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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.

BP

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.”

What Makes a Good Life: Revelatory Learnings from Harvard’s 75-Year Study of Human Happiness

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of the good life and how we limit our happiness. For the whole of human history up to that point, such questions had been left entirely to his ilk — the philosophers — and perhaps to the occasional poet.

By the following decade, a team of visionary researchers at Harvard had enlisted the tools of science in wresting tangible, measurable, actionable answers to this perennial question of the good life. So began the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard Medical School, better known as the Grant Study — the longest-running study of human happiness. Beginning in 1938 as a counterpoint to the disease model of medicine, the ongoing research set out to illuminate the conditions that enhance wellbeing by following the lives of 268 healthy sophomores from the Harvard classes between 1939 and 1944. It was a project revolutionary in both ambition and impact, nothing like it done before or since.

For some necessary perspective on medicine in the 1930s: Having not yet uncovered the structure of DNA, we knew close to nothing about genetics; mental health was a fringe concern of the profession, with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders still two decades away; the microbiome was an inconceivable flight of fancy. Little progress had been made since Walt Whitman’s prescient case for the grossly underserved human factors in healthcare and the question of what makes for a good life was cautiously left to philosophy. It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp just how daring it was for physicians to attempt to address it.

But that’s precisely what the Harvard team did. There are, of course, glaring limitations to the study — ones that tell the lamentable story of our cultural history: the original subjects were privileged white men. Nonetheless, the findings furnish invaluable insight into the core dimensions of human happiness and life satisfaction: who lives to ninety and why, what predicts self-actualization and career success, how the interplay of nature and nurture shapes who we become.

In this illuminating TED talk, Harvard psychologist and Grant Study director Robert Waldinger — the latest of four generations of scientists working on the project — shares what this unprecedented study has revealed, with the unflinching solidity of 75 years of data, about the building blocks of happiness, longevity, and the meaningful life.

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

For a deeper dive into the significance and legacy of the Grant Study project, see the revelatory book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (public library) by Harvard psychologist George E. Vaillant — Waldinger’s predecessor, who spent thirty years as director of this revolutionary study — then revisit his Harvard peer Daniel Gilbert on how our present illusions hinder our future happiness and pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg on how our relationships affect our immune system.

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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.

BP

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