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Rich, Adrienne (1929-2012)
What she said of Minnie Bruce Pratt, Chrystos, and Audre Lorde's winning NEA grants is also true of her own numerous honors: They "are signs of the power not only of [her] work, but of the current of resistance running beneath the inertia and pseudo events that have constituted public life in the United States for two decades" (1993). Rich dedicated Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) "To my grandmothers / Mary Gravely [and] Hattie Rice / whose lives I begin to imagine" and concluded her "Acknowledgments" by saluting other members of her family:
What she said of Minnie Bruce Pratt, Chrystos, and Audre Lorde's winning NEA grants is also true of her own numerous honors: They "are signs of the power not only of [her] work, but of the current of resistance running beneath the inertia and pseudo events that have constituted public life in the United States for two decades" (1993).
Rich dedicated Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) "To my grandmothers / Mary Gravely [and] Hattie Rice / whose lives I begin to imagine" and concluded her "Acknowledgments" by saluting other members of her family:
Indeed, Rich's role as a public figure, as an immensely respected and popular poet, underwent important transformations.
The first is that from the polite, "good girl" poetry of the early 1950s to the poems of the still-evolving feminist activist and theorist that she began writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s with her breakthrough volume Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law (1954-1962). In the title poem of this volume, Rich observes, "A thinking woman sleeps with monsters." When she won the National Book Award, she rejected the recognition as an individual but, in a statement written with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, accepted the honor on behalf of all women.
Rich as Lesbian-Feminist Public Poet
By the mid-1970s, Rich began to assume another mantle of responsibility as a lesbian-feminist public poet. Following the publication of her most controversial, still-debated theoretical essay, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980), Rich co-edited with Cliff the lesbian-feminist journal Sinister Wisdom (1981-1983).
This involvement with a "marginalized" journal is in keeping with her practice of contributing work to smaller feminist presses and journals, even as she was also published by W.W. Norton, one of the most prestigious commercial publishing houses.
For example, "Twenty-One Love Poems" (1974-1976), the most famous and widely admired sequence of American lesbian love poetry published to date, first appeared in a limited edition, "designed and hand-printed by Bonnie Carpenter at Effie's Press" (1977) before its inclusion in The Dream of a Common Language (1978), published by Norton. Similarly, "Poetry III" and "Upcountry" were first published as broadsides and "Sources" as a chapbook by Heyeck Press (1983-1985) before their inclusion in Norton's Your Native Land, Your Life (1986).
Thus, Rich's support of women and lesbians was material as well as philosophical. In "Adrienne Rich and Lesbian/Feminist Poetry," Catharine Stimpson observed:
'Lesbian.' For many, heterosexual or homosexual, the word still constricts the throat. Those 'slimy' sibilants; those 'nasty' nasalities. 'Lesbian' makes even 'feminist' sound lissome, decent, sane. In 1975, Adrienne Rich's reputation was secure. She might have eased up and toyed with honors. Yet, she was doing nothing less than seizing and caressing that word: 'lesbian.' She was working hard for 'a whole new poetry' that was to begin in two women's 'limitless desire.'
In the early 1980s, Rich began to explore her Jewishness and to claim her Jewish father, "to break his silence, his taboos" in "Sources" (August 1981-August 1982) and the essay "Split at the Root" (1982). In keeping with her habit of providing practical support for work she deems important, Rich recently devoted her time and energy to serving as a member of the founding editorial group of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends (1990).
Two of the most quoted lines of lesbian poetry, and of contemporary love poetry, are those from poem XIX of "Twenty-One Love Poems": "two women together is a work / nothing in civilization has made simple." The poem remarks the miracle of any couple staying together, remaining and growing more dedicated in love, and the special miracle of a long-committed couple whose union is routinely disdained by those who fear homosexual difference.
Between poems XIV and XV of this sequence appears "(THE FLOATING POEM, UNNUMBERED)," widely received as the most beautiful iteration of cunnilingus as physical love:
. . . Your traveled, generous thighs
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