Adrienne Rich, a leading American poet and advocate of women's and gay liberation, died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., her family said. She was 82.
The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, which she had for most of her adult life, her family told the New York Times.
Widely read, and widely taught in universities, Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry alone has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W. W. Norton & Company, her publisher since the mid-1960s.
As a woman, a lesbian and a Jew, Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before term was coined. For her, the personal, the political and the poetical were always linked.
Her many honors include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.”
Rich considered herself a socialist because socialism represents moral value - the dignity and human rights of all citizens, she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible.
Her political poems included The Burning of Paper Instead of Children, an indictment of the Vietnam War and the damage done and a cry for language itself: The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language.
She was very courageous and very outspoken and very clear, her longtime friend W.S. Merwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, told the Associated Press. She was a real original, and whatever she said came straight out of herself.
Rich was born in Baltimore in 1929 to a doctor at Johns Hopkins University, who encouraged her to write poetry when she was still a child. During her last year at Radcliffe (where she received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1951), W. H. Auden chose her first collection, “A Change of World,” for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series.
In 1953 Rich married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and they had three sons. When Conrad took a job at the City College of New York, the family moved to New York City, where Rich became active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements.
By 1970, as she began to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Rich and her husband grew estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot wound to the head; the death was ruled a suicide.
Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems,” whose subject matter — sexual love between women — was still considered disarming and dangerous. In the years that followed her poetry and prose ranged over her increasing self-identification as a Jewish woman (although she had a Gentile mother and had been baptized Episcopalian), the Holocaust and the struggles of black women.
Rich’s other volumes of poetry include “The Dream of a Common Language” (1978), “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far” (1981), “The Fact of a Doorframe” (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991) and, most recently, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” published last year.
Her prose includes the essay collections “On Lies, Secrets, and Silence” (1979); “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” (1986); an influential essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1981) and the nonfiction “Of Woman Born” (1976), which examines the institution of motherhood as a sociohistoric construct.
For Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself political. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.
In 1997, Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the government’s highest award for artists. She expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”
Art, Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
In 2003, Rich and other poets refused to attend a White House symposium on poetry to protest the invasion of Iraq.
Her other honors includes the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
She taught widely, including at Columbia, Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell and Stanford.
Rich’s survivors include her partner of more than 30 years, the writer Michelle Cliff; three sons, David, Pablo and Jacob Conrad; a sister, Cynthia Rich; and two grandchildren.