Adrienne Rich

By Sean Carroll | March 29, 2012 9:13 am

Adrienne Rich, one of the leading American poets of the 20th century, died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Anything you read about her will emphasize her identity as a feminist and a lesbian, which is perfectly appropriate, but don’t let it get in the way of the fact that she was an amazingly inventive and affecting poet. She was also widely admired as a lecturer and essayist. (And I can only imagine she would have cringed at the line in the NYT obit where it says she “burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the early 1950s.” Is bursting something one can do genteelly?)

This is the ending of “Planetarium,” about Caroline Herschel; the entire poem is here.

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep           so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me            And has
taken           I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images            for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

  • Johanna

    Why would someone’s identity as a feminist lesbian get in the way of her skill as a poet (or her skill at anything else)?

    • Sean Carroll

      There’s no reason why someone’s identity as a feminist lesbian should get in the way of their skill as a poet. But other people talking about the fact that she was a feminist and lesbian could easily distract us from the fact that she was also a skilled poet. The point is that she did not become a celebrated poet just because she happened to be a feminist and lesbian, although those were crucial aspects of her identity; she became celebrated because she could really write.

  • Johanna

    Are there many lesbian feminist celebrated poets who can’t really write, but became celebrated poets just because they happen to identify as lesbian and feminist? I admit that there’s a lot I don’t know about the world of poetry, so maybe there are, but it sounds fairly ridiculous (although vaguely reminiscent of all the times I was told in high school and college that I was pretty good at math for a girl).

  • Albert Einstein

    “Are there many lesbian feminist celebrated poets who can’t really write, but became celebrated poets just because they happen to identify as lesbian and feminist?”

    Are you suggesting that it is possible for a bad poet/novelist/etc to acquire fame purely for political reasons? Perish the thought.

  • Tasha

    Thank you for the lovely post Sean. I am a fan, and I had not heard about her death.

  • Smith Powell

    As Venus and Jupiter have been in conjunction this month, readers might like the Adrienne Rich poem “On the Conjunction of Two Planets” written for an earlier conjunction of these two:

    For the Conjunction of Two Planets

    We smile at astrological hopes
    And leave the sky to expert men
    Who do not reckon horoscopes
    But painfully extend their ken
    In mathematical debate
    With slide and photographic plate.

    And yet, protest it if we will,
    Some corner of the mind retains
    The medieval man, who still
    Keeps watch upon those starry skeins
    And drives us out of doors at night
    To gaze at anagrams of light.

    Whatever register or law
    Is drawn in digits for these two,
    Venus and Jupiter keep their awe,
    Wardens of brilliance, as they do
    Their dual circuit of the west —
    The brightest planet and her guest.

    Is any light so proudly thrust
    From darkness on our lifted faces
    A sign of something we can trust,
    Or is it that in starry places
    We see the things we long to see
    In fiery iconography?

    by Adrienne Rich
    Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974

  • Arun

    totally off-topic, but I saw a notice for the just completed conference – “We invite you to celebrate the developments in maximally supersymmetric gauge theories over the past 35 years and the completion of renovation on the fourth floor of Lauritsen-Downs.” — can you post pictures of the renovated floor, if appropriate?

  • Pingback: Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012 | interstellar immigrant()


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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