Tag: obituary

World of Letters: The Beginnings of Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich is unforgettable. Last month, we announced the winner of the 2012 Younger Poet Series competition, and beginning our celebration of Poetry Month in April, it takes little effort to remember one of YSYP’s best and greatest poets. The world was sad to note her passing last Tuesday, March 27, but the language of this most noteworthy American poet is her lasting gift, one that is sure to reward us more and more, just as it has in the 61 years since she was first published.

Born May 16, 1929 in Baltimore, Rich was encouraged from an early age to write poetry. Her father took a special interest in her education and that of her younger sister, Cynthia, and Rich herself would later comment that her father intended for her to be a “prodigy.” After finishing high school, Rich enrolled at Radcliffe College, where she continued to study and write poetry.

Meanwhile since 1947, W.H. Auden had been serving as judge of Yale University Press’s Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, a position he would hold until 1959. His run as series judge brought to light poetry collections from promising mid-century poets like John Ashberry, W.S. Merwin, and John Hollander. In 1951, Rich’s final year at Radcliffe, Auden selected her submission, A Change of World, as the winner of the competition and subsequently wrote the introduction to her first published book. The prestige of the literary award and Rich’s own poetic brilliance and use of form would establish her writing career in the time-honored way that Yale Younger Poets beautifully achieve.

Over the next six decades, Rich challenged convention and conformity alike with her writing. She wrote more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, the last of which was published by W.W. Norton in 2010, her publisher since the publication of her fourth poetry collection in 1966. Her single identification as a woman evolved into many: as a feminist, a lesbian, and increasingly as a Jew, as the years went on and she began to reflect on her father’s family heritage. As the New York Times reported in an obituary last week, “For Ms. Rich, the personal, the political and the poetical were indissolubly linked,” and as part of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, she was involved in civil rights and feminist activism, and turning her writing towards themes of womanhood and motherhood. Following her the end of her marriage to Harvard economics professor Alfred Conrad, Rich came out as a lesbian and began to publish in prose, as forceful and effective as her poetry, about identity politics and the question of rights in the United States. She is best known through this second half of her life, but for YUP’s acquaintance, we remember most the one packet—of the hundreds and thousands of submissions—that started it all and simply read:

Adrienne Cecile Rich.

In Memoriam: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

We at Yale University Press are very sad to report the untimely passing of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl last Thursday, December 1, at age 65. As a psychoanalyst and philosopher, Young-Bruehl brought her interest in the ideologies of prejudice to her many books, including her YUP biographies of Anna Freud and mentor Hannah Arendt.

Combining not only psychology and philosophy, but literature, history, law, feminism, humanism, and above all social conscience, Young-Bruehl was a vocal advocate of anti-prejudice thought, most recently giving a talk for the New York Institute for the Humanities to discuss the work behind her last and forthcoming book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Early reader Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, wrote “Childism is an alarming analysis of the policies and behaviors that are so harmful to our children. Young-Bruehl’s deeply humane insights should be required reading for policymakers and parents.”

Only a month ago, we posted an article to our blog in response to the front page story about recent deaths connected to the disciplinary practices espoused in a book on child rearing, relating it to Childism, which explores the mistreatment of children as comparable to other forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia. The post started quite a buzz on Facebook and Twitter from users anxious to engage with the controversial nature of the book, and of course, spanking.

“The struggle against childism is one of the most important battles we will ever wage, for it is a fight for the future,” writes Elisabeth in the Introduction to her new book. Next month, when we publish Childism, we will also have an interview with Young-Bruehl, conducted earlier this fall. Reading all the social media attention had excited Elisabeth to contribute more blog pieces on the book, but in her memory, we will champion her cause to not only raise awareness within our society, but to suggest and provide ways that we can fight oppression of children. We have been well-advised by Elisabeth’s echo from Dominique Browning’s memorial post on Young-Bruehl’s “Who’s Afraid of Social Democracy?” blog: “Cherish the time you have. Cherish this world. Be gentle, but be strong. Live in love.”

In Memoriam: Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis, a biologist whose work on the genesis of new types of cells revolutionized our understanding of evolution, died at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 22, after suffering a stroke. The Washington Post called Margulis, who was 73, “a rebel within the realm of science,” pointing to her determined efforts to overturn accepted paradigms in biology as evidence of an original mind and a pioneering spirit.

Only two years after completing her doctorate, Margulis surprised the scientific community by challenging the idea that random mutation was the only force driving evolutionary change; the first article in which she presented her theory was rejected by 15 journals before appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1967. Margulis studied microorganisms and bacteria, proving that the mutually beneficial relationships that formed between less complex prokaryotic cells might allow them to combine to create new, eukaryotic cells with nuclei in a process called symbiogenesis. In spite of the initial skepticism of her colleagues, Margulis’s findings appeared as her first book, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, which was published by Yale University Press in 1970.

