By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
The highly influential lesbian poet and essayist Adrienne Rich passed away on Tuesday at the age of 82.
The Washington Post explains Rich’s history and impact as an openly lesbian poet:
In more than 60 years as a published poet, Ms. Rich examined the evolving lives of women in modern society and embodied many of those changes herself. She was a precocious child of a privileged Baltimore family, then a young wife and mother, and later dedicated herself to the ideals of feminism.
In the 1970s she became one of the first mainstream poets to write from an avowedly lesbian point of view. Her subtle poems and uncompromising essays brought Ms. Rich a loyal following that extended far beyond the measured world of poetry.
“No other living poet . . . has made such a profound impression on American intellectual life,” Dana Gioia, a poet and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote in 1999.
Rich wrote nearly as many essays as she did poems, often taking a bolder and more provocative stand in her nonfiction prose than in her poetry. Her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” as one example, posits that heterosexuality is a violent political institution structured around the “male right of physical, economical, and emotional access” to women. Believing that homosexuality could be “chosen” as a form of political action, Rich urged women to direct their energies towards other women rather than men, whether it leads to a mere one-time lesbian experience or a permanent lesbian sexual identity. Only after such an experience, Rich argued, will it be possible for a woman to truly understand whether heterosexuality is the right lifestyle for her. While the stance taken in “Compulsory Heterosexuality” seems somewhat out-of-step with current popular thought — especially in regards to the idea that one would “choose” to be homosexual as a form of political protest — Rich’s essay electrified and catalyzed thinkers of the era to reconsider some of their most closely-held beliefs about power, gender, and sexuality.
Rich’s political action extended far past the page, often putting her at odds with the literary establishment. In 1997 she turned down the National Medal for the Arts, writing to President Bill Clinton that “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.”
Rich died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, CA, due to complications of rheumatoid arthritis. She is succeeded by her son Pablo Conrad, her partner Michelle Cliff, and millions of readers who appreciate her bold approach to literature and life.