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Why Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

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

Beloved poet, essayist, 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 spectacular letter — one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture, and a superb addition to history’s finest definitions of art — later published in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library).

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.

Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton

Complement with Rich on love, loss, happiness, and creativity and her indispensable 1977 commencement address on claiming an education, then see why Sartre became the first person to decline the Nobel Prize.


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

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

After hearing a beautiful reading of the 1968 poem “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), I was impelled to revisit the PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews. Drawn from her 2005 visit to the Kelly Writers House are several excerpts revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.

Her contribution 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:

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.”

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

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.

For more of the poet’s abiding genius, dive into the Adrienne Rich archive.


Adrienne Rich’s 1968 Poem “Gabriel” Read by Tom O’Bedlam

“I get your message Gabriel / just will you stay looking / straight at me / awhile longer”

This year, we lost celebrated poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. (On my mother’s birthday, no less.)

In this exclusive reading, spoken-verse maestro Tom O’Bedlam — who also gave us Dorianne Laux’s “Antilamentation” and Charles Bukowski’s “so you want to be a writer” — brings to life Rich’s 1968 poem “Gabriel,” part of her Collected Early Poems: 1950-1970 (public library). Enjoy.

There are no angels yet
here comes an angel one
shut-off the dark
side of the moon turning to me
and saying: I am the plumed
serpent the beast
with fangs of fire and a gentle

But he doesn’t say that His message
drenches his body
he’d want to kill me
for using words to name him

I sit in the bare apartment
words stream past me poetry
twentieth-century rivers
disturbed surfaces reflecting clouds
reflecting wrinkled neon
but clogged and mostly
nothing alive left
in their depths

The angel is barely
speaking to me
Once in a horn of light
he stood or someone like him
salutations in gold-leaf
ribboning from his lips
Today again the hair streams
to his shoulders
the eyes reflect something
like a lost country or so I think
but the ribbon has reeled itself

He isn’t giving
or taking any shit
We glance miserably
across the room at each other

It’s true there are moments
closer and closer together
when words stick in my throat
‘the art of love’
‘the art of words’

I get your message Gabriel
just will you stay looking
straight at me
awhile longer

Rich’s final collection of poems, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010, was published shortly before her death.


The World’s Most Lyrical Footnote: Physicist Richard Feynman on the Life-Expanding Common Ground Between the Scientific and the Poetic Worldviews

“What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

The World’s Most Lyrical Footnote: Physicist Richard Feynman on the Life-Expanding Common Ground Between the Scientific and the Poetic Worldviews

In looking back on the past year, I keep returning to The Universe in Verse as a singular highlight — that labor-of-love celebration of the common ground between poetry and science, standing as a contemporary testament to Wordsworth’s insistence that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”

While revisiting the readings from the show — poems celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, the legacy of trailblazing scientists like Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Caroline Herschel — I was reminded of a marvelous footnote by the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), speaking to the powerful dialogue between the scientific and the poetic worldviews.

In his legendary physics lectures from the early 1960s, Feynman argues that astronomy gave rise to physics by beckoning the human mind to contemplate the beautiful simplicity of celestial motions. “But the most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy,” he writes, “is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those of earth.” (This discovery we owe chiefly to Cecilia Payne.) In a famous footnote to the lecture, quoted in richer context in James Gleick’s indispensable biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), Feynman wrests from this one simple, profound fact a beautiful meditation on the role of the poetic in science.

Perhaps with an eye to Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Feynman refutes the notion that a scientific inquiry into physical reality bereaves life of the poetic; to the contrary — any poetry that fails to convey the inherent beauty and enchantment of scientific understanding, he suggests, is the result of an impoverished poetic imagination:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part…. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

Nearly two decades later, Feynman would build on these ideas in his now-iconic reflection known as Ode to a Flower.

Complement with Feynman’s prose poem about the glory of evolution and his remarkable love letter to his departed wife, then revisit some splendid poems celebrating science and the humans who make it: Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and her homage to Marie Curie, Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s paean to the number pi, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, and Pattiann Rogers’s serenade to the glory of single-cell creatures.


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