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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

In Memoriam: Adrienne Rich, 82

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: News

Adrienne Rich, a poet, social activist and one of the most influential feminist writers of the 20th century, died on March 27, at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

Rich taught creative writing at Brandeis from 1970 to 1972 and was awarded honorary doctorates from both Brandeis and Harvard. She also taught and frequently gave readings at universities such as Cornell, Stanford and liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore.

Rich, who had an affinity for poetry since her childhood, began writing in her college years at Radcliffe College. She published her first collection of poems, “A Change of World,” the same year she graduated with a degree in English. The collection was selected by poet W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.

Her ouvre include 25 books of poetry and seven nonfiction books of essays and social commentary.

Rich found her poetic identity in the 1960s, channeling the turbulent social period into her writing. After marrying economics professor Alfred Conrad and having three children, Rich felt conflicted about society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother at a time when that social role was hotly debated. This inspired her collection of essays, “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution,” published later on. The book challenged traditional notions of what it meant to be a mother.

A few years after Conrad’s death in 1970, Rich came out as a lesbian. Shulamit Reinharz, sociology professor and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, said that Rich was “triply challenged” by her unique role as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew who discovered her Jewish identity later in life.

This self-conflict was visible in her poems and essays, especially “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” one of the first essays to take on sexuality at that time. It has become a staple reading in women’s studies classes, according to Reinharz.

Rich’s later poems took on other issues of the time, including civil rights and anti-war protests against the Vietnam War.

“She was one of the great American poets; she was totally committed to what we think about today as social justice, but radically so,” Rich’s friend Bettina Aptheker, UC Santa Cruz professor and feminist, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “She was anti-imperialist in her thinking. She had a razor-sharp mind and brilliant use of language that gave you tremendous insight into things.”

Even when Rich was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997 by President Clinton, she refused it due to the “disparities of wealth and power” in America, and in protest of the House of Representatives possibly cutting funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.

Later, in her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Award in 2006, she acknowledged, “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.” Rich knew that poetry alone could not solve social problems, but it could illuminate what it meant to be a woman. Her mission was to bring about “the creation of a society without domination” through writing.

Olga Broumas, a Brandeis professor of creative writing, will remember Rich as someone who was “consummately present, ever gracious, and had an uninterruptible channel for poetry, intelligence, and justice”; she “radiated ethical conscience and commitment.”

Rich’s other awards include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.