Adrienne Rich rejects National Medal for the Arts

July 3, 1997

On July 3, 1997, poet Adrienne Rich informed Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she would not accept the National Medal for the Arts. To accept the award, she felt, would be hypocritical in view of the country's widening socio-economic gap. In her typical hard-hitting style, Rich wrote 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." Both the national recognition and Rich's principled refusal were emblematic of the place this poet has come to occupy in American culture.

Listen to a recording of Adrienne Rich reading her letter to Jane Alexander.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929, Rich was one of American poetry's foremost feminist and liberal voices. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951 and published her first book of poetry, A Change of World, the same year. Her next book of poetry, The Diamond Cutters and Other Poems, appeared in 1955; both books were met with critical acclaim. Rich's next works, however, were met with as much consternation as praise. Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, published in 1963, was Rich's first explicitly feminist book, and as such it garnered criticism from those who thought it too militant and acclaim from those who admired its vision. The book, and later work collected in Diving into the Wreck (1973), reflected Rich's growing involvement in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement as well as her commitment to outspoken feminism. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award; Rich refused to accept the award in her own name but accepted instead in the name of all women. She donated the prize money to charity.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, Rich published several more volumes of poetry and prose that together addressed motherhood, lesbianism, politics, and feminism. Her first prose book was Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Later work included The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977; A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981; Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978; and Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1986.

Beginning in the 1980's, Rich's work increasingly included references to her Jewish heritage. Her powerful and influential essay "Split at the Root" (1986) explored her complex relationship to her own Jewish identity. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1994) also included meditations on Jewishness and whiteness. Rich's later work continued to be politically engaged, filled with both passion and compassion. She published over 20 books of poetry and four of prose. Her last published works included The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000–2004, Poetry and Commitment: An Essay (2007), and Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007–2010 (2011).

In addition to writing, Rich taught at colleges and universities including Swarthmore College, Brandeis University, Bryn Mawr College, Cornell University, Stanford University, and Rutgers University. She was active in the Boston Woman's Fund and New Jewish Agenda. Her work was recognized by numerous organizations. Among other prizes, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Adrienne Rich passed away on March 28, 2012.


Sources:Cheri Landell, Adrienne Rich: The Moment of Change (Westport, 2004); Alice Templeton, The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich's Feminist Poetics (Knoxville, 1994); Liz Yorke, Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body (London, 1997); Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1146-1148;;;; Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1997; New York Times, July 11, 1997.


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The impact of Adrienne Rich on poetry in America since the second half of the twentieth century has been enormous. Too richly talented to be ignored by the literary establishment, she was at the same time too politically oriented to be comfortably digested.

Institution: Steven Barclay Agency

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Adrienne Rich rejects National Medal for the Arts." (Viewed on November 29, 2023) <>.


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