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Poet, Author and Activist Adrienne Rich Dies at 82

Common Dreams staff

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012). Art "means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage," she once said.

Poet and social justice activist Adrienne Rich has died on Wednesday, according to her family. She was 82.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel reports:

Rich died at home from complications from rheumatoid arthritis, said her son, Pablo Conrad. She had lived in Santa Cruz since the 1980s.

“She was one of the great American poets; she was totally committed to what we think about today as social justice, but radically so,” said friend Bettina Aptheker, a longtime leading feminist figure and UC Santa Cruz professor. “She was anti-imperialist in her thinking. She had a razor-sharp mind and brilliant use of language that gave you tremendous insight into things.”

In more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction, Rich tackled racism, sexuality and women's rights.

After gaining national prominence with her third poetry collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” in 1963, Rich won a National Book Award for her collection of poems, “Diving into the Wreck,” in 1974, and 30 years later won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for her collection “The School Among the Ruins.” Her latest work, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” was released last year.

“She was a courageous poet,” David Swanger, Santa Cruz County's poet laureate, said. “She was courageous in that she wrote against the current before it was fashionable to do so, to speak up as a woman and as a lesbian. She was a real pioneer.”


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Aptheker said Rich “used her own life early on like a laser beam to talk about issues for women and gay and lesbian people.”

And at The Nation magazine, which published many of Rich's essays over the years, John Nichols writes:

Radical in word and deed, Rich did not play games with politics or poetry. She treated each seriously, displaying a genius first recognized by W.H. Auden in the early days of the McCarthy Era that so horrified them both -- and that new generations of readers would recognize across the decades during which she became as definitional as the elder poet who had selected the 22-year-old Rich for the 1951 "Yale Series of Younger Poets Award."

Dead now, at age 82, Rich will speak on -- well and wisely -- through her poetry and through the myriad interviews she gave about writing and radicalism. Intensely committed to the causes of civil rights, socialism, feminism, lesbian and gay rights, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, she wrote poems about being an observer, but she was an eternal participant. And that participation was transformational.

"We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed," she would write, "yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation."

Committed to trade unionism, she served on the board of the National Writers Union, as arguably the most honored of its author members. Yet there were some honors she would note accept. In 1997, she famously refused a National Medal of Arts as a protest not merely against right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts but against the economic, social and political compromises of the Clinton administration. "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," Rich explained. "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."

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