Adrienne Rich dies at 82; feminist poet and essayist


Adrienne Rich, a pioneering feminist poet and essayist who challenged what she considered to be the myths of the American dream and subsequently received high literary honors, died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz. She was 82.

The cause was complications from the rheumatoid arthritis that had plagued her for much of her life, said a son, Pablo Conrad.

“Adrienne Rich made a very important contribution to poetry,” Helen Vendler, a Harvard University professor and literary critic told The Times in 2005. “She was able to articulate a modern American conscience. She had the command of language and the imagery to express it.”

Rich came of age during the social upheaval of the 1960s and ‘70s and was best known as an advocate of women’s rights, which she explored in poetry and prose. But she also passionately addressed the antiwar movement and wrote of the marginalized and underprivileged.

Her intense critique of contemporary society combined with her political activism set her apart from other leading women poets of her generation, including Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. She attended rallies against the Vietnam War, organized poetry readings for peace and marched for women’s rights — and urged every writer to address social injustice in their art.

In “On Edges,” a 1968 poem about women’s rights, she wrote:

I’d rather

taste blood, yours or mine, flowing

from a sudden slash, than cut all day

with blunt scissors on dotted lines

like the teacher told.

From her first book of poems in the early 1950s, Rich revealed her feminist bearings, and when universities introduced courses in women’s studies, Rich was likely to be included.

“Adrienne Rich was a voice for the feminist movement when it was just starting and didn’t have a voice,” said Barbara Gelpi, a professor emeritus of English and women’s studies at Stanford University who with her husband, Albert, co-edited the 1993 volume “Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose.”

“She expressed the sources of women’s pain when women were coming to a sense of their own history and potential,” Barbara Gelpi said in a 2005 interview with The Times.

Rich was a major presence among post-World War II American poets, according to Albert Gelpi, an emeritus professor of American literature at Stanford.

Her experiences “resonated with the political and social environment of the time,” he said. “That is what made her poetry so powerful.”

Critics consider Rich’s 1962 poem “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” to be one of her more enduring. It voiced “a dilemma that extends across time,” according to Harvard’s Vendler, and reads in part:

Either you will

go through this door

or you will not go through

If you go through

there is always the risk

of remembering your name. ...

The door itself makes no promises.

It is only a door.

“Go through the door and you leave certain things behind,” Vendler said. “It’s the idea of consciousness-raising, in women, men, immigrants and others.”

Issues of inequality based on race, education and financial status fueled Rich’s writing, but she was particularly critical of imbalance between the sexes. It was a recurring theme in her work dating to 1951, her senior year at Radcliffe College, when she published her first book of poems, “A Change of World.”

The collection earned her the Yale Younger Poets prize, which has championed promising new American poets since 1919. W.H. Auden, in selecting her for the honor, wrote that Rich’s poems “speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.”

Born May 16, 1929, and raised in Baltimore, Rich attributed her scholarly bent to her father, Arnold Rich, a physician and professor at Johns Hopkins University whom she later recalled as controlling. She was troubled that he encouraged Adrienne and her younger sister Cynthia to leave their Jewish traditions behind and wrote a 1982 essay, “Split at the Root,” about the identity crisis it caused. Her mother was Episcopalian.

When Rich married Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad, who was an Orthodox Jew, her parents refused to attend the 1953 wedding.

With Conrad, she had three sons in five years. She rarely mentioned her children in her writing, but friends said she was an excellent mother who remained close to her family.

But she became frustrated by the conventional roles of wife and mother and blamed society for giving men power over women’s lives. In a man’s world, she once wrote, women “live in other people’s houses.”

In the mid-1960s, Rich and her family moved from Cambridge, Mass., to New York City, where she taught poetry at Swarthmore College and Columbia University, and remedial English to disadvantaged students at City College of New York.

Her personal life continued to provide material for poems. In 1962’s “Novella,” she wrote:

Two people in a room, speaking harshly.

One gets up, goes out to walk.

