Adrienne Rich: Online Essays and Letters
Recently I collected a number of my prose writings for a forthcoming volume. Rereading them, it struck me that for some readers, the earlier pieces might seem to belong to a bygone era--20 to 30 years ago. I chose to include them as background, indicating certain directions in my thinking. A burgeoning women's movement in the 1970s and early 1980s incited and provided the occasions for them, created their ecology. But, as I suggested in "Notes Toward a Politics of Location," my thinking was unable to fulfill itself within feminism alone.
Our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of technological change. The activities that mark us as human, though, don't begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus. They pulse, fade out, and pulse again in human tissue, human nerves, and in the elemental humus of memory, dreams, and art, where there are no bygone eras. They are in us, they can speak to us, they can teach us if we desire it.
In fact, for Westerners to look back on 1900 is to come full face upon ourselves in 2000, still trying to grapple with the hectic power of capitalism and technology, the displacement of the social will into the accumulation of money and things. "Thus" (Karl Marx in 1844) "all physical and intellectual senses (are) replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses, the sense of having." We have been here all along.
But retrospection can also remind us how one period's necessary strategies can mutate into the monsters of a later time. The accurate feminist perceptions that women's lives, historically or individually, were mostly unrecorded and that the personal is political are cases in point. Feminism has depended heavily on the concrete testimony of individual women, a testimony that was meant to accumulate toward collective understanding and practice. In "When We Dead Awaken," I borrowed my title from Ibsen's last play, written in 1900. Certainly the issues Ibsen had dramatized were very much alive. I "used myself" to illustrate a woman writer's journey, rather tentatively. In 1971 this still seemed a questionable, even illegitimate, approach, especially in a paper to be given at an academic convention.
Soon thereafter, personal narrative was becoming valued as the true coin of feminist expression. At the same time, in every zone of public life, personal and private solutions were being marketed by a profit-driven corporate system, while collective action and even collective realities were mocked at best and at worst rendered historically sterile.
By the late 1990s, in mainstream American public discourse, personal anecdote was replacing critical argument, true confessions were foregrounding the discussion of ideas. A feminism that sought to engage race and colonialism, the global monoculture of United States corporate and military interests, the specific locations and agencies of women within all this was being countered by the marketing of a United States model of female--or feminine--self-involvement and self-improvement, devoid of political context or content.
Still, those early essays suggest the terrain where I started: a time of imaginative and intellectual ferment, when many kinds of transformations seemed possible. "Women and Honor" belongs to a period when there was in the air a theoretical code of ethical responsibility among women: a precarious solidarity of gender. Within that ethic--which I shared--I was trying to criticize the deceptions we practiced on each other and ourselves. Published at a time of vigorous feminist small-press pamphleteering, "Women and Honor" seemed, for a while, usable. Today, the parts that most interest me are the descriptions of how lying can disrupt the internal balance of the one who accepts the lie, and the difficulties of constructing an honorable life. I believe these stretch beyond gender to other hoped-for pacts, comradeships, and conversations, including those between the citizen and her government. (I do not believe that truth-telling exists in a bubble, sealed off from the desire for justice.)
Looking back on her own earlier writings, Susan Sontag has remarked: "Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, 'unrealistic,' to most people." Like other serious and vibrant movements, feminism was to be countered by cultural patterns unforeseen before the 1980s: a growing middle-class self-absorption and indifference both to ideas and to the larger social order, along with the compression of media power and resources into fewer and fewer hands, during and beyond the Reagan years.
It interests me that in "Women and Honor," that poetically terse piece of writing, I first invoked the name of Marx--to dismiss Marxism "for women." I was of course echoing the standard anti-Marxism of the postwar American cultural and political mainstream. But, as I indicate in "Raya Dunayevskaya's Marx," written more than a decade later, this anti-Marxism, uncriticized and uninvestigated, was present also in the women's movement. Marxism was tainted there, both by garden-variety anticommunism and by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.
