Adrienne Rich 1929–2012

‘Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself.’

‘Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly radical in both its free-verse form and feminist and political content. Rich’s metamorphosis was noted by Carol Muske in the New York Times Book Review; Muske wrote that Rich began as a “polite copyist of Yeats and Auden, wife and mother. She has progressed in life (and in her poems …) from young widow and disenchanted formalist, to spiritual and rhetorical convalescent, to feminist leader…and doyenne of a newly-defined female literature.”

Beginning with Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law: Poems 1954-1962 (1963), Rich’s work has explored issues of identity, sexuality and politics; her formally ambitious poetics have reflected her continued search for social justice, her role in the anti-war movement, and her radical feminism. Utilizing speech cadences, enjambment and irregular line and stanza lengths, Rich’s open forms have sought to include ostensibly “non-poetic” language into poetry. Best known for her politically-engaged verse from the tumultuous Vietnam-war period, Rich’s collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) won the National Book Award; Rich, however, accepted it with fellow-nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker on behalf of all women. A noted writer of prose, Rich’s numerous essay collections, including A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society (2009) also secured her place as one of America’s preeminent feminist thinkers. In addition to the National Book Award, Rich received numerous awards and commendations for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. She made headlines in 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts for political reasons. “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote in a letter published in the New York Times “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”’

Extract from a biography on the Poetry Foundation website:

Love in the Museum

Now will you stand for me, in this cool light,

Infanta reared in ancient etiquette,

A point-lace queen of manners. At your feet

The doll-like royal dog demurely set

Upon a chequered floor of black and white.

Or be a Louis’ mistress, by Boucher,

Lounging on cushions, silken feet asprawl

Upon a couch where casual cupids play

While on your arms and shoulders seems to fall

The tired extravagance of a sunset day.

Or let me think I pause beside a door

And see you in a bodice by Vermeer,

Where light falls quartered on the polished floor

And rims the line of water tilting clear

Out of an earthen pitcher as you pour.

But art requires a distance: let me be

Always the connoisseur of your perfection.

Stay where the spaces of the gallery

Flow calm between your pose and my inspection,

Lest one imperfect gesture make demands

As troubling as the touch of human hands.

Adrienne Rich


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