Adrienne Rich: Writing as Social Practice

I read with sadness this morning that the great American poet, Adrienne Rich, died this week at her home in Santa Cruz. She was a brave and ardent writer, a gifted teacher and a powerful voice of conscience. This is no one quite like her in American letters.

Coming of age as a poet in the 1950s, she honed her craft within the formalist aesthetics of the day. Moving to New York in the 1960s, and soaking in its political and artistic transformations, she remade her poetics and critical writings in the service of reshaping consciousness and society.

Rich’s poetry was at once deeply personal and broadly political, and her essays throughout the 1970s and 1980s were sharp, precise instruments for unblocking thought. I remember reading “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (as a young professor at a women’s college) and suddenly realizing how cruelly oppressive conventional assumptions could be. I also remember Rich reading poems at Scripps College that explored the tangled legacies of her father — a poetic exploration that brought me to tears.

My office was next to Adrienne’s at Scripps, and I was too intimidated by her fame and presence to approach her directly. Instead, after her reading I slid a note under her door — a fan letter, really. The next day, she knocked on my door and asked if we might chat. It was, for me, an exhilarating conversation. She listened to my questions with intensity, though she had surely heard these kinds of remarks before. She didn’t exude the certainty of dogma or the privileges of fame. Instead, in talking with her one felt that inquiry and creation had become everyday dimensions of her life.

Poetry, Rich wrote, “has the capacity … to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.” In dark times, poets continue to recollect visions of freedom, to offer “a journey to reclaim the fullness of the senses,” to restore a legacy that can give birth to new exchanges of energy. When I reviewed The Human Eye for the San Francisco Chronicle (which I’ve drawn on here), I was reminded of the “clarity and freshness” of the Rich’s thought and artistic practice.

Writers, readers, artists and citizens will miss that clarity. May we strive to build on her practice to “give birth to new exchanges of energy.”

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