Sometime around 1980 I felt impelled to go back and read what I had dismissed or felt threatened by: I had to find out what Marx, along the way of his own development, had actually written. I began working my way through those writings, in the assorted translations and editions available to me, an autodidact and an outsider, not an academic or post-Marx Marxist. There were passages that whetted my hunger; others I traversed laboriously and in intellectual fatigue. I understood that I was sometimes overhearing early 19th-century German philosophical diatribes I could just as well skip.
What kept me going was the sense of being in the company of a great geographer of the human condition, and specifically, a sense of recognition: how profit-driven economic relations filter into zones of thought and feeling. Marx's depiction of early 19th-century capitalism and its dehumanizing effect on the social landscape rang truer than ever at the century's end.
Along with that flare of recognition came profound respect and empathy for Marx's restless vision of human capacities and the nature of their frustration. I found no blueprint for a future utopia but a skilled diagnosis of skewed and disfigured human relationships. I found a Marx who would have been revolted by Stalinism, by the expropriation of his ideas in the name of tyranny, by the expropriation of his name: "I am not a Marxist," he said. In the feminism I had embraced, as in the social field where it was rooted, there was a salient dialectic: racism as destructive presence, race as great social teacher. Time and again racial actualities pushed against the "primary oppression" of gender; time and again the lesson was forgotten. I came to realize that we were afraid: that a focus on class (read Marxism) might blot out a focus on gender and race; that gender (feminism) might blot out race and class; that you could look at history and see the big eraser wiping out each successive lesson of justice, so that collective knowledge could not accumulate. For the pressing motif of this excessive society was and is: There is not enough (space, livelihood, validation) for all.
I'm not sure that I could have read Marx with so much patience and appetite had I not participated in the inevitable shortcomings of the feminist movement in the United States. Though some feminists (mostly women of color) insisted on intersections of race, class, and gender, emphasis was more often laid on women's individual class identifications and how they negotiated them, or on poverty and welfare, than on how class, poverty and the need for welfare are produced and perpetuated in the first place. (Both kinds of work, of course, are necessary.) Elsewhere, movement was being parochialized into "women's culture." Meanwhile, the expansion of capitalism's force field, the impoverishment of women within it, and the steep concentration of wealth were all brutally accelerating.
We can think of second-wave feminism as a splinter off the radical movements of United States history, especially the Depression-driven movements of the 1930s and 1940s, movements always under fire, repressed in the 1950s, resurgent in new forms in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, again being deliberately defused and isolated. Above all, the political groupings of African Americans were under hostile surveillance. Earlier, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.--both leaders with large constituencies--had been murdered just as each was unscrolling a map on which race and class intersected in a shared landscape. The blotting of those maps was accomplished by violence, persecution, censorship and propaganda. The energy, hopefulness, brains and passion of a women's movement erupting in the United States at such a time was no match for these political circumstances. The important legacies of that movement reside not in the names of a few women starring in the media, but in the many lifesaving, stubbornly ongoing grass-roots organizations it had the power to ignite. I still believe what I wrote in 1971: A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution.
What prose I wrote in the 1990s was fired by a hope of bringing together ideas that had been forcibly severed from each other or thrown into competition: such as the making of literature and public education. Sometimes I felt ideas that attracted me mutually repelling each other. Or I felt the shortcomings of my own language pitted against a lethargic liberalism or a despicable rhetoric of "spin." Sometimes it all seemed mere Sisyphean effort, pushing uphill and futureless a rock bearing sweaty handprints of so many others.
But Sisyphus is not, finally, a useful image. You don't roll some unitary boulder of language or justice uphill; you try with others to assist in cutting and laying many stones, designing a foundation. One of the stonecutter-architects I met was Muriel Rukeyser, whose work I had begun reading in depth in the 1980s. Through her prose Rukeyser had engaged me intellectually; her poetry, however, in its range and daring, held me first and last. "Her Vision" is a tribute to the mentorship of her work. Another was Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote vividly and trenchantly of the concrete revolutionary lives of women, and whose fusion of Marx's humanism with contemporary feminisms expanded my sense of the possibilities of both.
