Inspiring Thursday: Adrienne Rich (1929–2012)

“Diving Into the Wreck.” (1974)

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
in which
our names do not appear.

Adrienne Rich was born in 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was a poet, a writer and a feminist and one of America’s foremost intellectuals. She “brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century (New York Times, 2012).

One of Rich’s first works, published in 1951 (“A Change of World ”), won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award. Rich’s poetry has maintained its overtly political, feminist edge throughout the decades since the Vietnam War and the social activism of the 1960s and 70s. Being a woman, a lesbian and the daughter of a Jewish father, she lived a triple marginalized life. At a time where homosexuality was deeply condemned, Adrienne came out publicly and fought actively against the oppression of women, lesbians, and other minorities.

In collections like Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), Time’s Power: Poems, 1985-1988 (1988), and An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991 (1991), Rich addressed the Jewish heritage that she was forced to hide during her early life. Her personal experience was very present throughout all three books. Midnight Salvage, Poems, 1995-1998 (1999) is a collection that focused on “the quest for personal happiness,” according to Rafael Campo who reviewed the volume for the Progressive, it also circles “the problem of defining ‘happiness’—in an American society that continues to exploit its most defenseless citizens, and in the face of a larger world where contempt for human rights leads to nightmare.”

Throughout the years, she refused several awards. In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts, stating that “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She went on to say: “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” On the same year, Rich was awarded the Academy of American Poet’s Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. She died on March 27, 2012, at the age of eighty-two.

Adrienne was one of the most influential writers of the feminist movement and became popular with the scathing and courageous social comments that she made about dominant American values, whether they were related to identity, race or sexuality. Adrienne is truly an inspiration!

Written by WAVE intern: Mariana Cunha