Adrienne Rich, A Tribute

The following tribute was written by Claire Keyes.

Have you met Adrienne Rich? people would ask me when they learned I had published a book about her poetry, The Aesthetics of Power (U Georgia Press).  Yes, I’d reply and tried to convey the pleasure of that meeting, sometime in the late eighties in Salem,Massachusetts.   I had invited her to read at the Writers’ Series at (then) Salem State College.   As part of that invitation, I asked her if she’d have dinner with a small group of faculty and students at the Hawthorne Hotel, where she was staying.   She graciously agreed.

Of course, I was familiar with her as a public person.  I had attended readings by Adrienne Rich in Cambridge and in Amherst when I was in graduate school.   At that time, she was afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis and walked haltingly onto stage with a cane.   Once she opened her mouth, any weakness disappeared.  Never had I heard such a powerful voice come from a diminutive female body.   By powerful I mean in command of herself, perfectly attuned to her role as a poet and to the dynamic between poet and audience.  When I heard Nikki Finney read inSalemat the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I recognized a similar power.   It’s not just voice; it’s the conviction behind the voice.

Rich’s poems were engraved on my soul in lines like these from “Transcendental Etude”:


No one ever told us we had to study our lives,

make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history

or music, that we should begin

with the simple exercises first

and slowly go on trying

the hard ones, practicing till strength

and accuracy became one with the daring

to leap into transcendence . . . .


So, yes, I’d met Adrienne Rich as reader and audience member, even having the audacity to bring a male friend to a reading when I knew she had a reputation for excluding men.   That night, she didn’t, but Rich could be ferocious when it came to women and women’s issues.  Was she an angry feminist?  You bet, but she also had a visionary power beyond anything I’d ever encountered.

Imagine my anticipation when I called up to her room at the Hawthorne Hotel to tell her that the dinner party had assembled.  I’ll meet you at the elevator, I told her.  The door slid open and there she was, about five foot two to my five ten. I advanced towards her with my hand outstretched and introduced myself.   She took my hand and gave me a searching look.   Don’t I know you? she asked.   Oh yes, I wanted to say, I’m the woman you dared to study her life.  I’d like to think she recognized a kindred soul, someone, like her, who embraced feminism and had dedicated her professional life to women’s literature.  She made me feel recognized and important.  I’m sure that I’m not the only woman who felt this way about Adrienne Rich and her poetry.   She touched our lives; she changed our lives.

Claire Keyes is a poet, critic, and Professor Emerita at Salem State University. See her latest poem in Verse Wisconsin.