Literature: Discovering Adrienne Rich

By Tony Perkins

Yesterday I finished reading Hilary Holladay’s biography of Adrienne Rich. Along the way I paused and read about a dozen books of Rich’s poems at the points in her biography when the poems were published. I’m still not done reading her poetry; the pacing of the biography was pretty compressed toward the end of her life, during a time when she was especially productive. But to immerse myself in her life story, to chart her growth from the poet writing restrained, formally brilliant poems in the 1950s to books in the 1970s like Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of A Common Language that quite literally changed the world… it’s hard to express how helpful this journey has been for me. Especially during the pandemic, when all of us, I think, have had to reflect on the meaning of our lives and how we want to live.

Adrienne Rich evolved from an explicitly anti-feminist, 1950s housewife into a radicalized mother, a feminist, a lesbian feminist, an anti-racist activist, a woman reclaiming and exploring the Jewish identity that was denied her as a child, finally reaching a place where she could shrug off the label “feminist” in favor of an intersectional worldview aimed at liberating oppressed people everywhere, across borders, races, genders, and sexual identities. These transformations happened publicly, through poems of startling depth, clarity, and fearlessness. She anticipated and engaged with the major transitions in American society in the 20th century, all while raising three sons, losing her husband to suicide, experiencing heartbreak and addiction in the relationships with women that followed, enduring estrangement from family, and living in near-constant pain from 60 years with rheumatoid arthritis. She was also a flawed and complicated person, which only makes me appreciate more the astonishing rigor she brought to understanding herself, her history, and who she was in relation to the world. She never stopped working at life.

In a 1998 poem, Rich said, “I am my art: I make it from my body and the bodies that produced mine. I am still trying to find the pictorial language for this anger and fear rotating on an axle of love.” It’s really hard to witness someone working on her life in this way without thinking about who YOU are, and taking your own life more seriously. That’s the main point of this essay: even if you aren’t all that familiar with Adrienne Rich’s poems, or don’t think you’d have the patience to read them, you might get a lot out of The Power of Adrienne Rich.

Tony Perkins lives in Olympia, Washington where he reads poetry, studies the law, cooks food, brews beer, and helps take care of his family.

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