Thursday, May 27, 2010

Adrienne Rich, on poetry as "Social Practice"

Mark Nowak is now going digital, archiving online selections from fifteen years of his journal, XCP, Cross-Cultural Poetics. Here's an entry from Adrienne Rich, whose poetics situate me exactly where I am: riding the hyphen between poetry's utility and its utter uselessness, between its dialogic possibities with social movements and the culture at large and its self-declaration of independence.

Social Practice

Poetry is neither an end in itself, nor a means to some external end. It’s a human activity enmeshed with human existence; as James Scully names it, a social practice. Written where, when, how, by, for and to whomever, poetry dwells in a web of other social practices historically weighted with enormous imbalances of social power. To say this is not to deny the necessity for poetry as an art whose tangible medium is language.

It’s a commonplace to say that in a society fraught with official lying, hyperbolic urgings to consume, contrived obsolescence of words (along with things and the people who produce them) poets must “recover” or “subvert” or “re-invent” language. Poetic language may thus get implicitly defined as autonomous terrain apart from the ripped-off or colonized languages of daily life.

Yet the imagination—the capacity to feel, see, what we aren’t supposed to feel and see, find expressive forms where we’re supposed to shut up–has meant survival and resistance, for poets and numberless others: incarcerated, under military or colonial occupation, in concentration camps, at grinding labor, suffering bleak and traumatic circumstances of many kinds. We may view the imagination as a kind of gated, landscaped neighborhood–or as a river, sometimes clogged and polluted, carrying many kinds of traffic including pollen and contraband, but in movement: the always-regenerating impulse toward an always-beginning future.

Adrienne Rich, originally published in XCP 15/16 (2005)


Lyle Daggett said...

Adrienne Rich's poetry, and her other writing, has been immensely important to me for many years.

I first read her poems in her book Diving into the Wreck, in late 1974, shortly after the book came out. I warmed to her poems a little slowly at first -- this may have been partly because I initially read the book for a class, and I found myself somewhat lost in the class discussion of the book. But I sought out more of her work after that, and began to take to it more quickly. Her somewhat earlier books Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law and Leaflets particularly spoke to me.

Since then I've read everything of hers I could get my hands on, as soon as I could get to it. During the past month or so I've been re-reading her most recent book of poems Telephone Ringing Inside the Labyrinth, taking my time with it, three or four poems at a time, living with the book, one of the books I'm carrying with me all the time right now.

Back in the 1990's, whenever it was exactly, I read her book of essays What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, and just flew through it. I've never taught for a living, but I remember thinking that if I were teaching an introductory of "beginning" poetry writing class, that book might be what I would assign first as required reading.

The essay you've excerpted here it also available, in a slightly expanded form, in Rich's recent book of essays A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, under the title "James Scully's Art of Praxis." A note in Rich's book says that the essay was included as the introduction to James Scully's essay collection Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, published by Curbstone Press in 2005.

For me, the tug-of-war isn't so much between poetry's utility and its uselessness, as you've expressed it here. The essential dialectic I feel at work, when I'm writing poems and when I reading the work of other poets (and not just on those occasions), is maybe between differing potentials: the desire and necessity to attempt something useful in poetry, or to be overwhelmed by the initial difficulty of saying anything at all.

There are limits, obviously, to what a poem can do, but it would be hard for me to consider poetry useless under any circumstances.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Lyle. I also feel and felt strongly about Rich and WHAT IS FOUND THERE. Though some of her recent work does not always "work" for me, she remains an essential light in the general dark.

Lyle Daggett said...

Philip, in my comment above, I'd meant to mention also that on September 12, 2001 -- the day after the planes flew into the World Trade Center -- I heard Adrienne Rich read her poems in Minneapolis.

She was in Kansas City on the 11th, and all flights were grounded, so she hired a driver and they drove 13 hours from Kansas City to Minneapolis so she could make it here for the reading on the 12th. The University campus had pretty much closed down because of the events on the 11th, but Rich's reading went on as scheduled.

It was in a large modern theater building, on bluffs high above the Mississippi river. It was a packed house. She walked out on stage with difficulty -- she'd had some health problems -- though she stood for the entire reading. I remember that she read her long poem "An Atlas of the Difficult World," some poems from "Fox" (just out at the time), and some other work. She spoke, of course, about the events of the day before, and about the urgent need to try to talk and think about what was to come with cooler heads, and warmer hearts, than those giving voice on CNN etc. for (at that point) the previous 24 hours.

The energy in the room was both subdued and highly charged. We were witnessing, and participating in, an act of affirmation of life.

I can't think of another place I would rather have been on that day.

I don't always find Rich's poetry "easy," or the most immediately accessible, though I've usually found it worth the effort it takes to find my way into it. And, in addition, anything I read of hers now inevitably carries with it the echoes of that evening in September.