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Image: Adrienne Rich
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“The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” Rich wrote to then-President Clinton in 1997.
TODAY staff and wire
updated 3/28/2012 7:42:13 PM ET 2012-03-28T23:42:13

Adrienne Rich, a towering figure in American poetry and feminist literature, died Tuesday at home in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 82.

Her son, Pablo Conrad, said Rich died from complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

Rich released her first book of poems in 1951 and made a name for herself as an advocate of women’s rights, a champion of the poor and an eloquent opponent of war. She went on to publish more than a dozen volumes of poetry and five collections of nonfiction that explored topics such as racism, sexuality, economic justice and love between women.

She won many awards over the years, including the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets prize and the Academy of American Poets’ Dorothea Tanning Award. She also received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

The Los Angeles Times recounted the way Rich refused the National Medal for the Arts in 1997 in a letter to then-President Bill Clinton. “The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate,” Rich wrote. “A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

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Rich taught at many colleges and universities, including Brandeis, Rutgers, Cornell, San Jose State and Stanford. She wrote the following in her “Credo of a Passionate Skeptic” in the Monthly Review in June 2001:

“I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. ...

“I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.”

To learn more about Rich, her poetry and her legacy, visit this page of the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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