The reason I am doing a blog on Ms. Rich, has many reasons. One, she is a writer and two, she is a writer of poetry. But also, she was a feminist who bravely went where others did not, could not, would not go. Last week I watched a Netflix documentary called “A Secret Love,” about two lesbian best friends who “came out” 65 years later when the “Marriage Equality” law was passed. Imagine that! They then told their families about the secret they kept all those years and then were married, legally. They both were becoming more infirmed as they aged and their families were worried about them. Marriage gave them more options as married partners.
Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins. Her mother was a former concert pianist. Rich’s upbringing was dominated by the intellectual ambitions her father had for her, and Rich excelled at academics, earning her degree from Radcliffe University, as well as many other honors during her esteemed career.
She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”, and was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse.” Rich criticized rigid forms of feminist identities, and valorized what she coined the “lesbian continuum,” which is a female continuum of solidarity and creativity that impacts and fills women’s lives.
Her first collection of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by renowned poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. Auden went on to write the introduction to the published volume. She famously declined the National Medal of Arts, protesting the vote by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1953, Rich married Alfred Haskell Conrad, an economics professor at Harvard University she met as an undergraduate. She said of the match: “I married in part because I knew no better way to disconnect from my first family. I wanted what I saw as a full woman’s life, whatever was possible.” They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had three sons. In 1955, she published her second volume, The Diamond Cutters, a collection she said she wished had not been published.
That year she also received the Ridgely Torrence Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her three children were born in 1955 (David), 1957 (Pablo) and 1959 (Jacob). Moving her family to New York in 1966, Rich became involved with the New Left and became heavily involved in anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism. Her husband took a teaching position at City College of New York. After her husband’s death in 1970, in 1976, Rich began her partnership with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, which lasted until her death. Her own true self had finally been realized as well, 45 years into her own life.
Through over 60 years of public introspection and examination of society and self, Adrienne Rich has chronicled her journey in poetry and prose. “I began as an American optimist,” she commented in Credo of a Passionate Skeptic, “albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War … I became an American Skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.”
Here’s a sample of her observations….then as now.
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
—From “What kinds of times are these?
“What kinds of times are these indeed?” With every gain comes a plunge. It’s the human spirits need for true genuine identity that is how we build up our resilience. In these times, stay safe, stay strong, stay kind. Love is all we need.