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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.”

What Poetry Does: Adrienne Rich on Poetry’s Political Power and Its Role in the Immigrant Experience

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.

Portrait of Adrienne Rich from the walls of the Academy of American Poets
Portrait of Adrienne Rich from the walls of the Academy of American Poets

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.


Cycling as a Cure for Creative Block: A Charming 1926 Case for Why the Bicycle Is the Ideal Vehicle for Writers

“The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.”

Cycling as a Cure for Creative Block: A Charming 1926 Case for Why the Bicycle Is the Ideal Vehicle for Writers

“Don’t cultivate a ‘bicycle face,’” an 1895 list of don’ts for women cyclists admonished just before the bicycle became a major vehicle of women’s liberation. That selfsame year, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw collided on their bicycles as each was making his respective trailblazing intellectual and creative contributions. In fact, the bicycle has a rich history as a witness to and comrade in revolutions both cultural and personal. (As a devoted cyclist myself, I have extracted from it both tremendous creaturely joy and an existential metaphor for my values.)

“When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks,” young Albert Einstein wrote in one of his love letters as he was incubating his world-reorienting theories — theories that would pave the way, among innumerable other things, for the invention of rockets, the first builders of which received their initial funding via bicycle, and for computers, which Steve Jobs likened to “a bicycle for the mind.”

Patti Smith with her bicycle, New York City, 1999. (Photograph: Steven Sebring)
Patti Smith with her bicycle, New York City, 1999. (Photograph: Steven Sebring)

Nowhere does the bicycle’s cultural role come more alive than in literature, where it endures as a beloved vehicle of writers as wide-ranging as Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, and H.G. Wells, whose official biographer anointed him “the writer-laureate of the cyclists” and who is credited with proclaiming, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” (It is perhaps not coincidental that the very first line delivered in Wells’s visionary novel The Time Machine comes from a man on a bicycle.)

H.G. Wells with his wife, Jane
H.G. Wells with his wife, Jane

But no one captures the bicycle’s writerly sacredness more vibrantly than journalist, essayist, novelist, and poet Christopher Morley (May 5, 1890–March 18, 1957) in an essay titled “Wheels on Parnassus” — a play on the title of Morley’s debut novel, Parnassus on Wheels. It was originally published in his wonderful 1926 essay collection The Romany Stain (public library), which was printed in a limited illustrated edition of 365 copies, each signed by the author.

Morley writes:

The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. How pleasant if one could prove that a decline in literary delicacy followed the disappearance of the bike from American roads… In a car you are carried; on a bike you go.

Henry Miller on his bicycle
Henry Miller on his bicycle

It is in moments of artistic stagnation and creative block that such goingness becomes most essential, and it is for such moments that Morley prescribes the bicycle as a most potent cure:

An odd feeling comes sometimes to a writer who has long carried in the knapsack of the mind some notion that he was to put in ink. It is a sensation I can only describe as Getting Ready to Write. Those phantoms of imagination, so long halted frozen in mid-gesture, begin to show marks of animation. In my particular case, it is now four and half years that I have seen them sitting in their absurd unchanged attitudes. No wonder they are stiff: one of them (what a dear she is!) told me her foot had gone to sleep. They are sitting round a table; it is a birthday party. You would think that the cake must be very stale by this time, the little red candles guttered out. But no: I can see them burning steadily, the bright untrembling candles of a dream. Even in the puppet postures where I left them I can see those phantoms strangely show an air of expectation. Something must be done about it.

In these moods bicycling seems perfectly the right employ. It is all very well to say to yourself that you are not thinking as you wheel serenely along: but you are, and that sure uncertainty of the cyclist’s balance, that unconsciously watchful suspension (solid on earth yet so breezily flitting) seems to symbolize the task itself. The wheel slidders in a rut or on a slope of gravel: at once, by instinct, you redress your perpendicular. So, in the continual joy and disgust of the writer’s work, he dare not abandon that difficult trained alertness. How much of the plain horror and stupidity is he to admit into his picture? how many of the grossly significant minutiae can he pause to include? how often shall he make a resolute fling to convey that incomparable energy of life that should be the artist’s goal above all? These are the airy tinkerings of his doubt; and as he passes from windy hill-top to green creeks and grazings sometimes the bicycle sets him free. He sees it all afresh; nothing, nothing has ever been written yet: the entire white paper of the world is clean for his special portrait of all hunger, all joy, and all vexation.

I was led to this forgotten treasure of a book through an oblique mention in Diane Ackerman’s fascinating inquiry into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play, of which cycling is no doubt a prime example.

For more on overcoming creative block, see this compendium of advice by contemporary artists and Lewis Carroll’s three tricks.


Swifter Than a Bird Flies: An Astonishing Account of Riding the First Passenger Train and How the Invention of Railroads Changed Human Consciousness

“When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description.”

