It has been almost a week since the world lost Adrienne Rich, an influential poet and writer and powerful feminist and ally, yet we must continue to move. Move on, move forward, move boundaries, move barriers.
Rich's messages were those heralded in conviction and determination, but also hope and understanding: angry at those haphazardly stripping the rights of others, loving to those fighting for equality and presence. Rich is seen for all those things she was and all those things she was not: a radical female voice, a bitter and personal ranter; an anti-war, civil right, feminist crusader, a crazy political militant; an award-winning poet, an ungrateful artist.
Her list of accomplishments has been bandied around -- MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, National Book Award for poetry, Guggenheim Fellowships -- as contextual proof that Rich was more than just a vocal presence, but one of depth and concern, thought and talent. She was more. More than the poems she wrote (even she knew only poetry could do so much!), more than the awards she accumulated, more than the clout and reputation she garnered; Rich was a person unrelenting in her vision to change the world from a passionless and hostile place to one ripe with respect and acknowledgement for the sins and injustices of the past, present and, no doubt, future.
In her tenure, Rich brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront in the 1950's with her work, urging everyone to turn their backs on the traditional act of disenfranchisement of women, all women, at the hands of patriarchy. Her dozens of volumes of poems continued to morph and expand with her developing ideologies, reaching out to those factions of society submersed in the identity politics of ethnicity, sexuality and gender from which Rich would always struggle -- a daughter of an assimilated Jewish man, raised Christian and dabbling in lesbianism is bound to create some struggles.
Rich poetically acknowledged love between women, marking defiant and realistic accounts of lesbianism and eventually outing herself as a lesbian with her 1976 publication of Twenty-One Love Poems. The collection was deemed "disarming and dangerous", a seemingly reactive or knee-jerk notion to the ideas of female liberation and lesbianism -- proof that fear and hatred stem from the unknown. Rich continued exploring issues and politics of sexuality, race and identity within her poetry, incorporating varied language and "non-poetic" style into her work by using colloquially words, purposefully shocking terms and arrhythmic pacing. Rich's rejection of normalcy within art and life garnered her recognition and respect from fellow artists, readers and some critics and left others trifling over her intersection of poetry and politics and flouting of poetic standards, subsequently admonishing her to the ranks of political radical and all around trouble-maker. It was this ability to constantly question and provoke societal tendencies and normalcies that defined who Rich was as an artist, leader and activist and coupled with her deft and talented voice what catapulted her into the upper realms of literary acknowledgement.
Among Rich's numerous awards was the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (which she shared with Allen Ginsberg), where she famously accepted the award with fellow finalists, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, on behalf of all women. Rich also notably declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government's highest award for artists, citing that art "means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage." A clever and surprising activist and artist, for sure.
With all these distinctions, it is important to regard that Adrienne Rich as a poet, activist, ally, friend, crusader and pioneer, has indelibly marked her place in the literary landscape and cannot and will not be forgotten by those affected by her writing and those affected by the content. Adrienne Rich was a courageous person who fought and strived for those displaced from normalcy, giving a voice to the voiceless and a megaphone to the empowered. It is with sadness that we mourn her passing, but should be with determination that we mourn our loss and strive to create the same engagement and activism that Rich championed.
Let us move: move past the shock and the sadness, past the storied details and personal narratives, past the remembrance and tributes that only massage the wounds, and move towards the reality that Rich's actions will not have been in vain and even though one of our crusaders has been lost, the message has not lost its way.
Photo by Neal Boenzi/New York Times Co./Getty Images via Creative Commons.
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