Adrienne Rich, 1929 - 2012

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Adrienne Rich, 1929 - 2012


The award-winning poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, who was one of America's most powerful writers, has died aged 82.

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."

1997: Why I refused the National Medal for the Arts

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.

1980: "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" 

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
in which
our names do not appear.


Issues Pages: 
Lard Tunderin Jeezus Lard Tunderin Jeezus's picture


Thanks so much for putting that together, Catchfire.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Great obit by Kaitlin McNabb, ex-rabble intern, book-club organizer and general renaissance woman:

Adrienne Rich: May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012

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.



an excellent writer and superb poet. Sad to hear she's gone.

Red Tory Tea Girl

... okay, I'm going to explain what the problem is and then I'm going to stop wasting my time in such a ciscentric space:

Adrienne Rich proctored Transsexual Empire, one of the most misogynistic tracts of the last half-century. She wasn't just in the same social circles as Janice Raymond, but rather, without her influence a book that set transition medicine back about 15 years, (and by Zoe Brain's estimate, caused about 60,000 preventable deaths) wouldn't have taken the shape it did. Adrienne Rich has the blood of women on her hands, and to see her tirelessly and uncomplicatedly feted by cis feminists who nod and smile when intersectionality comes up and then, as has just been shown, is then cast aside despite:

Janice Raymond cited Rich in the acknowledgments section of her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire, writing "Adrienne Rich has been a very special friend and critic. She has read the manuscript through all its stages and provided resources, creative criticism, and constant encouragement." In the chapter "Sappho by Surgery" of The Transsexual Empire, Raymond cites a conversation with Rich in which Rich described trans women as "men who have given up the supposed ultimate possession of manhood in a patriarchal society by self-castration."

Adrienne Rich had 33 years to correct that statement if it was libel, she did not. Rather, she went on to continue the mutual transmisogynist's admiration society:

Hello, everyone. This may be late in the game, but as a number of people on this thread and elsewhere have wondered if there was any evidence of Rich's endorsement of Raymond other than Raymond's book, check out the 1995 edition of Rich's collection, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (1978 address, "Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergency..."). Raymond is cited on p. 265 in a footnote and by name in the text on p. 268. I don't want to ramble here, so I invite interested people to check out the context of these citations. I think they're fairly indicting (especially in a 1995 edition), but Rich's larger critique of the medical establishment in the piece is important to consider, too.
Rich is really, really important to me, but we have to be honest about her, as the above essay says so well. Rich at her best gives us the courage and resources to criticize her at her worst.

Never mind that trans people, trans women especially, to this day, have our bodies policed legally in a manner that would make Judy Rebick blanch if it'd been proposed as a replacement for the 1968 abortion law. Never mind the complete lack of support from cis feminists other than the occasional person who remembers not to erase us, unless we're talking about reproductive rights, in which case women are reduced to uteri. Someone who worked to deny women medicine, just as surely as if they'd put a bullet in an endocrinologist's head, died, and all you can do is unreservedly praise her. I'm sticking around for the discussion but then I'm done.

You should all know better... especially you, Catchfire.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Thanks for that information, RTTG. I honestly had no idea about this. It's a lot to digest (as intersectionality issues often are, especially for folk with no lived experience of those intersecting oppression). I will try to educate myself with this new info in mind.

I admit I have a lot to learn about trans issues, and without your instructive interventions, that education will go the slower. I totally respect and understand the difficulty you must experience coming in here and having to explain some trans issue *again*, and I encourage you to look after yourself first (self-care is critical). But if you leave, you will be sorely missed.

Freedom 55

Catchfire wrote:

I totally respect and understand the difficulty you must experience coming in here and having to explain some trans issue *again*, and I encourage you to look after yourself first (self-care is critical). But if you leave, you will be sorely missed.


Same here.

Red Tory Tea Girl

I appreciate the apology. Though honestly, these are women that these two have campaigned to morally mandate out of existence. Intersectionality be damned, even unidirectionalists should be outraged. The cause of my animus is that... I expect the experts to know better. I expect people who, like you, have rattled off theory as fact to be able to back it up and to be well prepared for the counter-arguments.

