MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The writer Adrienne Rich has died after a long illness. She was 82. Rich is best known for her poetry, which mirrored the times in which she wrote. Her work grew increasingly political during the 1960s and '70s, and she was a touchstone for the feminist movement. Joining me to talk to about Rich's work is the poet and critic Linda Gregerson. And Linda, I wonder what the experience is for you of reading an Adrienne Rich poem. How would you describe it?
LINDA GREGERSON: Well, I remember when I first encountered Adrienne's work and it was when I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the fierceness of her intelligence and the power of her anger, her willingness to speak it directly, was really an amazing revelation, I think, for many of us. And this would've been in the mid-'70s that I first really got to know her work. And she's been a stirring and necessary and really life-changing figure for many, many in the world of American poetry, not just women poets.
BLOCK: You mentioned her anger, and that's an interesting point. She was active in any number of movements, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement. She started out with a husband and had three sons but eventually lived life as a lesbian. All of that factored into, I think, her poetry and also her prose, her essays.
GREGERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And she was a fierce advocate for those who were disempowered on any grounds. I was thinking of her today as I was driving over here and listening to reports of the arguments in the Supreme Court. She was appalled by all differentials of power and well-being in the world, and the fact that there are human beings - that many, many in the United States today who have to go without health insurance, without adequate and continuous health coverage, is among the things that just made her wild with anger.
BLOCK: There was a fascinating moment. In 1997, President Clinton was going to award her the National Medal for the Arts. She turned it down. Why? What did she say?
GREGERSON: She certainly did. Well, she thought it was something of a scandal that people should be congratulating one another for accomplishments in the arts at a time when there were such urgent political issues going on.
BLOCK: Linda Gregerson, do you have a favorite poem of Adrienne Rich, and I wonder, if you do, if you couldâ¦
GREGERSON: Oh, I have many. This is from "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," which is the title poem of a book by the same name that was published in 1963. And this is just a single stanza from section 3 of that poem.
(Reading) A thinking woman sleeps with monsters. The beak that grips her, she becomes. And Nature, that sprung-lidded, still commodious steamer-trunk of tempora and mores gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange flowers, the female pills, the terrible breasts of Boadicea beneath flat foxes' heads and orchids.
BLOCK: Wow. That's something.
GREGERSON: Isn't it? It's amazing. And you know, the mixture there of high and low, of demotic and lurid allusion, and that sense of wanting to reject the oppressive aspects of the high learning, that part that would've silenced the vast majority of human beings for the vast majority of years. It's really extraordinary.
BLOCK: Linda Gregerson, thank you so much.
GREGERSON: My pleasure. Thank you.
BLOCK: That's the poet and critic Linda Gregerson. She's an English professor at the University of Michigan, remembering the writer Adrienne Rich, who died yesterday at age 82. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.