When Adrienne Rich Refused The National Book Award
In 1974, Nothing Went as Planned
Sponsored by the National Book Committee, the National Book Awards honored writers in ten categories in 1974. In March, the National Book Committee announced the finalists. In poetry, the nominated books were Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich; From Snow and Rock, from Chaos, by Hayden Carruth; Points for a Compass Rose, by Evan S. Connell, Jr.; Collecting the Animals, by Peter Everwine; The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971, by Allen Ginsberg; The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, by Richard Hugo; Departures, by Donald Justice; Armed Love, by Eleanor Lerman; From a Land Where Other People Live, by Audre Lorde; Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems, by Alice Walker; and Hard Freight, by Charles Wright.
Rich must have been pleased when she learned who was judging poetry that year. Two of the judges, David Kalstone and Jean Valentine, were fellow planets in her Manhattan literary orbit. Kalstone was the old friend from her Cambridge days who had quickly grasped the significance of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law. Now a professor at Rutgers, he had praised her and her books in the pages of The New York Times and the Saturday Review, and later he would publish a book of poetry criticism, Five Temperaments, in which Rich was one of the contemporary poets whose writing he analyzed. Valentine was a dear friend and an Upper West Side neighbor. As a fledgling poet, she first heard about Rich soon after she arrived at Radcliffe and struck up a conversation with a Cambridge resident who recommended she read A Change of World. Adrienne had written her a complimentary letter after Valentine’s first book was published in the mid-1960s, and they had been friends ever since. The judge Rich knew least well was Philip Levine, a Detroit-born poet of working-class origins who lived in California and taught at Fresno State. They were friends who liked each other’s poetry but didn’t have the long history she had with the other two judges.
In a letter to the Carruths, Rich said she thought this was the first time either she or Hayden had been nominated for the National Book Award. She was right about him but mistaken about herself: Two of her previous volumes—The Diamond Cutters in 1956 and Necessities of Life in 1967—had been finalists. Maybe she had forgotten because being a finalist meant little to a poet of her stature; it was only winning that mattered. But it was a new decade and Diving into the Wreck was an unusually strong and timely book. Surely the less-than-objective judges would see its merits. She had reason to be hopeful.
Rich, however, had decided the National Book Awards were a patriarchal sham. She wanted the prize because she wanted the platform it would give her. If she won, she planned to decline the honor as an individual but accept it in the name of the feminist cause she had taken on as her own. Her decision could potentially damage her reputation in the rarefied world of arts and letters, the world that had welcomed her as one of its own when she was still an undergraduate, but she was determined to speak up anyway.
What she set out to do had significant precedents. In 1964, Robert Lowell turned down an invitation to an arts festival at the White House because he was troubled by the direction in which the country was moving under President Johnson. In his 1968 acceptance of the National Book Award for poetry, Robert Bly spoke against the Vietnam War and the American legacy of racial oppression; he donated his thousand-dollar prize to organizations promoting draft resistance. In 1971, W. S. Merwin asked that his Pulitzer Prize winnings be divided between draft-resistance efforts and a man named Alan Blanchard, a painter “blinded by a police weapon in California while he was watching American events from a roof.” All of these men, whom Rich knew well, took a stand against warmongering and national policies they found objectionable. They did not want to be perceived as allies of the establishment.
Neither did Rich. She intended to expose what she considered a virulently patriarchal culture that predated the Vietnam War by many centuries. Because she saw the National Book Awards as a microcosm of that culture, she would voice her objections to the awards, as well. First, she had to win—and she fully expected she would. Second, to achieve maximum effect, she needed to get the other female nominees to go along with her.
In her conversations with Walker and Lorde, Rich proposed a pact: If one of them was awarded the prize, the winner would read a statement that rebuked the male-dominated awards hierarchy while championing the cause of all women. She implied or perhaps stated outright that of the three of them, she was the most likely to win because she was white. On the chance that one of the others did win, she was asking Walker and Lorde to spurn the honor and the one-thousand-dollar prize—income they may have wanted to keep. Even if she won, as expected, and they merely stood in solidarity with her, they had little to gain and much they might lose. Who knew but that prospective publishers and employers might reject them for their lack of respect for a literary institution? Although their later books secured their status, at the time they could not be sure that would happen. As black women, they were even more vulnerable to discrimination than Rich was. Seen in this light, her high-minded proposal carried with it a large dose of presumption: first, that she would win; second, that a joint statement from all of them was necessary; and third, that they should imperil their professional standing to validate a point she wanted to make.Rich proposed a pact: If one of them was awarded the prize, the winner would read a statement that rebuked the male-dominated awards hierarchy while championing the cause of all women.
