Adrienne Rich was that rare figure, a lavishly gifted poet and splendid intellectual who readily dirtied her hands at the barricades of social revolution. She collaborated with activist colleagues to claim social and political space for women and people of alternative sexuality during the 1960s and 1970s, even as she composed some of the most memorably sensuous and intellectually supple poems of that turbulent era. In ‘Autumn Sequence,' a poem published in her landmark 1966 collection, Necessities of Life, she wrote:
There must be a place, there has come
a time —
where so many nerves are fusing —
for a purely moral loneliness.
That ‘purely moral loneliness' was a position Rich, who died this Tuesday aged 82, was never afraid to occupy. In a figurative sense, she inherited it by birth as a person of part-Jewish descent, at birth as a woman, and when she arrived at the discovery, as a married woman and mother, that she was lesbian. Rarely was the feminist motto, ‘The personal is the political,' as physically and viscerally true of anyone as it was of this fierce visionary, whose lifelong battle with rheumatic arthritis did not prevent her from engaging in debate and dialogue with a variety of interlocutors, both allies and antagonists.
Artist and activist
Her greatest achievement was to have led a vibrant life as artist and activist, without ever allowing her activism to degenerate into tokenism or permitting her poetry to descend to mere slogan and polemic. Hers was a complex and many-sided consciousness: if she could shape the poem into an anthem on the anvil of liberation, she could also craft it delicately into a pensive meditation on love and absence, or weave it into a philosophical reflection on the transience of desire and the unquenchable hope of retaining the gift of passion. In one of the sequence of ghazals that she composed during the late 1960s in homage to Ghalib (she was one of the seven American poets who had been drawn by Aijaz Ahmad into an ambitious project of translating, or transcreating, the stellar Mughal poet), she wrote:
When I look at that wall I shall think of
and of what you did not paint there.
Only the truth makes the pain of lift
ing a hand worthwhile:
the prism staggering under the blows
of the raga.
The vanishing-point is the point
where he appears.
Two parallel tracks converge,
yet there has been no wreck.
To mutilate privacy with a single fool-
is to throw away the search for the one
When you read these lines, think of me
and of what I have not written here.
Born in Baltimore in 1929 to a father who was an assimilated Jew and a Christian mother, Rich was raised in the Episcopal Church. Her Jewish ancestry remained a powerful source of cultural significance to her, as well as a marker of difference and the experience of suffering stigma, ostracism and marginalisation. The future poet grew up in a household that prized intellectual achievement, valued artistic and literary gifts, and embodied high bourgeois culture at its best. Her father, Arnold Rich, was a doctor and an academic; her mother, Helen Rich, was a pianist and had been a composer. It was a home that prepared her for the way she would make for herself in a world that was still, when she first published her poems in the early 1950s, dominated by influential men.
By the time Rich won the prestigious National Book Award for her 1974 collection, Diving into the Wreck, authoritative female voices had gradually come to be on the ascendant.
One of the lasting achievements of Rich and her contemporaries is the dissolution of the patriarchal control over positions of privilege and articulation that had once been the norm. At the risk of being branded as willful, disruptive harpies, these courageous women paved the way for progressive reform with struggle, sacrifice, painful self-questioning, and a tenacious demand for institutional changes in government, academia and the law.
Across a six-decade-long career inaugurated with the publication of her 1951 collection, A Change of World, Rich's poetic self transmigrated into various personae, including those of the pearl diver, the woman scientist who discovered and was killed by radium, the astronomer, the lover, and the fugitive in quest of a common language in which all anguish can be shared, all trauma resolved, all ecstasy gathered into the throbbing stillness of communion. As exemplar and inspiration, Rich opened up a space for other American women poets to articulate themselves both as innovative artists and as political selves, including Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, and Louise Glück. The corpus of her work, extending through more than 25 volumes, stands at the head of a post-World War II lineage of American poetry that has resonated, and will continue to resonate, for poets and readers throughout the Anglophone world.
(Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. He is the author of I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (2011) and editor of the forthcoming Dom Moraes: Selected Poems.)