Watching the outpouring of grief and reflection over the death of Adrienne Rich last week, I admit, to my shame, that I was surprised. Surprised not because of any judgment about Rich’s poetry, which I barely know, but because I had thought of her as an icon of another era. That era, of course, was the era of the women’s movement, of which Rich was a brash troubadour, asserting the value and distinctiveness of women’s experience and lamenting their—our—submission to patriarchy. But when I came of age intellectually, in the 1990s, this mode of expression had fallen out of fashion. In my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was mentored by male and female professors alike who encouraged me to take my place as a student of the literary canon. But I was never directed to read a poem by Adrienne Rich. There are two distinct types of equality, I realize now, and women of my generation had achieved only the first. We had gained admission to the world of men. (This was literally true at Columbia University, where I went to college, which had gone co-ed less than ten years before I enrolled.) But there is another type of equality, the type that Rich alludes to in her great poem “Diving Into the Wreck,” in which she imagines plumbing the depths of the ocean as both mermaid and merman, exploring a past that hasn’t bothered to record her presence, “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” That type of equality involves remaking the landscape itself, redefining the terms on which value is assessed, rewriting the book of myths. At this type of equality we have yet to make significant progress, which is why Rich’s poem, nearly 40 years later, retains its immediacy and its longing.
more from Ruth Franklin at TNR here.