Swifter Than a Bird Flies: An Astonishing Account of Riding the First Passenger Train and How the Invention of Railroads Changed Human Consciousness

“That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind,” James Gleick wrote in contemplating our civilizational enchantment with speed. But the most fertile seed of those habits of mind was planted by the technologies that emerged in one particular blink of a period — the first half of the nineteenth century. And the most consciousness-confounding of those technologies was the railroad, which suddenly compressed space and time in ways previously unimaginable. Until then, the limits of speed came from nature untampered with by human ingenuity — horses were the fastest mode of traversing space, pigeons the fastest medium of communication.

Everything changed when the first passenger railroad opened on September 15, 1830, furnishing the closest sensation to flying human beings had yet experienced. Nothing had reconfigured the temporal dimension of the human mind more dramatically since Galileo invented timekeeping and the reverberations of that revolution, which led to the invention of time zones, are still being felt today.

1894 color engraving titled Locomotive Engine, 'The Rocket', 1830, depicting the opening of Liverpool and Manchester Railway
1894 color engraving titled Locomotive Engine, ‘The Rocket’, 1830, depicting the opening of Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Three weeks earlier, on August 26, the British actress Fanny Kemble (November 27, 1809–January 15, 1893) — a theater sensation not yet twenty-one, who would go on to become a prolific and gifted writer — was offered an exclusive preview of this astonishing technology. Shortly after she took a ride on the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad, Kemble recounted the thrilling drama of the experience in a lengthy and spirited letter to a friend.

The letter, originally published in Kemble’s Records of a Girlhood and later cited in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (public library) — Rebecca Solnit’s incomparably illuminating account of how “the annihilation of space and time” changed our consciousness — remains the most vivid and articulate first-hand account we have of just how profoundly the railroads altered the human experience.

Fanny Kemble by Thomas Sully, 1834
Fanny Kemble by Thomas Sully, 1834

Kemble writes:

A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies… And now I will give you an account of my yesterday’s excursion. A party of sixteen persons was ushered, into a large court-yard, where, under cover, stood several carriages of a peculiar construction, one of which was prepared for our reception. It was a long-bodied vehicle with seats placed across it, back to back; the one we were in had six of these benches, and was a sort of uncovered char à banc. The wheels were placed upon two iron bands, which formed the road, and to which they are fitted, being so constructed as to slide along without any danger of hitching or becoming displaced, on the same principle as a thing sliding on a concave groove. The carriage was set in motion by a mere push, and, having received, this impetus, rolled with us down an inclined plane into a tunnel, which forms the entrance to the railroad. This tunnel is four hundred yards long (I believe), and will be lighted by gas. At the end of it we emerged from darkness, and, the ground becoming level, we stopped. There is another tunnel parallel with this, only much wider and longer, for it extends from the place which we had now reached, and where the steam-carriages start, and which is quite out of Liverpool, the whole way under the town, to the docks. This tunnel is for wagons and other heavy carriages; and as the engines which are to draw the trains along the railroad do not enter these tunnels, there is a large building at this entrance which is to be inhabited by steam-engines of a stationary turn of mind, and different constitution from the traveling ones, which are to propel the trains through the tunnels to the terminus in the town, without going out of their houses themselves.

Here, Kemble offers a testament to the nature of metaphor as an anchor for the new into the old, for the unknown into the known — this unprecedented technology, born into an alien context of its own making, had to be made comprehensible by rooting it in creaturely familiarity. Kemble writes:

We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make these curious little fire-horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a small platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her being thirsty for fifteen miles, — the whole machine not bigger than a common fire-engine. She goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels; and when it is desirable to diminish the speed, the steam, which unless suffered to escape would burst the boiler, evaporates through a safety-valve into the air. The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it. The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water, which is immediately conveyed to it from its reservoirs. There is a chimney to the stove, but as they burn coke there is none of the dreadful black smoke which accompanies the progress of a steam vessel. This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and, Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour. The steam-horse being ill adapted for going up and down hill, the road was kept at a certain level, and appeared sometimes to sink below the surface of the earth, and sometimes to rise above it. Almost at starting it was cut through the solid rock, which formed a wall on either side of it, about sixty feet high.

Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830, by A.B. Clayton
Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830, by A.B. Clayton

From this descriptive account Kemble now moves to the emotive, conveying the monumental shift in human perception and sensation that the railroad was about to precipitate in the whole of humanity:

You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw. Bridges were thrown from side to side across the top of these cliffs, and the people looking down upon us from them seemed like pigmies standing in the sky… After proceeding through this rocky defile, we presently found ourselves raised upon embankments ten or twelve feet high; we then came to a moss, or swamp, of considerable extent, on which no human foot could tread without sinking, and yet it bore the road which bore us… We passed over it at the rate of five and twenty miles an hour, and saw the stagnant swamp water trembling on the surface of the soil on either side of us… It was lovely and wonderful beyond all words.


