I had been thinking about maybe writing something about Adrienne’s and my friendship for this symposium, and a friend encouraged me, saying that our friendships with other writers are some of the best gifts of life. It’s true: it’s rare even to meet a poet you admire this deeply, and so much more rare to become close friends, lifetime friends.
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I’ve known Adrienne Rich, in her work, since 1952, when I was eighteen. I was walking down Garden Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one day in my first weeks at Radcliffe College, when a kindly old gentleman spoke to me, and as we talked, he asked me what I was interested in. I said poetry, and he asked if I knew the poetry of Adrienne Rich—she graduated from Radcliffe the year before. She had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award (which I’d never heard of) while still an undergraduate. “We’re very proud of Adrienne Rich here,” he said. Looking back, he reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s grandfather, in her poem “Manners”:
Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.
Though on that day, that poem hadn’t yet been written.
So I went back to the old Radcliffe Library at 10 Garden Street and got out A Change of World and read it, and I’ve been reading Adrienne’s work ever since. From her youth, she was changing her world, and the worlds of many of her readers; her work has been the companion of our days.
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Adrienne was born in Baltimore to a comfortable, white, educated, and cultured family; her father was Jewish, from Birmingham, Alabama, her mother a Southern Protestant. Her father’s idea was that Adrienne should be a poet, and her younger sister a fiction writer. The girls were schooled at home till the age of nine, and her father taught Adrienne to write her letters copying out Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. What still seems a wonder to me is that with all that force coming at her, she still was a poet! Maybe it was Blake! Like him, she went ahead and forged her knowledge and sympathy and joy beyond class, race, religion, nation—her community has no gates.
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Characteristically, the way we actually met was through Adrienne’s generosity: she read my first book of poems, in 1965, and wrote me a note about it. I was awed: she was the first poet I’d ever met, the first full-tilt working poet.
Those were the days of letter writing: we wrote back and forth for about two and a half years before we met in person. Meantime we had traded towns: she and her family had moved to New York, and I had moved to Cambridge, with my two daughters, on a grant. Through those years, along with letters, we sent each other some of the poems we were working on. She was a tireless close reader, and from the start I found her help indispensable.
In the late fall of 1967, my husband and I reconnected and looked for a new apartment in New York. The one we liked best was two blocks from where Adrienne lived, on Central Park West. It felt a little awkward, and I remember writing her, a little awkwardly, for her thoughts on our living so close—but she was immediately welcoming, and for the next three years, we were next-door neighbors at the heart of the world.
I remember Adrienne coming over to see me in those early days of being neighbors and saying, when she met my older daughter, Sarah, who was about nine at the time, that she felt as if she had somehow known her before. And that was how it was for me, meeting Adrienne: I felt, as I felt a couple of other times in my youth, when I met poets, that I had known her in another life. We started showing each other poems in person, drinking cups of tea, sharing meals; our younger children, Beka and Pablo and Jacob, who were close in age, became dear friends, and all we four parents got along together.
* * * *
Those were “interesting” times all over the world; in the spring of 1967 Martin Luther King had made a speech drawing the connection between the war abroad and poverty at home, and the women’s movement was inevitable. Adrienne was writing Necessities of Life, Leaflets, The Will to Change; she was intensely engaged in politics, informed, fierce, radical, as it was hers to be.
Our lives, and many lives, for many reasons, were flung out in what Adrienne later described as something like centrifugal force.
In those three years or so Adrienne was as she has always been, though the circumstances were so extreme: kind, working, reserved, an attentive and tender friend. Then, as now, if she thought there was something you should know about a friend, or someone you thought was a friend, she told you. If you were on what she saw as a wrong path, destructive to yourself or someone else, she might tell you—though, both then and now, there must be many times, with many friends, when she holds her peace! And then, as now, it was comforting to know there was someone who would tell you what she thought; you could only trust her and love her.
* * * *
She wrote Diving into the Wreck, Of Woman Born, Twenty-one Love Poems. She was growing steadily more famous, more and more of an influence, which meant both more praise and more controversy came her way. I think really from the beginning, though she was not invulnerable at all, she was pretty much beyond prizes or dis-prizes: I just don’t think those things have ever interested her much, for herself or for anyone else.
I remember a warm evening having dinner with David Kalstone at her new apartment; she was reading a book she liked called Alberta Alone, and at the end of the evening, as we were leaving, she said, wryly and sadly, that the summer was coming, and she would be Adrienne Alone. But before long she had met up with the beloved Michelle Cliff. They lived in New York for a while, then western Massachusetts for a while, and then settled in Santa Cruz.
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Adrienne and I have certainly lived to see each other happy. Over the last twenty-five or thirty years we have settled into a friendship, I would say, less intense and more deep. We have gone on showing each other our poems. I will never forget my joy and relief at sitting down with her in Ireland, where I was living in the ’90s, and showing her some poems, and looking at some of hers: it felt like breathing again.
And now—though I was slow to come to it—we have e-mail! I will close with some words from a recent e-mail from Adrienne:
Right now, I’d like to go back & forth with you on email, about the question of meaning, of what a poem is “about” and how we try that both as writers and readers of poems. Not to pin it down irrevocably but to discuss, how we go for clarity or not, what clarity means, what puts us off or is irresistibly mysterious in a poem. Because I think we’ve both/each gone through different phases regarding that, also different necessities. And about what in a poem feels of value beyond “what it’s about.”