The poet whose life and work meant so much to so many of us from the early 1960’s is dead at the age of 82. The New York Times, according her the respect she so richly deserves, ran her obituary on the front page on March 29th. Adrienne won her way to our regard.
In my heart, she has a special place because of some curious connections: she was at Radcliffe a few years before me, in the wretched fifties, and came out of that experience with formal training, an early marriage, and three sons. Her first poems, like my first stories, were exquisite, controlled, conventional, reflecting the rules we both learned in those Harvard writing classes where we were often the only “girls.”
I’m sorry the Times chose to quote, in full, a poem from one of her early collections, rather than the extraordinary poems of her coming of age in the late sixties. Her collected works sold 800 thousand copies across the course of her lifetime, her valiant publisher, W.W. Norton, keeping her in print all that time.
In addition to our shared early training in technique and patience, and our shared decision to thrust such training aside, we shared a curious fact from our past. Adrienne’s grandfather was sent to the military school in Asheville, North Carolina, run by generations of my Bingham male ancestors, a cruel place for a boy who must have been the only Jew, with its rigid discipline and military marches and a headmaster, my great-grandfather, who laid on the whip. Yet Adrienne, on one of the unfortunately rare occasions when we met, wore pinned to her dress the little gold rifle insignia her grandfather had won at the Bingham school. We both learned the hard lessons of adversity, as perhaps he did, although ours were learned in the stifling conventions of East Coast intellectual life, which underlined and underpinned the constrictions of women’s lives.
Her poems have lighted my life, as they have many others’, especially “Diving into the Wreck” which I have turned to in moments of despair: We are the ones who, on diving into the hold of the sunken ship of our pasts, return, bearing, “a knife, a camera, a book of myths in which our names do not appear.”
All of us who learned so much, and grew so tall, during the years when Adrienne was with us owe her our love and our profound gratitude.