Adrienne Rich‘s life and writings have bravely and eloquently challenged roles, myths, and assumptions for half a century. She has been a fervent activist against racism, sexism, economic injustice, and homophobia. Her exacting and provocative work is required reading in English and Women’s Studies courses throughout the U.S.
Rich has authored more than fifteen volumes of poetry and four books of non-fiction prose, most recently Fox and Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. Beginning with the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, awarded to her at age twenty-two for A Change of World, she has received countless literary honors, including the prestigious Tanning Award for Mastery in the Art of Poetry, an Academy of Poetry Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Common Wealth Award in Literature, two Guggenheims, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Book Award, which she accepted with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women who are silenced.
For Rich, activism and art are inexorably intertwined. “Poetry,” she writes, “can remind us of all we are in danger of losing – disturb us, embolden us out of our resignation.” While her search for social justice has informed her life and her work, the poems, rather than suffering under the yoke of a heavy ideology, are brilliantly varied in their strategies and capacities to disturb and empower. As Poet David Wagoner’s 1996 citation proclaimed: “At every stage of her development, she has not simply pleased her admirers, but has surprised them. Her ingenuity in structure and diction, the variety and intensity of her forms and voices, and the emotional depth they have enabled her to reach…have made her lifetime of work a demonstration of what the Tanning Prize was meant to reward: mastery.”
The one prize Rich chose to decline was the National Medal for the Arts, awarded in 1997 by the National Endowment for the Arts and President Clinton. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote in a letter to the New York Times, “because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. [A]rt means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
Rich’s commitment to a ruthless examination of the self, as well as of society, has produced a body of work that traces her transformation from the well-behaved wife and formalist of the early poems to the fierce and politically artful writer she became. A partial, chronological listing of book titles (poetry and prose) provides an abbreviated narrative of this process and its concerns: Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Necessities of Life, The Will to Change, Diving into the Wreck, The Dream of a Common Language, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far, Time’s Power, An Atlas of the Difficult World, Dark Fields of the Republic, Midnight Salvage, Arts of the Possible.
Rich’s work is living, necessary proof of the need for and the possibility of union between art and politics. As the late June Jordan put it, she “inflames our otherwise withering moral consciousness with tender and engendering inventions of language.” In the words of poet W. S. Merwin, “Adrienne Rich’s poems, volume after volume, have been the makings of one of the authentic, unpredictable, urgent, essential voices of our time.”
Adrienne Rich’s visit to Smith honors Carol T. Christ
upon her inauguration as the college’s tenth president.
Poetry Center Readings:
Fall 2002 – Celebrating the Inauguration of President Carol Christ
You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language
Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she’s a woman of my time
with Love, our subject:
we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power
I begin to see that woman
doing things: stirring rice
ironing a skirt
typing a manuscript till dawn
trying to make a call
from a phonebooth
The phone rings unanswered
in a man’s bedroom
she hears him telling someone else
Never mind. She’ll get tired.
hears him telling her story to her sister
who becomes her enemy
and will in her own time
light her own way to sorrow
ignorant of the fact this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
From DIVING INTO THE WRECK (Norton, 1973)
Should I simplify my life for you?
Don’t ask me how I began to love men.
Don’t ask me how I began to love women.
Remember the forties songs, the slowdance numbers
the small sex-filled gas-rationed Chevrolet?
Remember walking in the snow and who was gay?
Cigarette smoke of the movies, silver-and-gray
profiles, dreaming the dreams of he-and-she
breathing the dissolution of the wisping silver plume?
Dreaming that dream we leaned applying lipstick
by the gravestone’s mirror when we found ourselves
playing in the cemetery. In Current Events she said
the war in Europe is over, the Allies
and she wore no lipstick have won the war
and we raced screaming out of Sixth Period.
Dreaming that dream
we had to maze our ways through a wood
where lips were knives breasts razors and I hid
in the cage of my mind scribbling
this map stops where it all begins
into a red-and-black notebook.
Remember after the war when peace came down
as plenty for some and they said we were saved
in an eternal present and we knew the world could end?
-remember after the war when peace rained down
on the winds from Hiroshima Nagasaki Utah Nevada?
and the socialist queer Christian teacher jumps from the
and L.G. saying I want to sleep with you but not for sex
and the red-and-black enameled coffee-pot dripped slow through
the dark grounds
-appetite terror power tenderness
the long kiss in the stairwell the switch thrown
on two Jewish Communists married to each other
the definitive crunch of glass at the end of the wedding?
(When shall we learn, what should be clear as day,
We cannot choose what we are free to love?)
From DARK FIELDS OF THE REPUBLIC (Norton, 1995)
There Is No One Story and One Story Only
The engineer’s story of hauling coal
to Davenport for the cement factory, sitting on the bluffs
between runs looking for whales, hauling concrete
back to Gilroy, he and his wife renewing vows
in the glass chapel in Arkansas after 25 years
The flight attendant’s story murmured
to the flight steward in the dark galley
of her fifth-month loss of nerve
about carrying the baby she’d seen on the screen
The story of the forensic medical team’s
small plane landing on an Alaska icefield
of the body in the bag they had to drag
over the ice like the whole life of that body
The story of the man driving
600 miles to be with a friend in another country pp seeming
easy when leaving but afterward
writing in a letter difficult truths
Of the friend watching him leave remembering
the story of her body
with his once and the stories of their children
made with other people and how his mind went on
pressing hers like a body
There is the story of the mind’s
temperature neither cold nor celibate
Ardent The story of
not one thing only.
From THE SCHOOL AMONG THE RUINS (Norton, 2004)
I needed fox Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox briars of legend it was said she
had run through
I was in want of fox
And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt if my hands could even slide
past her body slide between them sharp truth distressing
surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen’s courage in vixen terms
For a human animal to call for help
on another animal
is the most riven the most revolted cry on earth
come a long way down
Go back far enough it means tearing and torn endless
back far enough it blurts
into the birth-yell of the yet-to-be human child
pushed out of a female the yet-to-be woman
Available as a Broadside.