“Adrienne Cecile Rich,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal. “Little, round and dumpy, all vibrant short black hair, great sparkling black eyes and a tulip-red umbrella; honest, pink, forthright and even opinionated.”
The description was typical of Plath’s cattiness, expressed towards the women poets she feared most and saw as rivals, from Marianne Moore to Rich. But Plath was also perceptive: honest, forthright and opinionated could stand beside any of the epitaphs written this week for Rich, whose poetry and feminism turned the key in the lock for several generations of women, especially in the US.
Rich died at the age of 82; in 2011, she had published Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, her 25th collection of poetry. “I believe almost everything I know, have come to understand, is somewhere in this book,” she wrote.
The path she chose was sharply divergent from the one taken by Plath and Anne Sexton — there were no gas ovens for Rich, and there would be no dark call to suicide, despite the personal tragedies she survived. Speaking at Sexton’s funeral, Rich said, “We have enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness… I think of Anne Sexton as a sister whose work tells us what we have to fight in ourselves and the images patriarchy has held up to us. Her poetry is a guide to the ruins….”
Rich’s poetry was a guide to everything else — patriarchy and feminism, yes, but also love, also the Iliad, also the Vietnam war, also racism, also mermaids and divers. As she wrote in The Blue Ghazals, there were few frontiers between the personal and the political: “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political.” In her own life, Rich had gone from a conventional heterosexual marriage to a late discovery of her lesbianism; the shift from one to another was as important as the ripening of her radical politics.
Always, she came back to language: “That old, material utensil … found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use.” Her task, and the work of poets, was to “make it into something that means more than it says”. Rich inveighed against the peculiarly 21st century disavowal of poetry, the tendency in the US and elsewhere to treat poets and poetry as marginal figures.
Art could help you save your life, when it was not “mistrusted, adored, pietised, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby’s, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities”. The true purpose of language was regenerative, even transformative, and that is what we lost when we relegated poetry and poets to the back shelves.
Editing a poetry anthology, this is what she wanted: “Poems good enough to eat, to crunch between the teeth, to feel their juices bursting under the tongue, unmicrowavable poems.”
The power of Rich’s own poetry, from the time of her very first collection, A Change in The World, onwards was that they could be read by those who had followed her own radicalism, or by those who had chosen different paths — housewives in India, for instance. Feminist poetry is sometimes boxed too carefully, the life of the poet creating a kind of shrine around the work that kills off the poems themselves. It is hard to read Rich if all that you know about her is that she was a lesbian poet who fought the patriarchy, to quote one recent oversimplification.
Instead, read her poetry as a partial answer to a comment Gloria Steinem made recently: the task before present-day feminists, said Steinem, was to imagine what true equality would look like. Rich defined her own politics with elemental simplicity: she wanted, she said, “the creation of a society without domination”. By this, she meant domination of any kind — any one gender, class, race over another.
Of all the awards she received, the one that stands out in public memory was the 1973 National Book Award, where she refused to go on stage alone. Instead, Rich went onstage with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, accepting her award in the name of all women. Over 20 years later, she would refuse the National Medal of the Arts, traditionally awarded to recipients at the White House, turning it down because of the cynical politics of the Clinton administration.
Perhaps what most will remember and cherish of Rich’s work are the explicitly political works — Diving into the Wreck, for instance. But all of her writing was also a reminder to celebrate the human condition. This is what she wrote in Twenty-One Love Poems: “At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever./ At forty-five, I want to know even our limits./ I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow, /and somehow, each of us will help the other live,/ and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.”
The author is at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy