Rich Refused Honor and Broke Social Silence

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Adrienne Rich

(WOMENSENEWS)–“Refusenik” is a word coined by Soviet Jews, who were prohibited from emigrating, to describe a culture of resistance to government demands. From the arrested suffragists on hunger strikes in jail to those who counseled draft resisters during the Vietnam War, American women, too have a long tradition of saying “no” to the powers that be.

Prize-winning poet Adrienne Rich is a “refusenik.” In 1974, her collection titled “Diving Into the Wreck,” one of the foundational translations of a newly emerging feminist consciousness into high art, won the prestigious National Book Award. At the award ceremony, Rich, who is white, appeared with black poets Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to announce that she would not accept the honor for herself, but “only on behalf of all silenced women.” The cash prize was donated to black single mothers, like Walker and Lorde.

After 1974, Rich’s work and her belief in poetry as an instrument of change continued to grow. Her essays, including the often reprinted “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” were as clear-eyed and eloquent as her poems. Continuing to publish one extraordinary volume after another, it made sense that this gadfly would come to the attention of the panel selecting recipients of the National Medal of the Arts during the 1990s. Under President Clinton, a widely diverse array of creative people–women and men, black, white and Hispanic–had been chosen.

In 1997, the 12 honorees included four women: jazz vocalist Betty Carter, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Museum of Modern Art president Agnes Gund and poet Adrienne Rich. Rich refused the award.

Rich wrote to Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, on July 3, 1997, that she “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 believe,” she continued, “in art’s social presence–as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.” Her refusal “was not about a single individual–not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single political party. Both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the people, especially the most vulnerable.”

Rich saw corporate power increase even more as the Iraq War escalated in the 21st century. In 2003, she publicly refused to attend a White House-sponsored symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice.” That time, however, she was not alone, for many other poets turned down the invitation and instead staged their own anti-war protests around the country, far from the seat of government.

She did, however, gratefully accept an award from writers and publishers in 2006: the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at louise@womensenews.org.

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