Over the next four decades, Margulis continued to write on cell evolution and the genesis of new species. In 1990, she published Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination, “an evolutionary detective story that unravels the mystery and history of the origin of sex” from microorganisms to more complex forms of life, which she co-wrote with her son, science writer Dorion Sagan.

Margulis graduated from the University of Chicago at eighteen, then went on to earn her masters and doctorate before eventually joining the faculty at Boston University, and then at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she held the title of distinguished university professor of geosciences. She married and divorced well-known astronomer Carl Sagan, whom she met on a stairway at the University of Chicago, and chemist Thomas N. Margulis, mothering two children with each man. “It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist,” Margulis once said, “…something has to go.”

There is no doubt that Margulis was a first-class scientist; she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, awarded the National Medal of Science in 1999, and her papers are to be permanently archived in the Library of Congress. Yet even after the scientific establishment had accepted her theories about symbiogenesis, Margulis continued to provoke debate with her support of James E. Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which posits that the entire earth functions like a living organism, with the animate and inanimate worlds self-regulating the conditions that allow for its perpetuation. As ever, Margulis didn’t back down in the face of opposition. As she told Discover magazine in an interview earlier this year, “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.”

In Memoriam: Taha Muhammad Ali

On October 2, 2011, the world bid farewell to Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali, whose powerful works resonated with the tone of loss in the twentieth century. Born in 1931 in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya, itself lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Muhammad Ali was an unlikely picture of a poet. In his own words he was, “a peasant, the son of a peasant!” His formal education ended in fourth grade and, after he was forced to flee his village during the war, he relocated to Nazareth, where he opened a souvenir shop that he ran for over fifty years. But like all great writers, he possessed an insatiable appetite for more learning. The rest of his education was self-taught, and as Jeffrey Brown wrote on PBS’s Newshour blog in October: “[he was] a voracious reader who quote[d] Steinbeck and Shakespeare as well as classical Arabic poetry.” Two volumes of Muhammad Ali’s poetry have been translated into English: In 2000, poet and translator (and now MacArthur fellow and Yale University Press author), Peter Cole, working together with cotranslators Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin, published Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story with Ibis Editions in Jerusalem, and in 2006, Copper Canyon Press brought out an expanded, bilingual volume titled So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005, which has been widely acclaimed.

If the feelings of loss have an antithesis, it is perhaps not merely the idea of “gain”, but that of friendship, of love. Muhammad Ali’s relationship with Cole and his wife, the essayist and biographer Adina Hoffman enriched the lives of all three, and over the course of several years of traveling together, as Muhammad Ali and Cole gave readings throughout the US and Europe, they became extremely close.  Hoffman eventually set out to write a life and times of Muhammad Ali, which was published in 2009 by Yale University Press. My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, the first biography ever published—in any language—of a Palestinian writer, was widely praised, with Boyd Tonkin describing it in The Independent  as “A remarkable book … A triumph of personal empathy and historical insight, and a beacon for anyone who knows that ‘more joins than separates us.’” The book was named one of the best biographies of the year by Booklist and one of the top twenty books of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review.

Though it’s typical to think only in mournful terms of the fate of the Palestinians, Muhammad Ali—Taha—did not write only of loss, of course, but brought to all he wrote and did “an unlikely exuberance.” As Hoffman puts it:

Taha’s words are too keen, too spiked with wit and vigor ever to slide into the languorous zone of mere melancholy. And when Taha read a poem in his granular baritone, his feet planted widely, as though he were planning a sudden standing broad jump, the force of his personality was what came through: his relish at simply being. Taha had turned his own gusto into a kind of protest and so had in a sense reinvented for himself the very notion of resistance poetry.

WHYY’s Radio Times recently re-aired an interview with Hoffman and Cole, originally conducted in 2009, during which Hoffman affectionately remarked that Muhammad Ali had “one of the great poet‘s faces” and described it playfully as, “almost ghoulish.” Cole read the poem from which the title My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness takes its name, alongside recordings of Muhammad Ali in Arabic; Hoffman reflected on his humor, idiosyncrasies, and stories—how they work themselves into his poetry. In celebrating his life, we remember the humility of a man who would never claim to be speaking for anyone but himself, yet so poignant are his words, that the familiarity of his “difficult simplicity” shows that he is anything but lost to us:

And so

it has taken me

all of sixty years

to understand

that water is the finest drink,

and bread the most delicious food,

and that art is worthless

unless it plants

a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

Excerpted from My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness, by Adina Hoffman. Copyright © 2009 by Adina Hoffman. “Twigs” by Taha Muhammad Ali, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin. Copyright © 2007 the translators, from So What: New & Selected Poems  (reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press).