Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.
It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).
Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.
Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her. For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.
In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)
That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.