For more than half a century, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) explored with equal parts courage and conviction such complex cultural phenomena as identity and ideology, gender and politics, oppression and freedom. The recipient of numerous honors, including the National Book Award for Poetry, two Guggenheim fellowships, and a MacArthur “genius” grant — Rich is celebrated as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.
For Rich, art was as much a tool of creative expression as it was a vehicle for empathy, for expanding one’s understanding of the world beyond the limits of the individual. In a 2005 conversation at the Kelly Writers House, she articulates her ethos with a beautiful definition of art:
One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.
Rich’s own life was anything but ordinary. In 1953, she married Harvard professor Alfred Haskell Conrad, who fathered her three children. Over the decade that followed, her career exploded, in the process catapulting her into a spurt of personal growth, self-discovery, and political awakening. In 1970, stifled by the institution of marriage, Rich divorced Conrad. In 1976, she met and fell in love with Jamaican-born novelist and editor Michelle Cliff, who became her lifelong partner and inspired Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), her first literary exploration of lesbian desire and sexuality, later included in one of her most celebrated works, The Dream of a Common Language (1978). The two remained together for thirty-six years, until Rich’s death in 2012. In a lamentable manifestation of the current failings of marriage equality, as of this writing, her Wikipedia entry still lists Conrad as her only spouse.
In 1997, in protest against the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, Rich famously became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, previously awarded to such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Updike, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and fellow reconstructionist Maya Angelou.
But despite the strong undercurrents of political and sociocultural commentary, Rich’s work was driven first and foremost by the irrepressible stirrings of her inner life. She reflected in an interview:
A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’
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