“A dazzling, empathic ferocity”: Myself and Ms. Adrienne Rich

It’s not often that the death of a luminary makes me turn immediately to a piece of paper and start writing. The too-frequent deaths of pop musicians are sad, but unsurprising; David Foster Wallace’s suicide left me wordless and numbish, and Elliot Smith’s suicide led, indirectly and somewhat comically, to the demise of my first relationship.

But those were drug deaths and suicides, high-drama demises. Adrienne Rich died at age 82, peacefullyish, in her home. And that, I think, is why I feel the need to write about her: because without the distraction of shock or distress, it feels appropriate and right to reflect on her legacy.

If one has read any of Rich’s writing, it’s likely “Diving Into The Wreck”, oft-anthologized for high school seniors and college first years. It’s Intro to Feminism wrapped up in a lovely, seaweedy extended metaphor.

The poem’s genius is in presenting a politics of gender in a haunting, explorative way, without the spoken-word-rage that people today often attribute to feminist poems.

Typically, this poem was also where I first encountered her, feeling fairly neutral until the slap of those still-brilliant lines:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun

The poem is logical, level-headed and creepy-beautiful, which appealed to me in a way that more preachy-emotional feminist poems did not.

I would have left it at that, except that soon after I learned that her first book of poetry (formalist, metered, and without a hint of politics) was selected by W.H. Auden for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series (an enormous honor). She was 22.

….And then she sort of gave them all the finger and went in a totally different direction.

Her free verse earned her numerous literary awards, including the (federally-sponsored) National Medal of Arts, which she declined in protest, writing that “the radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate… A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Audre Lorde, Meridel Le Sueur, Adrienne RichThat she recognized her own status as a “token artist” points toward her keen sense of progressive politics. Rich was fascinatingly situated in the complex web of power relationships: she was a woman, a lesbian, and a Jew at a time when all three of those things were undeniably oppressed and marginalized. Yet her success as a writer and public figure was also a result of her privilege as a white, educated, upper-middle class person.

Unlike many of her peers, she engaged head-on with many aspects of that privilege. When she was awarded the National Book Award, she refused to accept it as an individual; instead she appeared with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker to accept the award “on behalf of all women.” (Read their full speech here)

…Perhaps “all women” was a bit presumptuous, but I find myself wondering (as usual): how does a person in a position of privilege and power wield it to a greater advantage? I don’t believe, like many, that the best response is to opt out entirely, thereby handing over that power to someone who will use it to maintain and strengthen the status quo. If Adrienne Rich had simply refused those awards without explanation or demonstration (or worse, if she had refused to publish or teach at all), she would never have provoked the questions that had such an influence on our society.

Those questions include the ones posed in her most prominent essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, one of the first thorough critiques of heterosexuality as an institution which has less to do with sexual preference as it does with the subjugation of women.

Although the premise was fairly radical critique, the fundamental argument is empathetic and straightforward: that women must have stronger relationships with each other, because a lack of women’s communities only makes it easy to dominate women as individuals.

“The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”

In that essay and others, it’s easier to see Rich’s blind spots, some—transphobia, etc—which make me wince to read today.


To the politicians, she defended the arts and to the artists she defended the politics. In 2004, after the National Poetry Foundation received a $100 million dollar gift, she wrote the following letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

Re: ”A Passion for Poetry (and Profits): Charting a Literary Course With $100 Million”: As a poet who has benefited during her life from money dispensed by several foundations, I would prefer to live in a society with a progressive tax system, universal health care, adequate housing for people of modest income, a living minimum wage, social security and excellent public education (including the arts).

The selective dispensations of private foundation money can help sustain a few individuals and projects. But finally, the artist must grow, live and work within a society. A more just allocation of the resources of our society would be the true guarantor and benefactor of art.


Santa Cruz, Calif., April 19, 2004

While critics accused Rich of using poetry purely for political purposes, she was clearly dedicated to poetry as an art: “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.” For her, the personal was political & the political was art & art was personal—

There’s something fulfilling about a woman who continued to critique institutions even into her eighties, who remained dedicated to economic and racial justice, who remained dedicating to writing and thinking and the arts. A fine legacy indeed.

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