Influential Poet Adrienne Rich Dies At 82

The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry described Adrienne Rich as "one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century." Rich died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, California, at the age of 82. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration.

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Yesterday, there were two significant losses in the world of American arts. In a moment we'll remember bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. But let's begin with the passing of poet Adrienne Rich. She was a poetry prodigy in her youth and went on to become a fierce literary voice against war and for feminism. Rich's poetry often challenged what she saw as old literary cliches about women. NPR's Laura Sydell has this remembrance.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Adrienne Rich grew up in a house full of books in Baltimore. She steeped herself in the works of great poets in her father's library. W.H. Auden chose Rich's first collection, "A Change of World," for publication while she was still an undergraduate. At the time, Rich was praised for her mastery of form. Poet and personal friend Jean Valentine says you always felt her command of language.

JEAN VALENTINE: Because you felt as if she was able to do anything she wanted. That's what you felt. That's one thing you feel about great poets, I think. Don't you? That they can just do whatever they want.

SYDELL: And in Adrienne Rich's third book of poetry, she broke old formulas. "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" came out in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." Rich began her lifelong exploration of turning the struggles and details of women's lives into poetry. But in doing so, as Rich told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1989, she didn't want to create new boxes for women.

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ADRIENNE RICH: Essentially, poetry, if it is poetry, does not lend itself to simple readings, to oversimplifications, although people may try to read it that way. The essential nature of a poem is that there is ambivalence and ambiguity quivering underneath.

SYDELL: In that interview, Rich read some of her poem, "Solfeggietto," about a mother teaching a piano piece to her daughter. The poem contemplates the woman's thwarted professional musical career, given up for motherhood.

RICH: Shelving ambition, beating time to On the Ice at Sweet Brier or The Sunken Cathedral for a child counting the minutes and the scales to freedom.

SYDELL: Though Rich married and had three sons, she drifted apart from her husband. In 1976 she came out as a lesbian and her love of women wove its way into her work with the publication of her "Twenty-One Love Poems." Jean Valentine says Rich was never afraid to write about topics others avoided.

VALENTINE: She was a very brave voice. And she was really unlike any other. I remember people coming along and wanting to follow in her footsteps as poets, and nobody could. She was completely unique. She had a way of being very strong and very intense and very true.

SYDELL: Rich took on issues of class, race, war, and at times explored her Jewish identity. She is taught in countless university writing and women's studies classes. And Valentine says Rich had a way of reaching even those who were not poetry fans.

VALENTINE: I think the important thing of her teaching for perhaps most people was consciousness. Not poetry per se, but the consciousness that she brought to it.

SYDELL: That consciousness earned her many honors, including a National Book Award and a MacArthur Genius grant. It also led her to decline some others. President Clinton wanted to give her the National Medal of Arts in 1997, but in a letter she wrote she was distressed by the, quote, "increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice," and she added that the award means nothing, quote, "if it simply decorates the dinner table of power, which holds it hostage."

Adrienne Rich also battled for many years with her own body. She had rheumatoid arthritis. Complications of that disease finally ended Rich's life. She was 82 years old.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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