Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Poet Adrienne Rich, who died at 82, inspired generations of students

When I clicked the link to the New York Times obituary for poet Adrienne Rich, the first thing that popped up on my computer screen was a Banana Republic ad with a smiling, skinny young woman in a short skirt.

Somewhere, I thought I heard a spinning sound.

Not that Rich would have been surprised. The widely honored and influential poet and cultural critic, who died in California on March 27 at age 82, had spent most of her career deploying poetry as a weapon against sexism and a host of other injustices — and she knew it was part of a battle unlikely to end in her lifetime.

I was among the several generations of college students who were galvanized and inspired by Rich's work. A staple of women's studies courses from their inception in the 1970s, her poetry was fearlessly political. It was an era of political poetry, of course, even polemical poetry, but Rich, an innovative stylist and a rigorous intellectual, never sacrificed the poetry for the politics. It was a rare combination, all the rarer today.

Rich's career was launched early by her first collection of poetry, A Change in the World, written while she was an undergraduate at Radcliffe. Its polished, formal poems were so impressive that W.H. Auden selected it for the prestigious Yale Younger Poets series in 1951.

Rich married and had three sons, but she began to shake off tradition poetically and personally with her collection Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. Published in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Rich's book was just as much a signal of the rising feminist movement.

Sexism was not her only target; racial and economic inequality was a frequent subject, as were war and anti-Semitism. After her marriage ended and she came out as a lesbian, she published the controversial Twenty-One Love Poems in 1976. Her half-dozen books and many essays of criticism became founding texts for gender and queer studies.

It was never Rich's style to hew to any party line. In 1997 she refused the National Medal of Arts, saying, "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 received just about every other honor imaginable, though, including the Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award and a MacArthur genius grant. She was a distinguished teacher and a prolific writer, publishing two dozen collections of poetry over six decades. In her last book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, published in 2011, she was still grappling with many of the same issues she had addressed half a century before.

Rich died just a few days shy of National Poetry Month, the annual celebration of the form inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Rereading some of her work and remembering its effect on me as a young reader, I couldn't help but see a contrast with the contemporary poetry I read. Beautiful and accomplished as much of it is, poetry in the 21st century tends to submerge the political in the personal, if it addresses the political at all.

Not that politics is the poet's job. When the National Book Foundation honored Rich for her distinguished contribution to American letters in 2006, she said in her acceptance speech, "Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard."

She was right. But what great poetry can do — what Rich's poetry often did — is marry art and issues to make us think about them in new and complex ways rather than in simplistic, reductive slogans.

In an era when civil discourse is too often reduced to the pundit's bark and the online commenter's blurt and bleep, I long for voices that can speak to political and social issues not only with passion but with depth and clarity, and I mourn the loss of one of the most powerful of those voices.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

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