(That is the man.)

The other goes into the next room

and washes the dishes, cracking one.

(That is the woman.)

She had begun writing about her experience as a lesbian in poems such as “The Demon Lover” (1966) in which she described mixed and complicated emotions:

There might have been a wedding

that never was:

two creatures sprung free from castiron covenants.

Instead our hands and minds

erotically waver...

As she became increasingly politically active, the gap between the couple widened. Rich left her husband in 1970. He committed suicide later that year.

“It was shattering for me and my children,” Rich told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2002. “It was a tremendous waste.”

She threw herself into the women’s movement and antiwar protests, resulting in such collections of poetry as 1973’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” one of her most highly praised books. The speaker in the title poem is surveying a sunken ship, a scene that resonates with the social turmoil of the time. She wrote in part:

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

The book led to Rich’s winning the National Book Award in 1974. At first, she refused the honor but eventually accepted it with the two other women poet nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lord, on behalf “of all women whose voices have been silenced,” Rich had explained.

Rich also wrote a number of essays that helped establish her as a leading feminist thinker in the 1970s.

“When We Dead Awaken, Writing as Re-Vision” began as a speech she gave at a 1971 Chicago forum on women writers. She argued that such literary classics as the Henrik Ibsen play cited in the essay’s title needed to be reevaluated from a feminist perspective. Ibsen’s main characters, a male artist and his female muse, are stereotypes that should be discarded, she argued.

In “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,” a landmark collection of essays from 1976, Rich questioned traditions of marriage and motherhood that had troubled her as a young woman trying to establish herself as a poet while raising children.

Her “essays were defining for many women,” Vendler said. “She articulated the unspoken feelings of so many women” but sometimes “pushed her arguments too hard.”

Rich later distanced herself from several of her most radical essays including “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), according to Barbara Gelpi. Rich had argued that heterosexuality is a political institution that benefits heterosexual men and disempowers everyone else.

Some critics considered Rich an angry poet, and she agreed. “I’m affirming anger. It has been a tremendous vein of creativity for women,” she told The Times in 1983.

She taught English, poetry and creative writing at several colleges in the East in the 1970s and formed a lasting personal relationship with novelist and critic Michelle Cliff. They coedited the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom from 1981 to 1983.

Seeking a warmer climate that might help her rheumatoid arthritis, Rich moved to Santa Cruz with Cliff in 1984. Rich taught at San Jose State and was a visiting professor at Scripps College in Claremont and other California institutions.

With some 20 volumes of poetry and nonfiction to her credit, she remained a controversial figure.

“She is determined to be glum,” New York Times reviewer Denis Donoghue wrote in 1996 of Rich’s “Dark Fields of the Republic,” which featured strong themes of social justice for the marginalized. “Few of her new poems achieve the autonomy of a work of art, floating free of their autobiographical context.”

Throughout her career, various critics made similarly qualifying observations about her poetry and her essays, while others admired her tenacity.

“All poets know that there is nothing more difficult than melding a political conscience with a lyric speaking voice,” poet David St. John wrote in his review of “Dark Fields” in The Times. “Rich’s poetry instructs us about the importance of finding a way.”

In person, Rich was bright, engaging and instantly likable, with a strain of independence in her voice, the Guardian reported in 2002.

She received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 1994. Three years later, she was chosen to receive a National Medal of Arts but refused it. In a letter addressed to then-President Clinton, she said that “token artists” could not be honored when “radical disparities of wealth and power” were “widening at a devastating rate.”

She became the first poet to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, given by Poetry Magazine, in 1986. She was given the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry in 1992, the Dorothea Tanning Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and the Bollingen prize for poetry in 2003.

When she received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005 for “School Among the Ruins, Poems 2000-2004,” she thanked “the movements and activists which have educated and fired me throughout my life.”

Rich is survived by her partner, Michelle Cliff; her three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob Conrad; her sister, Cynthia; and two grandchildren.

Rourke is a former Times staff writer.