Friday, March 30, 2012
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) and political poetry:
How strange, just 3 weeks ago, I was finishing 695 page "Outlaw Bible of American Poetry,(OBOAP)(published in 1999) preparing a 2.5 hr lecture on "political poetry"and now, today, am re-reading Adrienne Rich's poem, "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" which has an epigraph from Berrigan, who figures in the OBAP. What is political poetry? Should not all poetry be in some way, of, for, about the people? Which audience does it reach? The OBoAP gives examples of experiments beyond slammers, renegades, unbearables...some is outrageous. Some political poems are lyrical rage shaped for consumption and what Kenneth Patchen calls poems written in the evening of the two-fisted prayer. Some are merely personal diaries of frustration. In the OBoAP there are poems which address the difficulty of being identified as American where you don’t feel like the American who is providing a reputation for you. There is George Tsongas imagining a summary of America this way: “The States” – It’s an/ amazing /place, where/ no one enjoys// life// but they/all want/to live/forever. There are snapshots of McDonalds, poems which look at abstract art, fortune cookies and Woody Woodpecker and Barbie. Poems which explain living on the edge, and embrace NOW is THEN’S only tomorrow. There is Father Daniel Berrigan next to mention of drunkard Jack Kerouac and Burroughs who shot his wife. A short poem about relationship by Ken Kesey (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) next to French rebel Rimbaud ressurected to see the dentist. Adrienne Rich started her political activism in the mid 50's -- and has lived an authentic life, with hope that her words serve truth. Not only did she believe art and politics could co-exist, but must co-exist. She considered herself a socialist because "socialism represents moral value - the dignity and human rights of all citizens," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. "That is, the resources of a society should be shared and the wealth redistributed as widely as possible." **In 2006, Adrienne Rich published an essay “Legislators of the World” in The Guardian saying, “In our dark times we need poetry more than ever." I enclose the entire text below. In “The Defence of Poetry” 1821, Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. This has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power – in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political essay, “A Philosophic View of Reform,” Shelley had written that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged” etc. The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the “struggle between Revolution and Oppression”. His “West Wind” was the “trumpet of a prophecy”, driving “dead thoughts … like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth”. I’m both a poet and one of the “everybodies” of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise poetry – it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.