When news of the death of the great lesbian poet Adrienne Rich arrived today in the form of a tweet, I was stunned.
Stunned that this vital poet—still actively publishing in her 82nd year—could be gone. Stunned because Rich's 50 years of poetry—thoughtful, sensual, beautifully composed—is so at odds with the world of social networking, where everything is trivial, inane and sloppy. And stunned because it felt like a kick to the gut, and I had to stop what I'd been doing to figure out why.
The New York Times reports her books of poems have sold over 800,000 copies—an extraordinary number in a culture that "doesn't get" poetry. For many of us, she was the lesbian feminist poet, the one we were told to read in our youth (by feminist professors, leftist activists and lovers hoping to transmit the passion in her lyrics)—the one we continued to turn to, because she gave voice to outrage and hope, showing us a clear-eyed, moral view of the world.
For those of us who write, she was a model: a commitment to the idea that art is necessary. I doubt I'd be the writer I am today without The Fact of a Doorframe, or Your Native Land, Your Life, or What is Found There, or Dark Fields of the Republic, books that make the case for poetry on every page. I discovered her exactly at the moment when I was trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. She provided instruction.
Tonight in the literature class I teach at USF, I talked about what she represented. In the classroom, I don't talk enough about the role of the writer. The responsibility of the writer. I talk about craft—characterization, point of view, prose style, tone—as if any of that matters without substance. We ask of the stories we workshop, "What's at stake?" But we don't often ask of ourselves, what's at stake for me as a writer in the world? Why does it matter that I do what I do?
Tonight, I read this poem to my students. It's from a series in Your Native Land, Your Life called "Contradictions: Tracking Poems," which I believe is one of her masterworks. Each section is numbered, and each tackles the way "our lives will always be / a stew of contradictions." The poet's canvas here is epic—international politics, imprisonment, government corruption—and simultaneously private—"My mouth hovers across your breast / in the short grey winter afternoon." In this section, she turns her attention to Writing:
The Tolstoyans the Afro-American slaves
knew this: you could be killed
for teaching people to read and write
I used to think the worst affliction
was to be forbidden pencil and paper
well, Ding Ling recited poems to prison walls
for years of the Cultural Revolution
and truly, the magic of written characters
looms and dwindles shrinks small grows swollen
depending on where you stand
and what is in your hand
and who can read and why
I think now the worst affliction
is not to know who you are or have been
I have learned this in part
from writers Reading and writing
aren’t sacred yet people have been killed
as if they were
The daily grind of the internet can be a graveyard, with tombstones of the famous erected as fast as the news hits. But I don't think I've ever seen a poet "trending" on Twitter for twelve hours. Something happened today: we turned to each other and acknowledged that Adrienne Rich's life—her work, her personal-is-political worldview—mattered. Her death is undeniably a tremendous loss, but it is also an opportunity to talk to each other about what she still has to say to us, and where we go from here.