Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died on Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.
The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.
Widely read, widely anthologized, widely interviewed and widely taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.
Triply marginalized — as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew — Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.
She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both argued persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.
For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front. While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse — often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction and pacing — sounding like that of few other poets.
All this helped ensure Ms. Rich’s continued relevance long after she burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.
Her constellation of honors includes a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.” That volume, published in 1973, is considered her masterwork.
In the title poem, Ms. Rich uses the metaphor of a dive into dark, unfathomable waters to plumb the depths of women’s experience:
I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold. …
We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
our names do not appear.
Ms. Rich was far too seasoned a campaigner to think that verse alone could change entrenched social institutions. “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” she said in an acceptance speech to the National Book Foundation in 2006, on receiving its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. “Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”
But at the same time, as she made resoundingly clear in interviews, in public lectures and in her work, Ms. Rich saw poetry as a keen-edged beacon by which women’s lives — and women’s consciousness — could be illuminated.
She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.
Adrienne Cecile Rich was born in Baltimore on May 16, 1929. Her father, Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor and assimilated Jew, was an authority on tuberculosis who taught at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, a Christian, was a pianist and composer who, cleaving to social norms of the day, forsook her career to marry and have children. Adrienne was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
Theirs was a bookish household, and Adrienne, as she said afterward, was groomed by her father to be a literary prodigy. He encouraged her to write poetry when she was still a child, and she steeped herself in the poets in his library — all men, she later ruefully observed. But those men gave her the formalist grounding that let her make her mark when she was still very young.
When Ms. Rich was in her last year at Radcliffe (she received a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1951), W. H. Auden chose her first collection, “A Change of World,” for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series, a signal honor. Released in 1951, the book, with its sober mien, dutiful meter and scrupulous rhymes, was praised by reviewers for its impeccable command of form.
She had learned the lessons of her father’s library well, or so it seemed. For even in this volume Ms. Rich had begun, with subtle subversion, to push against a time-honored thematic constraint — the proscription on making poetry out of the soul-numbing dailiness of women’s lives.
A poem in the collection, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” depicting a woman at her needlework and reprinted here in full, is concerned with precisely this:
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
Once mastered, poetry’s formalist rigors gave Ms. Rich something to rebel against, and by her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” published by Harper & Row, she had pretty well exploded them. That volume appeared in 1963, a watershed moment in women’s letters: “The Feminine Mystique” was also published that year.
In the collection’s title poem, Ms. Rich chronicles the pulverizing onus of traditional married life. It opens this way:
You, once a belle in Shreveport,
with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud,
still have your dresses copied from that time. …
Your mind now, mouldering like wedding-cake,
heavy with useless experience, rich
with suspicion, rumor, fantasy,
crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge
of mere fact.
Though the book horrified some critics, it sealed Ms. Rich’s national reputation.
She knew the strain of domestic duty firsthand. In 1953 Ms. Rich had married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and by the time she was 30 she was the mother of three small boys. When Professor Conrad took a job at the City College of New York, the family moved to New York City, where Ms. Rich became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements.
By 1970, partly because she had begun, inwardly, to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.
Ms. Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” whose subject matter — sexual love between women — was still considered disarming and dangerous. In the years that followed her poetry and prose ranged over her increasing self-identification as a Jewish woman, the Holocaust and the struggles of black women.
Ms. Rich’s other volumes of poetry include “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978), “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far” (1981), “The Fact of a Doorframe” (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991) and, most recently, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” published last year.
Her prose includes the essay collections “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” (1979); “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1986); an influential essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” published as a slender volume in 1981; and the nonfiction book “Of Woman Born” (1976), which examines the institution of motherhood as a socio-historic construct.
For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.
In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter to Jane Alexander, then chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the award, she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
Ms. Rich’s other laurels — and these she did accept — include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
She taught widely, including at Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell and Stanford Universities.
Ms. Rich’s survivors include her partner of more than 30 years, the writer Michelle Cliff; three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob, from her marriage to Professor Conrad; a sister, Cynthia Rich; and two grandchildren.
For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.
What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” reprinted from “Collected Early Poems” by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1993 by Adrienne Rich. With the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc.