What’s In a Name

As we have seen from the many outpourings of love and tribute to Adrienne Rich over the last few weeks, it’s hard to overstate her impact on the literary world. As a poet, essayist and activist, Adrienne was without peer.

We at VIDA have gathered a diverse variety of women writers together to say thank you and goodbye to Adrienne. Without her guidance, her personal and political bravery, the fellowship VIDA has created could never have existed. We’ll miss you, Adrienne, and we’ll honor your work by carrying it forward to the future.

— Erin Belieu & Cate Marvin

Coincidence of first name is a small reason to feel connected to a prominent person, and Adrienne Rich provided me with plenty of better ones: poetry, feminism, motherhood, the quest for identity. And they were primary. But the name always mattered.

I discovered her work late in high school (unfortunately not in high school), in Hayden Carruth’s anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us. It was 1984, suburban Atlanta. Bookstore shelves asserted that “living writer” meant “male novelist”: Updike, Mailer, Vonnegut. I read them hungrily but feared I was headed for “female poet,” which clearly meant lifelong obscurity or, if one died young and spectacularly enough, tragic genius.

Adrienne Rich stood in contrast to that. Unlike almost every woman in my universe, she had both children and an artistic life, though not without great difficulty. She took on the same huge topics as the malest male novelist, but in non-sprawling literary forms. Her compact “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” told me that my parents had lived full lives before their arrival in this country: “Either you will / go through this door / or you will not go through. // If you go through / there is always the risk / of remembering your name.” When they stayed up late in animated Chinese conversation with friends, my parents were half on the unseen other side of that door.

When I left for Rich’s alma mater, its name had become “Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges.” Male and female students had the same status, occupied the same buildings, and were viewed as going to Harvard, with all the history it implied. Those of us who aspired to lives of poetry looked back toward a daunting lot: Eliot, Frost, Stevens, cummings, Lowell, Ashbery. One had to look harder for the women – fewer, more recent, and identified with Radcliffe – but they were visionaries: Maxine Kumin, Jean Valentine, Adrienne Rich.

Most of my college years felt like Harvard, not Radcliffe, as I lived and went to class with the men, where men had lived and studied since 1636. But on occasion I went to Radcliffe Yard and wandered that less-trafficked area feeling awed, thinking almost aloud, Adrienne Rich climbed those steps. Adrienne Rich was once nineteen, too. A poet doesn’t have to be named Thomas or Robert or John, or hide her gender with initials. A poet can be named Adrienne. Look around you; feel the earth beneath your feet. It happened right here.