Mentor Extraordinaire: My Years with Adrienne Rich

by Cheryl Walker

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich, whose passing in late March of this year was noted in a previous issue of Scripps Magazine, came to Brandeis University on a one-year creative writing fellowship in 1972, just as I was finishing my dissertation on American women poets. Though I was in awe of this well-published and much-admired personage, I got up the courage to ask her if she would be one of my readers, and she agreed. Thus began one of the most significant passages of my life. Rich worked over my puerile prose, challenged every facile statement I made, and became not just a “reader” but a mentor and a friend.

Her influence on my life was enormous. She not only spent hours discussing my work, she also gave my name to journal editors when she couldn’t do an essay or review they wanted. My first publications, in The Nation, were a result of her referrals. Adrienne helped me to improve my writing, listened carefully to my views, broadened my literary horizons, and in the end made me a feminist, something I had not been before.

I did not realize it at the time, but we were both at turning points in our lives. Her husband had died, a suicide, only two years earlier. For me at twenty-four, two years seemed like a long time; now I know it is barely a heartbeat. She was living with her three sons in Cambridge, where I too was living, and she had time for reflection, a light teaching load, and a lot on her mind. What she gave me was rare then and is extremely rare now, when famous writers and scholars simply don’t have such leisure to spend with an individual graduate student. When I think of what I was offered—hours at her house discussing poetry and politics, which sometimes shaded into dinner—I realize that I was phenomenally, almost unimaginably, lucky.

In 1974, I accepted a job at Scripps. Though I had received my PhD in 1973, we had kept in touch. I visited her in New York, and we wrote letters back and forth. Her life was changing. In time, I met her family and the woman who was to become her life-partner, Michelle Cliff. During my first year at Scripps, I was living in a tiny three-room college house on 11th Street. I find it hard to believe now, but when she came through town, I made a buffet dinner for 25 people, who jostled one another in my one main room and overflowed onto the meager grass outside. People stayed late, and she was happy to talk to them. In 1983, at my urging, she came to teach a four-week creative writing course at Scripps. She came again to teach a longer course in 1984. Each time, she gave a poetry reading, and, in 1984, a riveting lecture (“Resisting Amnesia”) that filled Garrison was much discussed and long remembered.

Adrienne Rich had an illustrious career, winning the Yale Younger Poets Series Award for a book of poems she had written in college, an unparalleled achievement, especially for a 21-year-old woman in the 1950s. She won almost every important award a poet can hope to win, wrote books of essays, literary criticism, and a book on motherhood, Of Woman Born.

I have taught her work repeatedly. This semester—teaching a course on American women poets—I am using one of her essays on Emily Dickinson. This essay is typical of Adrienne: brilliant, passionate, informed, and provocative. Adrienne Rich was the perfect embodiment of what Scripps stands for. She was a woman who thought deeply about women, an outsider who made the role of the outsider a road map for the future. She cared about the poor, the disenfranchised, the world, and her art. Now her words are engraved on the walk between Scripps and Keck Science: “The moment of change is the only poem.”

Cheryl Walker, who holds the Richard Armour Chair in Modern Languages, has taught English at Scripps since 1974.

 

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