unlike most American writers, Rich believed art and politics not only could co-exist, but must co-exist. She considered herself a socialist because “socialism represents moral value — the dignity and human rights of all citizens,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible.”
“She was very courageous and very outspoken and very clear,” said her longtime friend W.S. Merwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. “She was a real original, and whatever she said came straight out of herself.”
As Merwin noted, Rich was a hard poet to define because she went through so many phases. Or, as Rich wrote in “Delta,” ‘’If you think you can grasp me, think again.”
Her political poems included “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” an indictment of the Vietnam War and the damage done and a cry for language itself: “The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.”
One of her best-known poems, “Living in Sin,” tells of a woman’s disappointment between what she imagined love would be — “no dust upon the furniture of love” — and the dull reality, the man “with a yawn/sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard/declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror/rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes.”
Rich taught at many colleges and universities, including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State and Stanford.
She won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships and many top literary awards including the Bollingen Prize, Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award.
But when then-President Clinton awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997, Rich refused to accept it, citing the administration’s “cynical politics.”
“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote to the administration. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
In 2003, Rich and other poets refused to attend a White House symposium on poetry to protest to U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Born in Baltimore in 1929, Rich was the elder of two daughters of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother — a mixed heritage that she recalled in her autobiographical poem “Sources.” Her father, a doctor and medical professor at Johns Hopkins University, encouraged her to write poetry at an early age.
Rich graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her first book of poetry, “A Change of World.”
Living in Cambridge, Mass., she befriended Merwin, Donald Hall and other poets. In 1966, her family moved to New York City when her husband accepted a teaching position at City College. Soon after she left Conrad, he committed suicide.
Rich taught remedial English to poor students entering college before teaching writing at Swarthmore College, Columbia University School of the Art and City University of New York.
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