Thursday, April 05, 2012

Adrienne Rich as Bard

This past week and more I have been reading through what I have of Adrienne Rich's poems and essays, reading some things again, reading some things for the first time. At one point I was talked into getting rid of all my Rich books, and convinced that as a political poet she wasn’t any good. That was wrong, and I’ve changed my mind. I now value her poetry highly, and some of her prose essays are fundamental to 20th C. thought about LGBT issues, about poetry, about how to live in a war-torn century and refuse to be complicit with its compromises and losses in public life.

In fact, I like Rich’s anger now more than ever, her rock-hard determination, her use of language to get at the roots of life, partly because they reflect my own, but also because they have come to seem necessary. Too much ground has been given in to the bullies, and that must stop. Her refusal to give in to those who would destroy her, and me, is more essential than ever.

The freedom of the wholly mad
to smear & play with her madness
write with her fingers dipped in it
the length of a room

which is not, of course, the freedom
you have, walking on Broadway
to stop & turn back or go on
10 blocks; 20 blocks

but feels enviable maybe
to the compromised

. . .

Madness.       Suicide.       Murder.
Is there no way out but these?
The enemy, always just out of sight
snowshoeing the next forest, shrouded

In a snowy blur, abominable snowman
—at once the most destructive
and the most elusive being
gunning down the babies at My Lai
vanishing in the face of confrontation

The prince of air and darkness
computing body counts, masturbating
in the factory
of facts.

—Adrienne Rich, from “The Phenomenology of Anger”

What other poet uses such a vocabulary lately? So many are content to speak only of lovers' dramas set in urban living rooms, or play with words till nothing means anything any more. What other poet tells such stories of the world’s tragedies, and our individual ones? They’re the same, of course.

This is bardic, in the old tradition of the poet at the king’s fire, telling the news. This is the voice of the lineage of ancient Jewish prophets, telling the truths no one wants to hear. Contemporary Jewish mystic Rabbi Abraham Heschel once wrote, A prophet is one who interferes with injustice, and that is what we have in Rich’s writing. Can a poem change the world? Perhaps not. But it does have the power to make a reader think about starting to change the world, even if only in their own backyard. Poetry does have the power to inspire. It's only when we treat poetry as a pretty decoration, like a doily on a sewing table, that it does not. If we resist letting poetry become purely decorative, than there are things we can still say with it.

Even more than the poems themselves, I keep returning to Rich’s ideas about poetry. The poems are thick and muscular, pared down to the limits of language, forceful commentaries on life, what wounds us, on engagement with the world, personally, politically, socially, spiritually. What she wrote about the act of making poetry, the art of the vatic word, is just as muscular.

I keep coming back to what Rich said that poems are meant to be:

Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.

Rather than being about an experience, a poem should be an experience. I wholeheartedly agree. I find myself, every time I make a poem, wanting to make it an experience for the reader. I want the poem to recreate for the reader the experience that the poet had that led to the making of the poem. I don’t want to tell about what I experienced, I want to make you share the experience.

Sometimes the closest I can get to that is haiku. I keep making the attempt, even if it often fails. I feel like some of my more experimental poetry, like the Theokritikos series of poems, approaches what we want to do. Having a conversation in a normal tone, but with the heightened language of poetry, that’s what I try to do in the Letters poem series. Other bodies of work have different styles and forms. I’ve talked about cinematic poetry, a poetry that builds a narrative not through conventional grammar and storytelling but through sequencing images in strings that ignite into images in the mind. I think sometimes of Chris Marker’s beautiful and terrifying film, La Jeté, which is a film made up of B&W still photographs, that tell a huge and complex story using very simple means. Poems can be like that, if we allow them the grace to make the attempt, if we let go of our clinging to the words themselves and aim for what lies beyond and behind words.

And how we represent our lives as metaphor. I’ve had the experience of being in the desert just as described by Rich:

Every drought-resistant plant has its own story
each had to learn to live
with less and less water, each would have loved

to laze in long soft rains, in the quiet drip
after the thunderstorm
each could do without deprivation

but where drought is the epic then there must be some
who persist, not by species-betrayal
but by changing themselves

minutely, by a constant study
of the price of continuity
a steady bargain with the way things are

—Adrienne Rich, from the poem “The Desert as Garden of Paradise”

Other recent articles on Rich:

Poems Good Enough to Eat

Adrienne Rich: Moral Compass

And disabled writer Kenny Fries reflects on how important Rich was to the disabled community:

How Adrienne Rich Taught Me to Drive

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