It is April 12, 2012, a month before the President's declaration in favor of same-sex marriage, and a group of students are gathering at the Harvard College Woman's Center to read poetry. They pass around pillows and hunks of bread as they take turns reading aloud from glossy books. They are here to commemorate Adrienne C. Rich '51, whose death on March 27 marked the passing of one of the twentieth century's most compelling and controversial poetic voices.
"Her life follows the trajectory of important thought and social moments, it's amazing," said Cassandra Euphrat Weston '14, who co-organized the event along with Jia H. Lee '12. "It's a testament to her, not to coincidence, but to her that she was in the forefront personally and politically." Largely informed by her own feminist and lesbian identity, Rich's work—both poetic and political—paralleled much of the feminist and gay rights movements of the past fifty years. Yet Rich's personal trajectory is itself notable.
You can find Rich's archives at Schlesinger library, in the same Yard where she attended class. Her many papers and diaries, ink-smudged, doodled-on, and worn, reveal a personal evolution as radical as that of her poetics. Born in 1929 to a well-educated Baltimore family, Rich had a strong inclination and talent for writing from an early age. "I have to write of the things within me," she noted in a diary when she was seventeen. "I could not exist without such an outlet. To put all things into words is the occupation for which my inclinations best suit me." This inclination showed itself strongly at Radcliffe, where her work received a number of heavy-hitting commendations.
Yet even during her time at Radcliffe, Rich's political philosophy differed vastly from the ideals she would later adopt—and fight for. "The women who demand 'equality' of the sexes, that is to say identity of function in the world, are an unhappy lot, I should think," Rich wrote in her diaries when she was nineteen. "What a woman most deeply wants is simply to subordinate herself to some man."
By the seventies, Rich was divorced and out as a lesbian. A feminist and activist for gay and civil rights, she was writing radically personal and political volumes of poetry to great, if often controversial, acclaim.
It is these attributes that make her writing so deeply appealing to many. "I think it was in sophomore year in high school [that] my English teacher gave me her poem 'Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,'" said Weston, herself a writer interested in feminism and LGBTQ issues. "At sixteen, I was like—I didn't know you could write like this, I didn't know you could do this in poems—that you could make it so big but also so beautiful." Weston also cited Rich's groundbreaking use of deeply personal and political themes. "There's a common conception that for a poem to be political, or for a poem to be personal, the art is going to suffer for that, but Rich is the ultimate proof that it's not true," said Weston.
Rich's political evolution was matched by her evolution of poetic style, a trajectory that has helped to break a less formal, more intimate poetics for contemporary writers. Harvard College Professor of English Stephen L. Burt '94, who has reviewed Rich's work, pointed to her unique merits in matching political fervor with poetic strength. "Her early poetry often sounds like Frost or else like Auden," Burt wrote to The Crimson in an email. "Her late 1960s poetry sounds like nobody else. Its attacks on institutions, traditions, inherited hierarchies and habits, in general, have proven very influential."
Lloyd Schwartz, Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also identified her poetry's contribution to LGBTQ rights. An acquaintance of Rich, he recalls meeting Rich over a dinner party and being impressed both by her charm and commitment to her cause. In the 1950s, Schwartz said, "[Gay] people lost their jobs, people committed suicide, people's lives were ruined because they were exposed." Schwartz cited one of Rich's overtly lesbian works, "Twenty-One Love Poems," as "a really huge milestone—and it both represented a kind of change in attitude but it was also forcing a change in attitude...and it really made a difference."
It is an attitude change that, for Rich's poetry as well as LGBTQ rights at large, comes slowly. At the commemorative gathering, one student told a story about her sister's high school English class. "She asked her teacher, 'Why don't we read any more Adrienne Rich?'" the student recalled. "And he said 'Oh, we don't have time to worry about lesbians in this class.'"
Yet it is precisely Rich's ability to embody a historically marginalized female and lesbian voice that appeals to many of her readers—and it is this voice that Rich endeavored to represent. "To know we are not alone, that our identity is not random but has a history and a meaning shared with others—that our existence has its own special kind of beauty—this is the great force of art to people moving against alienation," Rich jotted on her program at the ceremony where she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1986.
To those inspired by Rich's work—including the students gathered to read it—this is the great force of her art. "We're in a country that has no language, no laws," Rich wrote of lesbian consciousness in "Poem XIII" of "Twenty-One Love Poems." Rich's work speaks to the truth of this, to the kinds of experience not captured in the traditional English-class curriculum, to the voices that the cannon has missed. Her poetry invents that missing language; it is an art, which, as it envisions it, invents progress. It is a language, which, if used in all its power, can help change laws.