Upon her death March 27 at the age of 82, Adrienne Rich, the most far-reaching and influential poet of her generation, left behind a formidable body of work that transformed culture and society and stands as a powerful record of our time. In each of her volumes she continually challenged and reinvented what the poem could do, artfully and brilliantly wrestling with the “timbre and phrasing of a poetic line” to “capture and release voices,” as she explained in her last interview in the Paris Review.
Adrienne refused to turn away from difficulty. Her relentless and urgent mission to articulate through singular poetics the personal and political issues of our time never failed her. She continually, in each new book, reinvented poetic forms to express the truths that can elude us, often writing with exquisite tenderness. Though she suffered from considerable pain caused by conditions related to rheumatoid arthritis, she refused medication because, as she said during a conversation four weeks before she died, she wanted her thinking to be clear.
Adrienne published with W. W. Norton & Company since 1966. Of her 30 total books, she published 26 with Norton, 19 of them in poetry and seven in prose. “When Adrienne Rich came to Norton in 1966 with her book Necessities of Life, she instantly became a cornerstone of our nascent poetry list,” said Norton president Drake McFeely. “She’s been here ever since, winning too many awards and accolades to count. Adrienne was uncompromising in her adherence to the highest moral standards. In her work, poetry and politics fuse in a resounding appeal for us to embrace justice as individuals and as a nation.”
Adrienne demolished the myths and obsessions of gender, race, and class, and recognized poetry’s transformative potential. As a young poet and graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the mid-1980s, I found myself drawn to Norton in no small part because of her work, as well as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. At the time, Adrienne had, for two decades, been working with her first editor at the firm, John Benedict. It was Benedict, poetry editor and editor of Norton’s college English list, whose admiration for Adrienne’s work led her, with encouragement from the poet Denise Levertov, to begin publishing with Norton. I began working with Adrienne in 2000. She was exacting, professional, uncompromising, and warm. It was a privilege to be in the presence of her fierce, ethical, compassionate, and searching mind and a source of pride to attend her poetry readings, met with standing ovations. Young people were particularly moved by her words. She never uttered a word she did not believe.
Adrienne came of age with Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman and, over the course of her career, was much honored both here and abroad. She received a tremendous array of prizes including the National Book Award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and the Dorothea Tanning Prize for “mastery in the art of poetry,” given by the Academy of American Poets. In 1997, Rich was awarded a prize she chose famously to decline—the National Medal for the Arts, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts and President Clinton. Adrienne’s letter stated her reason; here is an excerpt: “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.... [A]rt means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner-table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
In an address she gave after receiving the NBF’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2006 she said, “I hope to never idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatheraphy. Nor is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”
Adrienne’s powerful desire to articulate in brilliant poetics the injustices, “the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail,” never failed her. In the weeks before she died she expressed her hope to put together what she said would be her last volume. It will consist of 10 new poems and a selection of her later poems. Her 31st book, a collection titled Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971–2012, will be published by Norton in November 2012. Here are lines from a new poem, “Teethsucking Bird.”
Listen, that teethsucking bird’s
back up on the telephone wire
talking times and customs
naming the dead to the half-alive
hardship to lyric and back again
to the open road of the toll-taker’s
booth at the last exit
Adrienne’s vibrant mind and unswerving commitment to language never faltered. She wanted her work to speak for itself, and so it continues to do.
Bialosky is v-p, executive editor, at W. W. Norton and was Rich’s editor.