Poetic Courage from Adrienne Rich

Revolutionary Worker #917, July 27, 1997

It's happened already while we were still
searching for patterns A turn of the head
toward a long horizontal window overlooking the city
to see people being taken
neighbors, vendors, paramedicals
hurried from their porches, their tomato stalls
their auto-mechanic arguments
and children from schoolyards"

From "Deportations" by Adrienne Rich,
Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995

Cheers to poet Adrienne Rich for refusing to accept the National Medal for the Arts. The award is one of the few honors given by the federal government to artists and was to be presented to Rich and 11 others by President Clinton at the White House in the fall. Rich said that she could not accept an award from a government that is unleashing heavy attacks on the people.

When the call came last week from the office of National Endowment for the Arts head Jane Alexander, informing Rich of the award, she turned it down on the spot and followed up with letters to Clinton and Alexander. She wrote: "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 of 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."

Rich, 68, is the author of more than 15 volumes of poetry and four prose works. She is one of the best known poets in the U.S. and has won many awards, including a $374,000 MacArthur Foundation award in 1994 and two Guggenheim fellowships. She has taught at San Jose State and Stanford University and currently lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Rich was active in the early days of the feminist movement in the late '60s and early '70s. In the 1980s she spoke out against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Recently she spoke on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal at a major support rally in Santa Cruz.

"I have a strong belief in the inseparability of art from society as a whole," Rich told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Where growing numbers of people are being marginalized, impoverished, scapegoated and beleagured, I don't feel that I can accept an award from a government that is pursuing these policies."