I was also undertaking a kind of research into poetics, both as writing and as reading. I had always worked fairly instinctually and independently as a poet, distrusting groups and manifestos, which I found mostly unuseful in their exclusive male compadreship; I trusted their poetry more than their bondings. (I have had to reckon in and out of gender to do my work.) But it seemed to me that an accumulating incoherence and disruption of public language and images in the late 20th century was something poets had to reckon with, not just for our own work. I had explored this challenge in my 1993 book, "What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics." I was looking for poetics and practice that could resist degraded media and a mass entertainment culture, both of them much more pervasive and powerful than earlier in the century.
There was nothing new about this; artists have long made art against the commodity culture. And innovative or transgressive art has itself been commodified, yet has dialectically frictioned new forms and imaginings into existence.
One of the questions that pursued me is whether, and how, innovative or so-called avant-garde poetics are necessarily or even potentially revolutionary: Do they simply embrace a language so deracinated that it is privy in its rebellions only to a few? The question is not unreasonable given the decidedly antibourgeois, anticonformist claims of avant-garde tradition. The obverse question is inescapable: Can a radical social imagination clothe itself in a language worn thin by usage or debased by marketing, promotion and the will to power? In order to meet that will to power, must we choose between the nonreferential and the paraphrasable?
I believe in the necessity for a poetic language untethered from the compromised language of state and media. Yet how, I have wondered, can poetry persist as a ligatory art rather than as an echo chamber of fragmentation and alienation? Can the language of poetry become too abstract (some might say elitist) even as it tries to claim what Octavio Paz has called "the other voice"? Is there a way of writing on the edge? Of course I think there is, and has been; I test my own work from that likelihood. "Language," I find in Marx, "is the presence of the community." In a 1979 essay by Gary Snyder: "The community and its poetry are not two."
Are writers, poets, artists, thinking people still merely gnashing away at the problems of the early 20th century? But this is not "mere." These primal, unsilenced questions pursue us, wherever we are trying to live conscientiously in the time we have. A new century, even a new technology, doesn't of itself produce newness. It is live human beings, looking in all directions, who will do this.
For more than 50 years I have been writing, tearing, up, revising poems, studying poets from every culture and century available to me. I have been a poet of the oppositional imagination, meaning that I don't think my only argument is with myself. My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.
At times in the past decade and a half I have felt like a stranger in my own country. I seem not to speak the official language. I believe many others feel like this, not just as poets or intellectuals but as citizens--accountable yet excluded from power. I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. In both these cases it was necessary to look hard truths in the face in order to change horrible realities. I believed, with many others, that my country's historical aquifers were flowing in that direction of democratic change. I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation's leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times. Online Source
"Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts"
Los Angeles Times Book Section -- August 3, 1997
Note: Adrienne Rich's recent refusal of the National Medal for the Arts puzzled many people. The debate over the proper relations between the state and the artist, between the realms of the public and the private, continues unabated. Book Review invited Rich to explain why she refused the presidential honor.
The invitation from the White House came by telephone on July 3, just before the national holiday, a time of public contention about the relationship of government to the arts. After several years' erosion of arts funding and hostile propaganda from the religious right and the Republican Congress, the House vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts was looming. That vote would break as news on July 10; my refusal of the National Medal for the Arts would run as a sidebar story in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
In fact, I was unaware of the timing. My "no" came directly out of my work as a poet and essayist and citizen drawn to the interfold of personal and public experience. I had recently been thinking and writing about the growing fragmentation of the social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of the people, by the people, for the people. "We the people--still an excellent phrase," said the prize-winning playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1962, well aware who had been excluded, yet believing the phrase might someday come to embrace us all. And I had for years been feeling both personal and public grief, fear, hunger and the need to render this, my time, in the language of my art.
Whatever was "newsworthy" about my refusal was not about a single individual--not myself, not President Clinton. Nor was it about a single political party. Both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the people, especially the most vulnerable. Like so many others, I've watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teenage mothers, the selling of health care--public and private--to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to our working and poor people. At the same time, we've witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.
