Adrienne Rich, A Poet Of Towering Reputation And Towering Rage

Adrienne Rich, who died at the age of 82 on 3 April at her home in Santa Cruz, California, is considered "a poet of towering reputation and towering rage" and "one of the best-known American public intellectuals". Through her poetry, she could bring out the emotions and feelings of lesbians and oppressed women. She had to her credit more than two dozen volumes of poetry and half a dozen of prose and almost all her writings centered around the feminist movement. A report of W.W. Norton & Company, her publishers, says that more than 800,000 copies of her poetry have been sold till date.

Adrienne Rich was a Jew and a lesbian and she argued vehemently through her poetry in favor of ending the disenfranchisement at the hands of men. Many critics considered her poetry as polemical. Another set of critics called her verses shockingly colloquial. But, no one could dispute the intensity of her vision.

It was in the early 1950s that Ms. Rich started getting popular as a Radcliffe senior. Since then, she had won many accolades and awards and they include a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for "Diving Into the Wreck." The latter is still considered her masterwork. The title poem of this work delves deep into women's experience:

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...
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Ms. Rich was not naive to believe that her poetry could change the social institutions. In one of her acceptance speeches, she said, "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." But, she firmly believed that her poetry could be "a beacon to illuminate women's consciousness".

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born on May 16, 1929. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich, was a Jew and her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, was a Christian. Her father was a doctor and an expert on tuberculosis and her mother was a pianist-composer. It was her father who groomed her to be a literary genius. She started reading and writing poetry even at a very young age. She had her bachelor's degree in English in 1951 at Radcliffe. It was W.H. Auden who chose her first collection of poems called "A Change of World" for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series. Almost all reviewers showered praises on this collection of poems for its flawless command of form.

In 1963, she brought out her third collection called "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" and it was during the same year that "The Feminine Mystique" was also published. The latter work enhanced Ms.Rich's national reputation. The title poem of this work goes like this:

You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time...
Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.

Ms. Rich married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad in 1953. Mr. Conrad died in 1970 and Ms. Rich came out as a lesbian in the year 1976. Her later works dealt with the Holocaust and the struggles of black women also.

The poetry she wrote were "The Dream of a Common Language", "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far", "The Fact of a Doorframe", "An Atlas of the Difficult World" and "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve". Her prose included "On Lies, Secrets, and Silence", "Blood, Bread, and Poetry", "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" and "Of Woman Born".

In 1997, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, that is the highest award bestowed upon artists by the United States government. She said "amid the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice," that the government had chosen to honor "a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored." She also added "Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage." She summed up her entire life as a fight to achieve "the creation of a society without domination."


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