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Posts Tagged ‘Adrienne Rich’

02 JULY, 2013

How Relationships Refine Our Truths: Adrienne Rich on the Dignity of Love

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“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

From her soul-stirring poetry to her timeless wisdom on love, loss, and creativity, beloved reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) endures as one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, a remarkable woman of equal parts literary flair and political conviction. In a monumental manifestation of both, when Rich was awarded prestigious National Medal of Arts in 1997, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, she famously became the first and only person yet to decline the honor in a protest against the monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

But Rich was also a masterful writer of prose at the intersection of the philosophical, the political, and the deeply personal. In her essay titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” originally read at the Hartwick Women Writers’ Workshop in June of 1975 and eventually included in the altogether fantastic anthology On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (public library), Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of love with eloquence that resonates with particularly poignant beauty in these days of historic change for the freedom and dignity of love:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

How beautifully this lends itself to paraphrasing Rich’s memorable words from two decades later — “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” — to “I don’t think we can separate love from overall human dignity and hope.”

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 is indispensable in its entirety.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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16 MAY, 2013

The Letter with Which Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

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“I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”

Beloved poet and reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 — March 27, 2012) is celebrated as one of the most influential literary voices of the twentieth century, her essays and poems having catapulted into the forefront of collective conscience controversial issues like sexual identity and the oppression of women and lesbians. In 1997, to protest the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, she became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, awarded to such luminaries as Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Bob Dylan.

In this 1997 broadcast from the radio show Democracy Now, Rich reads her letter declining the medal, adding to history’s finest definitions of art in what’s one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture. It can be found in Voices of a People’s History of the United States (public library). Full transcript below.

July 3, 1997

Jane Alexander
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20506

Dear Jane Alexander,

I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.

In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton

Complement with Rich on love, loss, happiness, and creativity and her indispensable 1978 poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language.

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14 DECEMBER, 2012

Adrienne Rich on Creative Process, Love, Loss, and Public vs. Private Happiness

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“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… The accidents happen.”

Earlier this year, we lost beloved poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. After last week’s beautiful reading of her 1968 poem “Gabriel,” I revisited the wonderful PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews.

Below, I’ve edited several excerpts from a 2005 discussion revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.

Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.

On love and loss as the foundation of all art:

Behind all art is an element of desire. … Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?

On public vs. private happiness:

The question always is there, ‘What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy?’ But we can, and in spite of so much — and in spite of so much knowledge. And, for me, there’s always this issue of private and public happiness.

On her creative process, echoing Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling on where ideas come from:

A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’

Lastly — because true art is in the doing and not the talking — at a 1985 event at Cornell University, Rich reads from her sublime and sensual Twenty-One Love Poems, found in the fantastic volume The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (UK; public library):

No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.

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