Adrienne Rich was to women what Allan Ginsberg was to the beats - fearless, radical and hugely influential. Rich died yesterday of complications from arthritis.
She got noticed first for her strong opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam via her collection Diving In The Wreck 1971-1972. But it was when she began writing as an out lesbian in the mid-70s that she touched a nerve for a generation of feminists who took a special pleasure in being galvanzied by the written word.
Plato said the poets should rule but we don't think of bards as being that important anymore. But Rich had the touch. We read her voraciously, astonished at her bravery and her range. She was never content to pound away at just one theme, least of all lesbianism. In the same year as she moved in with her partner Michelle Cliff in 1976, she wrote Of Woman Born, her prose meditation on motherhood. (She had three children via her marriage to the economist Alfred Haskell Conrad.)
And whatever she had to say about relationships, especially in Of Lies, Secrets And Silence was relevant to any kind of connection. No one had ever conveyed so plainly that saying nothing about what you want to hide is right up there with a bald faced lie.
But for lesbian readers, she had a special place. I am forever in her debt for coining the term "compulsory heterosexuality," as a means of explaining why so many women, especially of her vintage - she was 82 when she died - married men in order to avoid the crushing stigma that accompanied homosexuality. She tracked the ways in which women were trained - brainwashed even - to become the happy housewife. Anything so obviously compulsory, she explained, could not be called a choice.
She was a complex political thinker. She went on to win numerous literary prizes, but in 1997, she refused the National Medal of the Arts, the U.S. government's highest honour. She couldn't accept any gesture from a government so cynical as Bill Clinton's and was especially aggravated by the administration's decision to end the National Endowment for the Arts. "Art means nothing," she said, "if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."
Though fierce as a writer she was disarmingly charming in person. I sat beside her at a lunch held in her honour here in Toronto in the late 70s - I was the only one with the nerve to grab the empty seat. When it came time to pass her the cream, I had to seize the small jug by the spout.
"Sorry for handling the jug this way," I said to her.
"That's alright," she said smiling. "It will make the cream taste all the sweeter."
She could really turn a phrase. But what matters is that she turned us on to new ways of thinking and being in the world.