Renowned poet and essayist Adrienne Rich drew on decades of her award-winning work to encourage her Packard Auditorium audience Wednesday night to draw on their common humanity to create “a new kind of nation.”
Rich, author of more than 15 volumes of poetry and four books of non-fiction prose, came to Lehigh to host a reading, discussion, and fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the outpouring of charity from all over the country and the world in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about the refusal of our government to spring into action, to take note of the human beings caught up in that event. And I’ve been thinking about the need for charity and the absolute necessity for change.
“We can no longer afford a government that doesn’t believe in government, that only believes in cronyism to protect that tiny minority of the richest in the country. We need another kind of nation,” added Rich, whose comments drew a burst of applause from the nearly 300 in attendance.
She urged audience members to be generous in their donations, which totaled more than $600 by evening’s end.
Her brief remarks, offered at the opening of the event organized by the Creative Writing Program at Lehigh, were followed by a series of readings from more than five decades of work. Many selections were starkly political, such as the lines she offered from her poem, “Calibrations,” which she read in mocking response to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield’s comment that “you go to war with the army you have.”
“We know very little about the number of returning veterans who have lost limbs,” she said before reading the selected lines: ‘You come back from war with the body you have …. the shadow, blind echo of your body, specter of your soul.’”
Equally pointed was the poem, “This is Not the Room,” which refers to the Oval Office, where “bought ears listen” and “glazed eye meets frozen eye.”
In the title poem from her current book, “The School Among the Ruins,” which earned a National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, Rich offers tribute to the teachers who struggle to maintain a sense of calm and order for their students in the face of both urban unrest and war.
Set in an unidentified country, it evokes the impact that life amid hatred and violence has on children:
A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk
parents or lesson plans
diarrhea first question of the day
children shivering it’s September
Second question: where is my mother?
One: I don’t know where your mother
is Two: I don’t know
why they are trying to hurt us
”Poetry that is both beautiful and powerful”
In introducing Rich, Bob Watts, poet and professor in the Creative Writing Program, described her as “a voice that won’t be silenced and can’t be stilled, who brings beauty into our struggling lives, and who challenges us to come together as a community and take up the work of transforming our society.”
After the lecture, Watts noted that he was hopeful that those in the audience, comprised mostly of students and university faculty, were inspired by Rich’s words.
“No other writer I know has gone as far in uniting art and activism, poetry and politics, and I hope that we can all learn from her example,” Watts said. “Too often we think of art, literary or otherwise, as something essentially bloodless, separated from our day to day existence, a luxury without effect in what we often think of as "real life." In her life and work, Rich has always denied that division and given us poetry that is both beautiful and powerful.”
Among the numerous awards that Rich has received are the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Lannan Foundation; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; the 1974 National Book Award for Poetry; a MacArthur Fellowship; the Wallace Stevens Award; the Fund for Human Dignity Award of the National Gay Task Force; two Guggenheim Fellowships; the Common Wealth Award in Literature; the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement; the National Poetry Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Art of Poetry; and the 1996 Tanning Award for Mastery in the Art of Poetry.
Her reading was sponsored by the Department of English, Lehigh Women's Center, the American Studies Program, the Visiting Lecturer's Committee, the Chaplain's Office, the Humanities Center, the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies, and the Women's Studies Program.