There is no political leadership in the White House or the Congress that has spoken to and for the people who, in a very real sense, have felt abandoned by their government.
Hansberry spoke her words about government during the Cuban missile crisis, at a public meeting in New York to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee. She also said in that speech, "My government is wrong." She did not say, I abhor all government. She claimed her government as a citizen, African American and female, and she challenged it. (I listened to her words again, on an old vinyl recording, this past Fourth of July.)
In a similar spirit, many of us today might wish to hold government accountable, challenge the agendas of private power and wealth that have displaced historical tendencies toward genuinely representative government in the United States. We might still wish to claim our government, to say, This belongs to us--we, the people, as we are now.
We would have to start asking questions that have been defined as non-questions--or as naive, childish questions. In the recen official White House focus on race, it goes consistently unsaid that the all-embracing enterprise of our early history was the slave trade, which left nothing, no single life, untouched and was, along with the genocide of the native population and the seizure of their lands, the foundation of our national prosperity and power. Promote dialogues on race? Apologize for slavery? We would need to perform an autopsy on capitalism itself.
Marxism has been declared dead. Yet the questions Marx raised are still alive and pulsing, however the language and the labels have been co-opted and abused. What is social wealth? How do the conditions of human labor infiltrate other social relationships? What would it require for people to live and work together in conditions of radical equality? How much inequality will we tolerate in the world's richest and most powerful nation? Why and how have these and similar questions become discredited in public discourse?
And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby's, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the "art object" of a thousand museum basements. It's also reborn hourly in prisons, women's shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway houses--wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of "The Tempest," a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of "Citizen Kane," whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life. "If there were no poetry on any day in the world," the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger." In an essay on the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire, Clayton Eshleman names this hunger as "the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world." There is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn, between the relentless marketing of the superficial and the "spectral and vivid reality that employs all means" (Rukeyser again) to reach through armoring, resistances, resignation, to recall us to desire.
Art is both tough and fragile. It speaks of what we long to hear and what we dread to find. Its source and native impulse, the imagination, may be shackled in early life, yet may find release in conditions offering little else to the spirit. For a recent document on this, look at Phyllis Kornfeld's "Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America," notable for the variety and emotional depth of the artworks reproduced, the words of the inmate artists and for Kornfeld's unsentimental and lucid text. Having taught art to inmates for 14 years in 18 institutions (including maximum security units), she sees recent incarceration policy overall as rapidly devolving from rehabilitation to dehumanization, including the dismantling of prison arts programs.
Art can never be totally legislated by any system, even those that reward obedience and send dissident artists to hard labor and death; nor can it, in our specifically compromised system, be really free. It may push up through cracked macadam, by the merest means, but it needs breathing space, cultivation, protection to fulfill itself. Just as people do. New artists, young or old, need education in their art, the tools of their craft, chances to study examples from the past and meet practitioners in the present, get the criticism and encouragement of mentors, learn that they are not alone. As the socialcompact withers, fewer and fewer people will be told, yes, you can do this, this also belongs to you. Like government, art needs the participation of the many in order not to become the property of a powerful and narrowly self-interested minority.
Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another's experience and imaginative life. In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision. A government tending further and further away from the search for democracy will see less and less "use" in encouraging artists, will see art as obscenity or hoax.
In 1987, the late Justice William Brennan spoke of "formal reason severed from the insights of passion" as a major threat to due-process principles. "Due process asks whether government has treated someone fairly, whether individual dignity has been honored, whether the worth of an individual has been acknowledged. Officials cannot always silence these questions by pointing to rational action taken according to standard rules. They must plumb their conduct more deeply, seeking answers in the more complex equations of human nature and experience."
It is precisely where fear and hatred of art join the pull toward quantification and abstraction, where the human face is mechanically deleted, that human dignity disappears from the social equation. Because it is to those "complex equations of human nature and experience" that art addresses itself.
