Adrienne Rich: The “Newsworthy” Element of My Refusal of the National Medal for the Arts

“The invitation from the White House came by telephone on July 3 [1997]. After several years’ erosion of arts funding and hostile propaganda from the religious right and the Republican Congress, the House vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts was looming. That vote would break as news on July 10; my refusal of the National Medal for the Arts would run as a sidebar story alongside in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

In fact, I was unaware of the timing. My refusal came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience. I had recently been thinking and writing about the shrinking of the social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

‘We the people–still an excellent phrase,’ said the playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1962, well aware who had been excluded, yet believing the phrase might someday come to embrace us all. And I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief, fear, hunger, and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my art.

Whatever was ‘newsworthy’ about my refusal was not about a single individual–not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single political party. Both parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power, while deserting the majority of the people, especially are most vulnerable. Like so many others, I’ve watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusation against our teen-age mothers, the selling of health care–public and private–to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to working and poor people. At the same time, we’ve witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets, and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.”

Excerpted from: Hunter, J, Paul, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays. The Norton Introduction to Poetry, Ninth Edition. New York: Norton, 2007.

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