Thoughts on Rich’s “Poetry and Commitment”

“If poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be no poetry left in the world.” Adrienne Rich, Poetry and Commitment

On the eve of my travels to San Francisco to read in the final literary event of Litquake week in the Mission District, I found myself feeling awake in my hotel room in Nashville. I’d gone to bed early so that I’d be ready for my early flight through Denver, but I couldn’t sleep. As I rolled over for the hundredth time, I caught a glimpse of the pocket-sized treatise by Adrienne Rich titled “Poetry and Commitment”, based on her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It was an accident that the book was even there. I’d found it in the trunk of my car, having been overlooked while I was transporting other books between my storage unit and the house. I found it while loading my luggage for my San Francisco trip and casually tossed it in the back seat of the car where it fell into my bag. I am unsure how it found its way to the floor of my hotel room, but I felt that the fact it was there was a sign that perhaps I should read it. How apropos this little book and its message! When Rich delivered the first version of this speech in 2006, the political discontent was deeply abiding. The human rights violations by American Soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison was still fresh in the minds of the American people and contributed mightily to the contentious political climate that rocked G. W. Bush’s presidency. We face similar feelings today. Rich’s concerns were largely moral ones: wrongful imprisonment, racial discrimination and human inequality. However, our current woes lean more towards the economic, centered around corporate greed, the disappearance of the middle class and joblessness. Yet, at the root of these issues is the same basic concern for human rights: less access to health care, the opportunities that create wealth and the “corporate personhood” that assures corporations the rights of humans in the hopes that they will do their duty by creating more jobs. But in an age of such powerlessness, what rights do we have as citizens other than our voices? One thing that the poor have access to as well as the rich is words. This is the basis of Rich’s claim:if nothing else, we have poetry.

“For now,” Rich writes,

poetry has the capacity– in its own ways and by its own means– to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not own ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom– that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the ‘free’ market. This ongoing future, written off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented: through collective action, through many kinds of art. Its elementary condition is the recovery and redistribution of the world’s resources that have been extracted from the many by the few.

Her argument is that through words, we can reclaim what is lost by failing to be silenced. Poetry has the power to sway public opinion, to incite, to call to action. Poetry has the capacity (whether it is poetry of the voice, poetry of the page, or the poetry of art) to change the world for the better.

There are those who might argue the effectiveness of poetry, particularly poem styles like the lyric. using beautiful words and beautiful rhythms to describe the moral darkness of the times might be considered by some to be inappropriate. Yet, we write poems for funerals, over the grief of the dead. We sing dirges to commemorate the deaths of those we love. Why not write lyric, even in the darkest of times? After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno famously stated that “after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible.” He must surely have wondered how it would be possible to ever write anything that sounded beautiful again. Rich certainly does not agree with this assessment. Even though lyric has been accused of “‘aestheticizing,’ thus being complicit in, the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape and genocide,” she still maintains that “if to ‘aestheticize’ is to glide across brutality and cruelty,treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled– much hangs on the words ‘merely’ and ‘rather than.'” Her lecture is a call to “define the ‘aesthetic’ not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.” Like music, poems (lyric or otherwise) activate our desires, excite our imaginations and realize our possibilities. But, as a community, we have to continue to be tirelessly committed to our vision and to our passions. We have to fight relentlessly for the words we say and for our right to say them. Most importantly, we have to band together, to collaborate, to continue to forge a space where our community can prosper. We have to support each other, celebrate each other, and talk to each other. It is when we fail to lyricize that we allow ourselves to be overrun, not a moment before.

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~ by ImaginaryCanary on October 19, 2011.

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