Here's a homework assignment: Find me an avowedly anti-cissexist cis feminist who's not been problematically cissexist/subversivist who was first published in the latter half of the 20th century. (sorry, you don't get to cheat and use Emma Goldman ^_^)

Also, someone else had a thought for me that finally articulated my response to an argument that gets trotted out every single time I try to combat this pernicious brand of masculocentrism:

Pre-transition trans girls experience male privilege in the same way that closeted gay kids experience heterosexual privilege.

In that we trans women don't. The choice is to play along and have society tell you that you're so disgusting that you're better off not existing, and half-heartedly praise the mask you carry, while still unconsciously viewing you through a masculocentric (or if you must use the adhominem version, femmephobic) lens and punishing you due to their implicit knowledge that you're not who they're making you pretend to be, or to put yourself through an indeterminate amount of hell by removing all doubt.

I hope cis women never have the trouble getting reproductive health care that I did, that they're never denied blood pressure medicine while hypertensive pending a psychiatric consultation. I hope that cis women never have not only to be devalued and derided and told to shut up in school but to have it done to them in a class (presumably) full of boys taught by a jock. I hope cis lesbians aren't called straight boys acting out a fantasy. That a cis woman who corrects vaginal prolapse isn't accused of maintaining a fuckhole for the patriarchy. I hope that when cis women are sexually assualted they're not ignored and laughed at and turned away from shelters and that those people that say that what they experience is simple misogyny on the same axis and of the same severity as trans women don't snort and minimize the rapes those women are victims of (heck, I hope that for everyone). Frankly, I hope that cis women go on having what we describe as cis privilege. I just hope trans women, and everyone generally, can get the same basket of basic human decency.


Red Tory Tea Girl

I am also, and I'm sorry for the drift, going to say this: Everytime I bring up an instance of a trans woman or trans women being oppressed, and post it the feminism thread, it gets utterly ignored.

With a prevalence of social transition at 1 in 200-300 and a prevalence of avowed transsexuality at 1%, and noting how those numbers have been consistently rising as we dismantle barriers to transition and identification. (For example, there are now states and provinces where admitting you fired a person just because they were trans is illegal, and now in Ontario a woman doesn't have to get her genitalia cut just to be recognized as a woman) And the three-fold rise in avowed non-heterosexuality over the last thirty years as being cis and GLBQ went from being about as legal as being trans is now to being more or less culturally integrated (Yes, yes, marriage in some states, states where the polling shows they would pass an inclusive ENDA in a statewide ballot, i.e. every state... talk to me when you can't rent a home, safely use a bus pass [in Philidelphia] or even a washroom), and never mind there being 37 million girls and women worldwide, there are likely at least a hundred million women who are simply ignored, denied agency over their own bodies on a fundamental level.

These are actual missing women, living lives of desperation, both quietly and loudly marginalized, but if she isn't CAFAB, well then, obviously she's some sad deluded subset of your oppressor, and not worthy of this board's concern. That may not be the intent, but after enough shouting at the rain, that's sure as hell what it feels like.

There's a great line that Julia Serano has about Michfest but it applies to women's space and women's organization generally, and the hegemony of cissexist and masculocentric ideas within those spaces:

They bar us trans women because they don't respect our identities.

They welcome trans men with open arms... because they don't respect their identities either.

I kinda miss she-who-will-not-be-named. At least she was open about her cissexist-misogyny, though she wouldn't call it that. And yeah, Cross-Product seems prescient on this too, when she mentions it's not just the right-wing who hates us, but the left wing too. I'm not going anywhere yet. I'm not some delicate little flower, but a functional, if wounded, person, just like the rest of us.

That said, you should take a run through of one of your favorite albums, I'd recommend The Indigo Girls, but they're transmisogynistic too (that was one of the most disappointing things to learn), and try to do that homework I assigned. Even an educator can't do all the work for you.