Adrienne Rich was America's post-war poet laureate.
Not single-handedly (and oh, how she would recoil from such a description, since she took pains to acknowledge the contributions of so many other pathbreaking writers) but with bravery and constancy, she pried open the doors of poetry to usher in the voices of women, lesbians, and people of color. She demanded admittance for the social and the political.
She despised oppressions of every kind, and hurled herself against them. In her early 1980s poem “Sources,” she describes herself as a “woman with a mission, not to win prizes/but to change the laws of history.”
In her last couple of decades, she wrestled with America itself in a time "when the name of compassion/was changed to the name of guilt/when to feel with a human stranger/was declared obsolete." (from "And Now," in Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995.)
She referred to our "moribund democracy" in The School Among the Ruins, and she wrote about the grotesqueness of U.S. support for Central American killers, she decried the immorality of the Iraq Wars, and she did not shy away from discussing the suffering of the Palestinians.
I had the pleasure of meeting Adrienne Rich twice. Once, when I went out to talk with her in Santa Cruz in September 1993 for the interview The Progressive published in January 1994, and a couple of years later in Madison, for lunch. Both times she was welcoming and wise, courteous and inquisitive.
On a parochial note, she was instrumental, along with Martín Espada and Marilyn Hacker, in helping The Progressive inaugurate a page of original poetry every month for the past 17 years, and I’m grateful to her for supporting this effort of ours.
I'll miss her personal kindness, and I’ll miss the opportunity to read whatever insights, and sample whatever art, she left unpublished. The progressive movement will miss her leadership. America will miss her stalwart conscience.
Poetry still has her, though. "I happen to think poetry makes a huge difference," she told me. And as she writes in the last poem in Dark Fields of the Republic, "Poetry means refusing/the choice to kill or die."
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Trayvon Martin, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law, and Wisconsin’s “Castle Doctrine”."
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