Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich


I was up for a while last night reading about the life (and reading some poems) of Adrienne Rich, who died yesterday.  Delving into her biography caused me also to read some material about her partner, the writer Michelle Cliff.

Caroline wrote her senior English thesis on Rich when we were both at college.  It was excellent, unorthodox, practically footnote-less work (I know because I was one of the team who stayed up all night typing it, as well as a final Dante paper for another course), helping her complete three credits and two years of gym requirements in the final twenty-four hours before graduation doomsday deadline.  

She turned in the thesis just under the wire (I mean just; we greeted her professor arriving early at her office at 6 am on a beautiful, warm late May Swarthmore morning), and it was so well received that Caroline was honored with a “graduated with distinction” (a big deal at Swarthmore) designation that was actually inserted in the graduating students list by a member of the registrar's office gifted with astonishing and deft razorblade artistry.

I had forgotten a lot, but then remembered quite a bit.  The facts of Rich’s life, many of them dramatic and bitter, I still find unsettling.  I suspect they seem less so to her family and partner, but who’s to know?  Poets don’t get covered as celebrities in People magazine very often and if they did, they’d probably look happy posed with their cat or dog.  (That’s a great photographer trick for breaking the mask and getting people to look their best.)  

Anyway, another event experienced in the middle of the night that stirs up the sea silt at the bottom of the ocean.


  1. I loved this recollection of Caroline's countdown to graduation doomsday. I'm sending you a book of poems that I hope you'll both enjoy.

  2. Thank you. Can't wait. We were talking about this at breakfast and Caroline reminded me that she didn't include many footnotes because at that stage in Rich's career, there really wasn't a vast amount of academic criticism available to incorporate into the thesis. (She'd read everything the library had, which was mostly biographical information.) That was probably good because: a) there is a lot of literary criticism that's gobbledy-gook; and b) she gave a very straightforward and trenchant analysis of the poems that was perforce original; this wasn't material that had been taught in class. That typing night and the following day were quite hysterical. They let her fulfill her gym requirement by taking (rather torturing her through) a written and oral exam on swimming and a will-she-drown-or-won't-she-she's-been-up-all-night practical swimming exercise. Seeing her name cut into the list was very uplifting and a great relief. This was really a skin of the teeth situation. Curtis

  3. I had not heard of her death. She was an interesting writer and person, to be sure. I would love to see Caroline's essay. Reminds me of my first year at Bryn Mawr -- we had to do an essays a week, due 8:00 AM Monday morning as part of our freshman year training. I would take the train to visit my friend, Anne Marie, at Princeton and try to make it back before the deadline Monday morning.

    I was already think of it this morning because I am rereading Portrait of a Lady and it has my BMC notes in it. Those were years of so much pressure and excitement . . . I almost miss them.

  4. Wow -- had no idea you went to Bryn Mawr. We see the college every day because Jane attends Baldwin just across Morris Avenue. I'd like to think we might find Caroline's thesis. It was extremely good and perceptive. The pre-graduation drill was incredibly difficult; a couple of us were there to help her pull it off, but it wasn't easy. Her mother would have been really (and justifiably) disappointed if we'd failed. I like the picture of Rich with longer hair and the cigarette. Some of the things I read about her life this morning were fascinating, including her remarks made when refusing a poetry honor proffered by the Clinton administration. Extremely articulate, fairly cranky, but I understood her point, which reflected real artistic backbone. Having dinner in Bryn Mawr tonight by the way at Ha Long Bay, a very good, unprepossessing Vietnamese restaurant on Lancaster Avenue, close by the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and down the block from where the Main Point used to be. Curtis