Adrienne Rich: a voice for the marginalized

Adrienne Rich shaped her verse and prose into a passionate cry for justice.

Stuart Ramson/AP
Over the course of her decades-long career, Adrienne Rich picked up a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Yale Young Poets.

 Adrienne Rich, a celebrated poet, feminist, and social activist who, through her thoughtful verse, challenged the American Dream and championed women’s rights, gay rights, and rights of the disadvantaged, has died. She was 82.

Ms. Rich died Tuesday in her home in Santa Cruz, said her son Pablo Conrad.

Over the course of her decades-long career, over which she published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction, Rich picked up a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and Yale Young Poets prize for her passionate poetry that took up the causes of the marginalized.

As the precocious elder daughter of a Jewish father and Protestant mother – a heritage recalled in her autobiographical poem, “Sources” – Rich came of age in Baltimore during the turbulent social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, an experience that heavily influenced her work. She was known for her unflinching attention to such controversial topics as racism, sexuality, war, economic justice, and homosexuality.

One of her most celebrated books of poetry, “Diving Into the Wreck,” published in 1973, garnered Rich a National Book Award and launched her into the top echelon of American poets. With its layers of meaning about treasure hunting, failed relationship, and gender hierarchies, Rich’s title poem was called “one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women’s movement,” by literary scholar Cheryl Walker, in the Nation.

It began:

I put on

the body armor of black rubber

the absurd flippers

the grave and awkward mask.

I am having to do this

not like Cousteau with his

assiduous team

aboard the sun-flooded schooner

but here alone.

Rich married Harvard University economist Alfred Conrad in 1953, with whom she had three sons. She eventually left him in 1970 to live with her partner, writer and editor Michelle Cliff. Soon after she left her husband, he committed suicide. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Rich taught at many colleges and universities including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State, Stanford, Swarthmore, Columbia University School of the Art, and City University of New York.

President Bill Clinton selected Rich for the National Medal of the Arts in 1997, the highest award given to artists. Rich refused it, citing the growing disparity between rich and poor in the country.

“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” she wrote in a letter addressed to then-President Clinton. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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