Adrienne Rich, RIP

by lizard

Adrienne Rich, a phenomenal poet and fierce activist, passed away yesterday at the age of 82.

Her book of poems Diving Into The Wreck won Rich the National Book Reward in 1974, which she initially refused to accept, though she later acquiesced, accepting the prize along with poets Alice Walker and Audre Lord, “on behalf of all women whose voices have been silenced,” Rich explained.

Over the decades, as Rich continued a prolific output of verse and prose, her streak of defiance remained strong. In 1997, while Clinton was in office, Rich refused to accept the National Medal of Arts, stating:

“Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage”

Below the fold I’ve included an excerpt from a speech Adrienne Rich gave, which is available in book form, titled Poetry And Commitment. The excerpt explains how poetry transformed a commander in the Israeli Defense Force.


From the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz of November 7, 2004, comes an article by David Zonsheine, a former commander in the Israeli Defense Force who became organizer and leader of the anti-Occupation movement within the IDF, the Courage to Refuse. Zonsheine comes by chance upon some lines from a poem of Yitzhak Laor and finds that,

Reading these lines a moment after a violent month of reserve duty, which was full of a sense of the righteousness of the way, was no easy thing. I remember that for one alarming moment I felt that I was looking at something I was forbidden to see. What this thing was I did not know, but on that same Friday afternoon I went out to look for every book by Yitzhak Laor that I could find in the shops.

Zonsheine continues,

The sense of mission with which I enlisted in the IDF was based … on … the painfully simple message that we shall not allow the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe to repeat itself no matter what the costs, and when the moral price became more severe, the sense of mission only increased … I am a freedom fighter … not an occupier, not cruel, certainly not immoral…

Something in Laor’s texts spoke to me about the place inside me that had been closed and denied until then…

Here I am, 28 years old, returning home from another month of reserve duty in Gaza and suddenly asking myself questions that are beginning to penetrate even the armor of the righteousness…in which they had dressed me years ago. And Laor’s strong words return to echo in my ears: “With such obedience? With such obedience? With such obedience?”

Ever since I refused to serve in the territories and the Ometz Lesarev (Courage to Refuse) movement was established, I have returned again and again to Laor’s texts…

… The voice is that of a poetic persona through whose life the “situation” passes and touches everything he has, grasping and refusing to let go. The child, the wife, the hours of wakefulness alone at night, memory, the very act of writing — everything is political. And from the other extreme, every terror attack, every act of occupation, every moral injustice — everything is completely personal.

… This is … a poetry that does not seek parental approval or any other approval, a poetry that liberates from the limitations of criticism of the discourse, and a poetry that … finds the independent place that revolts and refuses.

Did Laor’s poetry “work”? Did Zonsheine’s commitment “work”? In either sense of the word, at any given moment, how do we measure? If we say No, does that mean we give up on poetry? On resistance? With such obedience?

“Something I was forbidden to see.”

— Excerpt from speech, “Poetry and Commitment,” first presented as the plenary lecture at the 2006 Conference on Poetry and Politics, Stirling University, Scotland. W.W. Norton & Company, New York: pp. 27-30.

  1. kathleen kimble

    Thank you for the tribute to this great, talented, brave, creative, outspoken, important person and poet. So many people this week have asked “who?” When I mention Adrienne Rich. A shame her audience has not been larger.

  2. greenprawn

    I agree with Kathleen. I came to know of Adrienne Rich rather recently and she is a poet that deserves a wider audience. It will come, although she will not see it. She was a thinker, a writer, a leader, a poet. We should all be so lucky to be remembered that way.

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