Sadness and gratitude swirled my heart when I learned of the passing of poet Adrienne Rich last week. Sadness at the passing of a woman whose influence has left such an indelible imprint on my understanding of the world, and gratitude for the long and fulfilling life she led.
I can’t even remember when I first encountered her poetry, but by the time I studied it as an undergrad it captivated me deeply, as did her commitment to activism. As I was grappling with my own understandings of feminism and women’s rights, I was astonished at how few of my favorite writers/philosophers/etc were women. Adrienne Rich was the exception, and she opened me up to a world of excellent woman poets.
I’m not sure how I came across it, but in college I taped above my desk a photocopy of the letter she wrote when she declined an award from the NEA, a letter including the famous line:
Art “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
In her essay “Someone is writing a poem” she lays forth powerful observations on the power of language, context, history, sound, and most of all power versus marginalization:
Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other. … At a certain point, a woman, writing this poem, has had to reckon the power of poetry as distinct from the power of the nuclear bomb, of the radioactive lesions of her planet, the power of poverty to reduce people to spectators of distantly conjured events. … She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language.
Thank you, Adrienne Rich, for understanding that the personal is political, for living your life in a brave & courageous way, and most of all for your words.