Lorde was not happy with the pact, in Robin Morgan’s recollection: “In public, Audre said how wonderful, and privately Audre fumed!” Lorde told Morgan she thought she would have kept the prize if she’d won it, but she wasn’t going to get into a public dispute with Rich. Morgan said, “Guys can disagree all the time and it’s considered healthy individuation or a lively exchange. Particularly at that time and somewhat still today, women disagreeing is a catfight. Some of us were very, very conscious of that, being public feminists.”
Walker heard from both Rich and Lorde by phone. Recalling the conversations many years later, she said, “We understood that we were living under apartheid and segregation and all of that. And under such a system, which favored white people, [Rich] would get the award; we knew that. And so we decided, before anything was announced, that we would not accept being ranked.” Walker added, “You know, she was a great poet, but it would go to her also because she was a white person. And to her immense credit, she had no desire to be honored as we would be dishonored.”
As it happened, there was another white woman lurking at the edge of these conversations: twenty-two-year-old Eleanor Lerman, a native of the Bronx and the true outlier in the group. Unlike the other three, she was poor and lacked a college education; she spent her days making harpsichord kits in the Village and her evenings cruising gay bars. But she was a serious writer; her debut volume, Armed Love, had come out from Wesleyan University Press. Like Rich, she had gotten a precociously early start in her career. The National Book Awards were not on her radar, but when Armed Love was named a finalist, she began getting lots of phone calls from strangers, including three of her fellow nominees.
Many decades later, Lerman still gets angry thinking about the pressure they put on her. Rich, Walker, and Lorde assumed she would fall in line: “All three of them called me, in order of importance. Either Audre or Alice called me first. Finally Adrienne called me.” Their plan made no sense to Lerman. If she had won the one-thousand-dollar prize, she said in retrospect, “I would’ve taken it and cashed the check.”
In response to the escalating insistence that she go along with them, Lerman refused once, twice, and then a third and final time. No matter how much clout the other women had, she felt they had no right to tell her what to do. Women’s rights had come up in conversations with her neighbors, privileged women who thought activism was necessary. The discussions irritated her. Contemplating the phone calls she was getting from her fellow nominees, she felt like it was more of the same. She asked herself, “‘Who are these elitist, educated, fancy-schmancy women to tell me what my situation is?’ Men were not my problem. Money was, work was.” Distressed and a little frightened by all the attention the prize nomination had brought her, she decided to skip the ceremony.
The judging committees met in New York a few days before the ceremony to make their decisions in poetry, fiction, biography, and a number of other categories. The publishers and their winner authors then got the word, with enough advance notice for the authors to write acceptance speeches and travel to New York if they weren’t there already. That year, the organizers wanted no one else to know who had won until the ceremony, but thanks to “a combination of loose-tongued judges and publishers and assiduous lobbying by The New York Times,” the Times got a mostly accurate list of winners and published it on Wednesday morning.
Adding a new layer of complexity to the unfolding events, Adrienne was not the sole winner in poetry. Even though National Book Committee staff entreated them to pick just one person, the judges did not comply. They granted the prize to both Rich and Allen Ginsberg and thus diminished the honor for both of them. Each would receive five hundred dollars instead of the full one thousand, and in the annals of literary awards, each would be forever encumbered with the other. Poetry wasn’t the only category in which the judges couldn’t or wouldn’t follow instructions. As an exasperated reviewer wrote in Esquire, “There were a lot of split awards, which is always undercutting in a dull way.”
All signs point to Levine as the spoiler who deprived Rich of a singular victory. In a note to National Book Committee staff member Joan Cunliffe, dated Sunday, April 14, Levine said, “I think the three of us are finally delighted with the choices. I know I am. All the reading and thinking and what have you was worth it to give these two great poets the prize.” The wording (“finally delighted” and “what have you”) hints at friction followed by compromise and resigned acceptance. His letter included the award citation he had written for Ginsberg. His statement, which an announcer would read during the ceremony, commended Ginsberg “for his brave book The Fall of America and for giving us a poetry that is visionary, humanitarian, anguished, joyful, outraged, and tender enough to be American, and for leading a generation of poets back to the sources of their greatest strength, their lives and their language.” Levine told Cunliffe to ask the other two judges to “barber” his statement if it needed editing. But after typing it into his letter, he exuberantly declared, “On 2nd thought don’t change it, carve it on the steps of the New York Public Library.”
