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Adrienne Rich; poet wrote on feminism, social justice

STUART RAMSON/A.P./file 2006

Adrienne Rich was honored at the National Book Awards.

NEW YORK - Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and rage, whose work - distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity - brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century, died Tuesday at her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis, with which she had lived for most of her adult life, her family said.

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Widely read, anthologized, interviewed and taught, Ms. Rich was for decades among the most influential writers of the feminist movement and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. She wrote two dozen volumes of poetry and more than a half-dozen of prose; the poetry has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to W.W. Norton & Co., her publisher since the mid-’60s.

Triply marginalized - as a woman, a lesbian, and a Jew - Ms. Rich was concerned in her poetry, and in her many essays, with identity politics long before the term was coined.

She accomplished in verse what Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,’’ did in prose. In describing the stifling minutiae that had defined women’s lives for generations, both contended persuasively that women’s disenfranchisement at the hands of men must end.

For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political, and the poetical were indissolubly linked; her body of work can be read as a series of urgent dispatches from the front.

While some critics called her poetry polemical, she remained celebrated for the unflagging intensity of her vision, and for the constant formal reinvention that kept her verse - often jagged and colloquial, sometimes purposefully shocking, always controlled in tone, diction, and pacing - sounding like that of few other poets.

All this helped ensure a continued relevance long after she burst genteelly onto the scene as a Radcliffe senior in the 1950s.

Her honors includes a MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grant in 1994 and a National Book Award for poetry in 1974 for “Diving Into the Wreck.’’ That volume, published in 1973, is considered her masterwork.

She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.

Born in Baltimore, her father, Arnold Rice Rich, a doctor and assimilated Jew, was an authority on tuberculosis who taught at Johns Hopkins University. Her mother, Helen Gravely Jones Rich, a Christian, was a pianist and composer.

Theirs was a bookish household, and Ms. Rich was groomed by her father to be a literary prodigy. He encouraged her to write poetry, and she steeped herself in the poets in his library - all men, she ruefully observed.

When in her last year at Radcliffe (she received a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1951), W.H. Auden chose her first collection, “A Change of World,’’ for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series, a signal honor. The book, with its sober mien, dutiful meter, and scrupulous rhymes, was praised by reviewers for its impeccable command of form.

Once mastered, poetry’s formalist rigors gave Rich something to rebel against, and by her third collection, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,’’ published by Harper & Row, she had pretty well exploded them. That volume appeared in 1963, a watershed moment in women’s letters: “The Feminine Mystique’’ was also published that year.

Though the book horrified some critics, it sealed Ms. Rich’s national reputation.

She knew the strain of domestic duty firsthand. In 1953 she married a Harvard economist, Alfred Haskell Conrad, and by 30 she was the mother of three small boys. When Conrad took a job at the City College of New York, the family moved to New York City, where Ms. Rich became active in the civil rights and antiwar movements.

By 1970, partly because she had begun to acknowledge her erotic love of women, Ms. Rich and her husband had grown estranged. That autumn, he died of a gunshot to the head; the death ruled a suicide. To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.

Ms. Rich effectively came out as a lesbian in 1976, with the publication of “Twenty-One Love Poems,’’ whose subject matter, sexual love between women, was still considered disarming and dangerous. In the years that followed, her poetry and prose ranged over her increasing self-identification as a Jewish woman, the Holocaust, and the struggles of black women.

Her other volumes of poetry include “The Dream of a Common Language’’ (1978), “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far’’ (1981), “The Fact of a Doorframe’’ (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World’’ (1991) and “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,’’ published last year.

She leaves her partner of more than 30 years, the writer Michelle Cliff, three sons, David, Pablo, and Jacob; a sister, Cynthia; and two grandchildren.

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