I was a first-semester high-school senior in 1987, grappling with a sexual-identity crisis, when an older friend — a used-book-store owner — gave me a Xerox copy of “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich’s essay about the spectrum of female intimacy, positing that all women have a place on the “lesbian continuum.” For me, as it was for so many women when it was published in 1980, reading that essay (which would appear on at least four of my syllabi when I was a Rutgers English–Women’s Studies double-major) was a revelation, a justification of and testament to what I was feeling but couldn’t yet articulate.
Which is the genius of Adrienne Rich, who passed away yesterday, at 82: The postwar poet and intellectual, who “dream[t] of a common language,” spent seven decades writing with clarity, precision, and passion — in more than two dozen volumes of poetry and ten essay collections — her rage at patriarchal convention, her pursuit for social justice, her self-discovery, her evolution as a radical feminist and an antiwar activist. For much of her writing career, she served as the culture’s moral conscience, once having described herself, in her 2001 essay “Credo of a Passionate Skeptic,” as initially having been “an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War,” who morphed into an “American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity … but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world.” Passionate skepticism, she proposed, was the means for her to continue. In 1997, she declined the National Medal of Arts because, as she wrote in a letter published in the New York Times, “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She did, however, accept innumerable other honors, among them, a National Book Award (for Diving Into the Wreck, in 1974), a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (for The School Among the Ruins, in 2004), a MacArthur genius grant, a Bollingen Prize for Poetry, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
Perhaps Adrienne Cecile Rich, born in 1929 in Baltimore, was destined to rebuke convention, after witnessing her mother sacrifice her career as a concert pianist and composer to wed her father, a renowned pathologist. Rich, who graduated from Radcliffe, initially followed in her mother’s footsteps, marrying the Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad and having three sons, but she also opted to pursue her career. During her senior year of college, in 1951, W.H. Auden selected her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, to be published in the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series. Her most anthologized poem from the collection, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” conforms to the rigors of the lyrical form, while criticizing the institution of marriage and domesticity, a subject she returns to much more forcefully, in style and substance, in Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, 1954–1962, published a decade later but written during the first ten years of her marriage.
She and Conrad stayed together for seventeen years, but the couple became estranged as she became increasingly involved in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, and also more aware of her same-sex desires. Conrad shot himself in the head in 1970, a devastating event she rarely discussed publicly. Six years later, she moved in with the woman who would become her life partner, writer Michelle Cliff.
Rich remained relevant throughout her long career, reassessing her work in 1972 when she coined the term “re-vision” — looking back with fresh eyes — in her essay “Writing as Re-Vision,” which pinpointed her own place on the lesbian continuum during her married life. She continued to experiment with free form in her poetry (her 2004 collection, The School Among the Ruins, juxtaposed dialogue from television and cell-phone calls). Her work was an ongoing dialectic, but she never lost sight of her place in the conversation, as she modestly explained in her 1978 poem “Integrity”: “I have nothing but myself/to go by; nothing/ stands in the realm of pure necessity/ except what my hands can hold.” It exemplifies a virtue she treasured, and maintained right to the end.