What Poetry Does: Adrienne Rich on Poetry’s Political Power and Its Role in the Immigrant Experience
“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”
By Maria Popova
One summer evening not long ago, on a rainy Brooklyn rooftop, a friend — a brilliant friend who studies the cosmos and writes uncommonly poetic novels — stunned me with an improbable, deceptively simple yet enormous question: “What does poetry do?”
I fumbled for Baldwin: “The poets [are] the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” And then I mumbled something about how poetry gives shape to our experiences through language, thus conferring validity and dignity upon them, enlarging our access to our own humanity.
But although poetry certainly does that, that’s certainly not all poetry does, so I’ve been puzzling over the question ever since.
The answer, or at least an answer, arrived as answers often do — in a flash of half-dream, half-memory as I was drifting into sleep one unsuspecting night. I suddenly recalled something I had read long ago, so long ago that it slumbered encoded in the deepest recesses of my unconscious mind — a passage from What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (public library) by Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), one of the greatest poets and most wakeful minds of the past century.
Exactly thirty years after John F. Kennedy proclaimed in what remains one of the most powerful speeches ever given that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Rich examines “the long, erotic, unended wrestling of poetry and politics” and writes:
To look in a poem for immediate political function is as mistaken as to try to declare immediately what a particular protest demonstration or a picket line has “accomplished.”
I want a kind of poetry that doesn’t bother either to praise or curse at parties or leaders, even systems, but that reveals how we are — inwardly as well as outwardly — under conditions of great imbalance and abuse of material power. How are our private negotiations and sensibilities swayed and bruised, how do we make love — in the most intimate and in the largest sense — how (in every sense) do we feel? How do we try to make sense?
Rich — who spent a lifetime contemplating the relationship between art and capitalism and became the first and so far only person to refuse the National Medal of Arts in a political act of protest against the foibles of that relationship — considers poetry’s singular promise amid a culture increasingly preoccupied with the unfeeling superficialities of rampant capitalism:
Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.
I have never believed that poetry is an escape from history, and I do not think it is more, or less, necessary than food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions. It is as necessary.
Where every public decision has to be justified in the scales of corporate profits, poetry unsettles these apparently self-evident propositions — not through ideology, but by its very presence and ways of being, its embodiment of states of longing and desire.
With an eye to the commodification of feelings in contemporary culture, she considers the tragic resignation of despair — a notion the great humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm had examined half a century earlier in his timeless treatise on human destructiveness, and one which Rebecca Solnit would echo a decade later in her sobering clarion call for resisting the defeatism of easy despair. Rich writes:
We see despair when social arrogance and indifference exist in the same person with the willingness to live at devastating levels of superficiality and self-trivialization… Despair, when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination.
One of Rich’s most potent points examines the role of poetry in the immigrant experience and in the flight from oppression. She considers poetry as a counterpoint to the problematic metaphor of the “melting pot” and writes:
It hardly matters if the poet has fled into expatriation, emigrated inwardly, looked toward Europe or Asia for models, written stubbornly of the terrible labor conditions underpinning wealth, written from the microcosm of the private existence, written as convict or aristocrat, as lover or misanthrope: all our work has suffered from the destabilizing national fantasy, the rupture of imagination implicit in our history.
But turn it around and say it on the other side: in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever: it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.
Poets newly arriving here — by boat or plane or bus, on foot or hidden in the trunks of cars, from Cambodia, from Haiti, from Central America, from Russia, from Africa, from Pakistan, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, from wherever people, uprooted, flee to the land of the free, the goldene medina, the tragic promised land — they too will have to learn all this.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the awakening story of Amiri Baraka and poetry’s role in confronting injustice, Rich adds:
No one who loves life or poetry could envy the conditions faced by any of the Eastern Europeans or Black South Africans (for a few examples in this century) whose writings were actions taken in the face of solitary confinement, torture, exile, at the very least proscription from publishing or reading aloud their work except in secret. To envy their circumstances would be to envy their gifts, their courage, their stubborn belief in the power of the word and that such a belief was shared (even punitively). And it would mean wanting to substitute their specific emergencies for ours, as if poets lacked predicament — and challenge — here in the United States.
Complement the thoroughly terrific What Is Found There with Rich on how relationships refine our truths, why an education is something you claim rather than something you get, how silence fertilizes the imagination, and her beautiful tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.