The carriage … was set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies (for they tried the experiment with a snipe). You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible, too. I could either have read or written; and as it was, I stood up, and with my bonnet off “drank the air before me.” The wind, which was strong, or perhaps the force of our own thrusting against it, absolutely weighed my eyelids down. (I remember a similar experience to this, the first time I attempted to go behind the sheet of the cataract of Niagara; the wind coming from beneath the waterfall met me with such direct force that it literally bore down my eyelids, and I had to put off the attempt of penetrating behind the curtain of foam till another day, when that peculiar accident; was less directly hostile to me in its conditions.) When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet, strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.

Kemble ends her account by returning to her mare metaphor, proving once again that we thinking animals do indeed think with animals:

This brave little she-dragon of ours flew on… When I add that this pretty little creature can run with equal facility either backward or forward, I believe I have given you an account of all her capacities.

Kemble remained enchanted by trains. In 1833, while touring in Boston, she traveled to the city’s southern suburb of Quincy for the unveiling of the Granite Railroad, America’s first commercial railway, and recorded the experience in her journal with exuberant admiration. Well before the end of the century, railroads had transformed humanity so profoundly that the previously science-fictional feat of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days became possible.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on how the rise of railroads catalyzed the invention of motion pictures.


Bruce Lee’s Daughter Shares Her Father’s Philosophy of Learning

“Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and the journey of becoming who you are. Albert Einstein, in a letter of advice to his young son, argued that the secret to learning anything lies in “doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” And yet the dominant Western system of education is predicated on the mindless laying of factory-made bricks via the rote memorization of information — a method impoverished of enjoyment and dismal at equipping us with wisdom in the age of information.

One of the simplest, most elegant, and most urgently necessary perspectives on fruitful learning comes from legendary martial artist and underappreciated philosopher Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973). In this excerpt from a recent episode of the altogether wonderful Bruce Lee podcast, co-hosted by Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee reads her father’s philosophy of learning, originally published in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — the trove of wisdom that gave us Lee on self-actualization and the origin of his famous metaphor for resilience.

Learning is discovery, the discovery of the cause of our ignorance. However, the best way of learning is not the computation of information. Learning is discovering, uncovering what is there in us. When we discover, we are uncovering our own ability, our own eyes, in order to find our potential, to see what is going on, to discover how we can enlarge our lives, to find means at our disposal that will let us cope with a difficult situation.

At the heart of Lee’s philosophy of learning is the essential difference of learning as limitation, in the form of static memorization, and learning as liberation, in the form of dynamic self-expansion. In another section of the book, he revisits the subject:

We do not have to “gain” freedom because freedom has always been with us and is not something to be gained in the end through strict and faithful adherence to some definite formulas. Formulas can only inhibit freedom and preformations only squelch creativity and impose mediocrity.


Learning is definitely not mere imitation or the ability to accumulate and conform to fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery and never a concluding one.

Further along in the book, Lee addresses the paradox of learning from a Zen-inspired perspective and adds an essential caveat:

Learning gained is learning lost.

The knowledge and skill you have achieved are after all meant to be “forgotten” so you can float in emptiness without obstruction and comfortably. Learning is important, but do not become its slave. Above all, do not harbor anything external or superfluous; the mind is the primary.

You can never be the master of your technical knowledge unless all your psychic hindrances are removed and you can keep the mind in the state of emptiness (fluidity), even purged of whatever technique you have obtained — with no conscious effort.

Complement Bruce Lee: Artist of Life with Lee on the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem, the strength of yielding, and his never-before-seen writings on willpower, emotion, and the intellect, then revisit John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Lewis Carroll’s four rules of learning, Parker Palmer on learning as a spiritual practice, and Sister Corita Kent’s ten timeless rules for lifelong learning, beloved and popularized by John Cage.


Virginia Woolf on How Our Illusions Keep Us Alive

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.”

Long before psychologists began exploring the curious cognitive mechanism of how our delusions keep us sane, even before the poet W.H. Auden contemplated the crucial difference between false and true enchantment, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) explored the powerful positive side of illusions in Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her groundbreaking 1928 novel, aptly considered “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which gave us Woolf’s fiction-veiled insight into perennial truths about the elasticity of time, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work.


Woolf writes:

Illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things.

When illusions are “shattered by contact with reality,” Woolf observes, the collision “leaves the mind rocking from side to side” and makes for “a moment fraught with the highest danger for the human spirit.” With her uncommon gift for poetic truth, she defends the vitalizing power of our illusions:

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.

Perhaps our illusions, like all wishful or magical thinking, contain core truths about who we are — after all, our hopes and fears both spring from and in turn inform our identity. Perhaps, then, our illusions are an even more truthful record of our becoming than the biographical facts of our lives. They grow as we grow, until we shed them like snakeskin when they no longer serve us, only to replace them with new ones. Woolf’s Orlando intuits this when she whispers to herself: “I am growing up… I am losing my illusions, perhaps to acquire new ones.”

Complement the thoroughly magnificent Orlando with the true story of the great love that inspired it, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.


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