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Adrienne Rich dies at 82; feminist poet and essayist

Adrienne Rich, a much-awarded feminist poet and essayist, dies at 82. She 'was a voice for the feminist movement when it was just starting and didn't have a voice,' an expert says.

March 28, 2012|By Mary Rourke, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Poet Adrienne Rich in May 1987. She moved from the East to the warmer climate of Santa Cruz to help her rheumatoid arthritis. On the West Coast she taught at San Jose State, Scripps College and elsewhere.
Poet Adrienne Rich in May 1987. She moved from the East to the warmer climate… (Neal Boenzi / New York Times )

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.)

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