Adrienne Rich, who was one of America's most powerful writers, has died aged 82.The award-winning poet and essayist
Her daughter-in-law Diana Horowitz said Rich died at home in Santa Cruz, California, following complications from the rheumatoid arthritis from which she had suffered for many years.
Described as "one of America's foremost public intellectuals" by thePoetry Foundation, and as "a poet of towering reputation and towering rage [who] brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century"by the New York Times, Rich's career spanned seven decades, numerous prizes and more than 20 collections of poetry as well as acclaimed essays, articles and lectures.
When she was just 21, WH Auden chose her as winner of the Yale Younger Poets Competition. Auden went on to write a preface for her first collection, A Change of World. "The typical danger for poets in our age is, perhaps, the desire to be 'original'," he wrote. "Miss Rich, who is, I understand, 21 years old, displays a modesty not so common with that age, which disclaims any extraordinary vision, and a love for her medium, a determination to ensure that whatever she writes shall, at least, not be shoddily made."
By the 60s and early 70s, however, with collections such as Diving into the Wreck and Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Rich was writing radical free verse full of her feminist ideals and leftwing convictions, exploring sexuality and identity, motherhood and politics. Her transformation, said the critic Ruth Whitman in 2002, has been "astonishing to watch ... In one woman the history of women in the 20th century, from careful traditional obedience to cosmic awareness, defying the mode of our time."
My "no" came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience. I had recently been thinking and writing about the growing fragmentation of the social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of the people, by the people, for the people. "We the people--still an excellent phrase," said the prize-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1962, well aware who had been excluded, yet believing the phrase might someday come to embrace us all. And I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief, fear, hunger and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my art.
Whatever was "newsworthy" about my refusal was not about a single individual--not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single political party. Both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the people, especially the most vulnerable. Like so many others, I've watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teenage mothers, the selling of health care--public and private--to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to our working and poor people. At the same time, we've witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.
There is no political leadership in the White House or the Congress that has spoken to and for the people who, in a very real sense, have felt abandoned by their government.
1973: "Diving into the Wreck"
This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.