Tribute to Adrienne Rich

When an influential poet passes out of this world and into the next, all plans are set aside to pay tribute. In this case, Adrienne Rich — one of the most influential feminists and poets of her time — died on March 27 at the age of 82.

She has been compared to Betty Friedan, who wrote The Feminine Mystique, by the New York Times and others. Beth Kephart has even been touched by Rich’s poetry, including one of my favorites in her post honoring her. She has been decried and praised for her brash poetry against war and the political world, and she once famously said that she could not accept the National Medal of Arts from the Clinton Administration because “I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. [Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve from Poets.org

Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb    disgraced    goes on doing

now diagram the sentence
Poet Adrienne Rich

From her hometown in Baltimore, Md., Rich created an unconventional life for herself as a mother, wife, poet, and activist, who often focused her energy on “outing” the oppression of women and lesbians and who modified the traditional cadence of free verse poetry. Whether she was a lesbian or not is irrelevant to her contributions to the antiwar and feminist movements as well as her poetic contributions that often were confessional and shocking. She strove to change the world through poetry and the power of the written word, even if she acknowledged herself that poetry could not do it alone. Though what some would consider a well-decorated poet from awards and fellowships, etc., I would almost say that she never felt she deserved them alone, but wanted to share them with all women and those that strive to make deep-rooted change in our society.

I’ll leave you with a portion of one of her poems from The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove.

A Valediction Forbidding Morning (page 296)

My swirling wants.  Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.

Please take a moment to reflect on the power of poetry and seek out Adrienne Rich’s words to celebrate change and passion.


  1. “They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.” What a fantastic, chilling line! Thank you, Serena, for your touching piece commemorating a truly outstanding poet.

  2. I’ll have to revisit her work. I remember reading her poems in college. I was sad to hear of her passing.

  3. this was in one of my books of poetry & one I love, So here it is in remembrance to a great voice.

    Diving Into The Wreck

    First having read the book of myths,
    and loaded the camera,
    and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
    I put on the body-armor of black rubber
    the absurd flippers
    the grave and awkward mask.
    I am having to do this
    not like Cousteau with his
    assiduous team
    aboard the sun-flooded schooner
    but here alone.

    There is a ladder.
    The ladder is always there
    hanging innocently
    close to the side of the schooner.
    We know what it is for,
    we who have used it.
    it’s a piece of maritime floss
    some sundry equipment.

    I go down.
    Rung after rung and still
    the oxygen immerses me
    the blue light
    the clear atoms
    of our human air.
    I go down.
    My flippers cripple me,
    I crawl like an insect down the ladder
    and there is no one
    to tell me when the ocean
    will begin.

    First the air is blue and then
    it is bluer and then green and then
    black I am blacking out and yet
    my mask is powerful
    it pumps my blood with power
    the sea is another story
    the sea is not a question of power
    I have to learn alone
    to turn my body without force
    in the deep element.

    And now: it is easy to forget
    what I came for
    among so many who have always
    lived here
    swaying their crenellated fans
    between the reefs
    and besides
    you breathe differently down here.

    I came to explore the wreck.
    The words are purposes.
    The words are maps.
    I came to see the damage that was done
    and the treasures that prevail.
    I stroke the beam of my lamp
    slowly along the flank
    of something more permanent
    than fish or weed

    the thing I came for:
    the wreck and not the story of the wreck
    the thing itself and not the myth
    the drowned face always staring
    toward the sun
    the evidence of damage
    worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
    the ribs of the disaster
    curving their assertion
    among the tentative haunters.

    This is the place.
    And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
    streams black, the merman in his armored body
    We circle silently
    about the wreck
    We dive into the hold.
    I am she: I am he

    whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
    whose breasts still bear the stress
    whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
    obscurely inside barrels
    half-wedged and left to rot
    we are the half-destroyed instruments
    that once held to a course
    the water-eaten log
    the fouled compass

    We are, I am, you are
    by cowardice or courage
    the one who find our way
    back to this scene
    carrying a knife, a camera
    a book of myths
    in which our names do not appear.

  4. Dawn - She Is Too Fond of Books says

    I didn’t think I’d read any of Rich’s poetry, but I had previously read the one you posted, “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.” Although I’m not familiar with much of her work, it’s clear that her loss is felt strongly by those who knew her and her writing.

    • I think that may be true of many poets that we don’t recall reading their work, but upon reading it, we realize that we have read it before. That, at least to me, speaks to the universality of poetry in that it is heard on merit without much thought to attribution