Saturday, November 18, 2006



by Adrienne Rich

Originally published:
Saturday November 18, 2006
The Guardian

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.

Walt Whitman never separated his poetry from his vision of American
democracy. Late in life he called "poetic lore ... a conversation overheard
in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken
murmurs" - the obscurity, we might think now, of democracy itself. But also
of those "dark times" in and about which Bertolt Brecht assured us there
would be songs.

Poetry has been charged with "aestheticizing," thus being complicit in, the
violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment,
torture, rape and genocide. This accusation was famously invoked in
Adorno's "after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible" - which he later
retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice

But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be
no poetry left in the world. 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 described and dismantled -
much hangs on that word "merely". Opportunism isn't the same as committed
attention. But we can also define the "aesthetic", not as a privileged and
sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a
resistance, which totalising systems want to quell: art reaching into us
for what's still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it's not a mass-market
"product", it doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket
aisles; it's too "difficult" for the average mind; it's too elite, but the
wealthy don't bid for it at Sotheby's; it is, in short, redundant. This
might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either
inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's
unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our
heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of
poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together -
and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions
of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of
the feelings, of involuntary human responses - how we glimpse a blur of
smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of
men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio
upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That
pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great
many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and
poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only
reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical
degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving
the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be
deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already
lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the
images - is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism,
professionalism - a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of
metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the
capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten
future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on
ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, 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 on-going future,
written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its
paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

There is always that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be
described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our
late-night arguments. There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator
Américo Ferrari) "an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living
relation between the poem and the world resides".

Adrienne Rich was awarded the US National Book Foundation 2006 Medal for
Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on Wednesday. Her School
Among the Ruins
published by WW Norton is available at independent
bookstores or

No comments: