Adrienne Rich was a lesbian feminist with spiritual impulses and one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. She died on March 27, 2012 at age 82.
Her writing was a guiding light to me and countless others, both people of faith and secular readers. The following lines from her poem “Natural Resources” (from The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977) became like a creed for many:
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Rich was born on May 16, 1929 in Baltimore to a Jewish father and Episcopalian mother. She wrote about her conflicting religious background in her essay “Split at the Root” (from Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985). That volume also includes the insightful essay whose title alone was enough to dazzle me: “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
In 1951 she graduated from Radcliffe College and and burst onto the literary scene with her first book of poetry, A Change of World. It was selected by poet W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award, the first of many prestigious award that she would win.
She married Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad in 1953. They had three children, and she wrote, “the experience of motherhood was eventually to radicalize me.” Her husband died in 1970.
Six years later Rich moved in with her female life partner, Jamaican-born editor and writer Michelle Cliff (1946-2016). The couple stayed together for more than 30 years until Rich’s death from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. Cliff died of liver failure on June 12, 2016.
Rich has been criticized for being transphobic and transmisogynist for helping author Janice Raymond. For more details, see the American Prospect article “Was Adrienne Rich anti-trans?”
Adrienne Rich spoke about spirituality
I had the honor of meeting Rich in person in the 1980s when she spoke at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, where I served on the clergy staff. Informally among ourselves, we called her “the Great One.”
Many years later I was impressed all over again when I listened to my cassette tape of her remarks and reading at MCC-SF on Nov. 7, 1987. I was there in person and I remember it well. Speaking to the mostly LGBTQ audience from both Jewish and Christian traditions, she emphasized the importance of bringing together sacred and secular, Christian and Jew, lesbian and gay and straight. The event was co-sponsored by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a progressive Reform Jewish congregation in San Francisco.
I transcribed what she said about her connection to spirituality:
The coming together of those of us who are non-congregants with you who are is very important. A couple of years ago in a talk and reading that I gave at UCLA Hillel, I described myself as a secular Jew and later in a discussion Andy (Avi) Rose asked me why, since he felt the poetry I was reading to be spiritual rather than secular in its impulse. I’ve thought a lot about that and about the lines drawn in Judaism between secular and religious, and between various degrees and forms of observance.
Along with all the work being done by observant Jewish feminists, the re-creation of liturgy towards a theology of wholeness, I think there are some of us who are drawing a deep spiritual sustenance from the Jewish secular progressive tradition, who are trying to fuse the material and the spiritual rather than leave them in the old dichotomous opposition, coming from a secular rather than a religious orientation and wanting to keep asking the questions of flesh and blood, of justice, of bread, the questions of this world.
Maybe we don’t know exactly what we are trying to do nor yet have a language for it. Liberation theology is not quite it, though the concrete examples of liberation theology in action, both Jewish and Christian, have revealed certain possibilities. The wealth of blessing that proliferate in Jewish tradition — the tradition that bids Jews bless all kinds of everyday as well as exceptional events and things: new clothes, a new moon, bread, wine, the washing of hands, our teachers, spices, the sight of lightning, the sound of thunder — this tradition has implications as well. And for me this has implications for poetry. And since I would never claim that poetry can be purely secular, I will have to leave it for now at that.
She also talked eloquently about lesbian and gay life with words that still resound 30 years later:
There is no simple way to speak about what’s happening in lesbian and gay communities at the end of the 20th century. We know that in the history of our communities there have been many efforts and many ways of defining ourselves against the hostile and destructive definitions that have been ground out by a heterosexuality badly in trouble and terrified of its own complexity, terrified of its own fragility. Nothing obviously but a deep sense of anxiety of identity could produce the kind of projective thinking and scapegoating which has targeted lesbians and gay men along with any women and men who have refused the straightjackets of gender.
Rich had a big impact on the lives of many people, including artist Sharon McGill whose art graces this post. Her tribute “Wonder Woman: Adrienne Rich” is posted at her McGillustrations blog.
Rich’s essay “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (from On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978) played a major role in helping me (and many other lesbians) decide to come out of the closet. I read the essay so many times that I memorized parts of it. I still refer to these words when I need to make difficult decisions:
An honorable human relationship– that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”– is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
Thank you, Adrienne. Now your soul is continuing on that hard way.
A 2009 video shows Rich reading her poem “What Kind of Times Are These” for the Poetry Everywhere series on public television.
Links related to Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich 1929-2012: A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism (New York Times obituary)
In Remembrance: Adrienne Rich by Victoria Brownworth (Lambda Literary)
Top image credit:
Adrienne Rich portrait by Sharon McGill<
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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