Though Ginsberg was an engaging and popular poet, most critics in the 1970s (and for many years after) regarded him as the louche impresario behind the Beat movement; they saw no reason to take him seriously. Levine wanted to fix that. He knew that behind the bombast and exhibitionism, Ginsberg was an important poet, even if The Fall of America wasn’t as good as his long-ago masterpieces, Howl and Kaddish. Levine may have felt he had to grab a distinguished honor for Ginsberg while he had the chance. He liked Rich and her poetry, but he wasn’t prepared to carve an encomium to her on the library steps just yet.
A crowd of about twelve hundred flowed into Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall for the awards ceremony on April 18. It was the culmination of a week of business and social gatherings for publishers, editors, authors, agents, and book critics, many of them from New York. Some California book people referred derisively to the event as “the Eastern awards,” and along the same lines, one observer claimed that three of the winners lived in the same Central Park West apartment building. Even so, the distinguished winners could hardly be labeled provincial. The co-winners in the Fiction category were Thomas Pynchon and Isaac Bashevis Singer; Pauline Kael was the winner in a category called Arts and Letters; the Sciences award went to Nobel Prize–winning biologist S. E. Luria for a book titled Life: The Unfinished Experiment; and the translation prize, split three ways, went to translators of Octavio Paz, Paul Valéry, and a medieval Japanese woman known as Lady Nijo.
The program opened predictably with remarks by National Book Committee chair Roger Stevens and executive chair John Frantz. Husband-and-wife actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy read excerpts from four of the winning books, including Rich’s and Ginsberg’s. They might have read from more, but they were due onstage in a Broadway play and left in a hurry. This was an early indication the night wasn’t going to go as planned.
When the time came for the poetry winners to be announced, Ginsberg’s name was called first. His boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky, appeared in his stead, and since he wasn’t introduced, some people assumed he was Ginsberg. According to Publishers Weekly:
[Orlovsky] strode onstage in a T-shirt bearing the figures of Vietnam war casualties and roared into the microphone, in a loud and unstressed shout, Ginsberg’s diatribe about his native land. It proclaimed his foreboding that the U.S. “is now the fabled ‘damned of nations’ foretold by Walt Whitman” and declared that America’s alleged defense of the free world was in fact “an aggressive hypocrisy that has damaged the very planet’s chances of survival.” Impeachment of a President would not remove “the hundred billion power of the military or the secret police apparatus.” “There is no longer any hope for the salvation of America,” roared Orlovsky and ended, as directed by Ginsberg, with a thrice-repeated howl of lamentation.
Rich endured Orlovsky’s performance and waited for her turn. As she readied herself to rise from her seat and go onstage, she listened to the award citation written by Kalstone, her loyal friend. He knew she would like to hear her own verse quoted: “Adrienne Rich has understood that ‘we are living through a time that needs to be lived through us.’ Her poetry is open to politics at the deepest level—where commitment meets private feelings and dreams. In her work she makes courageous discoveries which question, to their roots, the lives of men and women alike. She has helped us in a new way to experience our own honest anger and honest mercy.”
Because Kalstone’s words captured the very things Rich wanted people to find in her poetry, she risked sounding ungrateful and obtuse in going ahead with her prepared remarks, which Norton had provided in advance to the National Book Committee. But going ahead was what she always did. Dressed in fashionable bell-bottoms, her dark hair hanging to her shoulders, she made her way to the stage. Lorde accompanied her, but Walker did not attend the ceremony. Rich’s clear, cultured voice rang out as she gave a speech that perfectly encapsulated her feminist beliefs at that time:
We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the name of those who, like us, have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and in great pain. We believe that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other; and that poetry—if it is poetry—exists in a realm beyond ranking and comparison. We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women. We appreciate the good faith of the judges for this award, but none of us could accept this money for herself, nor could she let go unquestioned the terms on which poets are given or denied honor and livelihood in this world, especially when they are women. We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self-determination of all women, of every color, identification, or derived class: the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher, the pregnant teenager, the teacher, the grandmother, the prostitute, the philosopher, the waitress, the women who will understand what we are doing here and those who will not understand yet; the silent women whose voices have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.
From The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography by Hilary Holladay. Used with permission of the publisher Nan. A Talese. Copyright 2020 by Hilary Holladay.