In a society tyrannized by the accumulation of wealth as Eastern Europe was tyrannized by its own false gods of concentrated power, recognized artists have, perhaps, a new opportunity to work out our connectedness, as artists, with other people who are beleaguered, suffering, disenfranchised--precariously employed workers, trashed elders, throwaway youth, the "unsuccessful" and the art they too are nonetheless making and seeking.
I wish I didn't feel the necessity to say here that none of this is about imposing ideology or style or content on artists; it is about the inseparability of art from acute social crisis in this century and the one now coming up.
We have a short-lived model in our history for the place of art in relation to government. During the Depression of the 1930s, under New Deal legislation, thousands of creative and performing artists were paid modest stipends to work in the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project. Their creativity, in the form of novels, murals, plays, performances, public monuments, the providing of music and theater to new audiences, seeded the art and the consciousness of succeeding decades. By 1939, this funding was discontinued.
Federal funding for the arts, like the philanthropy of private arts patrons, can be given and taken away. In the long run, art need to grow organically out of a social compost nourishing to everyone, a literate citizenry, a free, universal, public education complex with art as an integral element, a society without throwaway people, honoring both human individuality and the search for a decent, sustainable common life. In such conditions, art would still be a voice of hunger, desire, discontent, passion, reminding us that the democratic project is never-ending.
For that to happen, what else would have to change? I hope the discussion will continue.
* * *
July 3, 1997
The National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington 20506
Dear Jane Alexander,
I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.
Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art's social presence--as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art--in my own case the art of poetry--means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored. I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don't think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.
cc: President Clinton
"Defy the Space That Separates "
from The Nation (Oct. 7, 1996)
I never expected to edit a contemporary poetry anthology. When David Lehman, the series editor for Best American Poetry, asked me to undertake a volume, I was dubious -- about the title and its implications, about the "catchment area" I could possibly hope to survey, about the usefulness of the project, not only for me but for poetry itself. Who would read it, how would it serve? My decision finally rested on Lehman's guarantee of complete editorial independence, which he honored throughout the selection process.
And so The Best American Poetry 1996 belies its title. From the first I pushed aside the designations "best" and "American" (surely in the many Americas there are many poetries). Rather, I visualized a gathering of poems that one editor, reading through mailboxesful of journals that publish poetry, found especially urgent, lively, haunting, resonant, demanding to be reread. By temperament, experience and lifework I've been drawn over the past six decades to many kinds of poetry, not always comparable to one another; toward certain kinds of claims for poetry. These inclinations are without doubt reflected in my choices.
But also reflected in this collection -- both by what's here and by what is not -- are the circumstances of North America (reaching into Mexico) in a decade that began with the Gulf War and that has witnessed accelerated social disintegration, the lived effects of an economic system out of control and antihuman at its core. Contempt for language, the evisceration of meaning from words, are cultural signs that should not surprise us. Material profit finally has no use for other values, in fact reaps benefits from social incoherence and atomization, and from the erosion of human bonds of trust -- in language or anything else. And so rapid has been the coming-apart during the years of the nineties in which these poems were being written, so stunned are so many at the violence of the dismantling (of laws, protections, opportunities, due process, mere civilities) that some of us easily forget how the history of this Republic has been a double history, of selective and unequal arrangements regarding property, human bodies, opportunity, due process, freedom of expression, civility and much else. What is new: the official recantation of the idea that democracy should be continually expanding, not contracting -- an idea that made life more livable for some, more hopeful for others, caused still others to rise to their fullest stature -- an appeal to the desire for a common welfare and public happiness, above the balance sheets of profit.
"Poetry," John Berger has written, "can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates...by its continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered." As I read throughout the year, I found myself asking, What does it mean for poets when so powerful an idea, prescription, vision of the future -- however unrealized -- is abruptly abandoned or driven underground? Increasingly it seemed to me that it's not any single poem, or kind of poem, but the coming together of many poems, that can "reassemble what has been scattered," can offer, in Muriel Rukeyser's words, "the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility."
In selecting the poems, I read through a great many literary and cultural journals, requested many others. Early on I sensed that the poetry I was searching for would not be confined to the well-known journals. But I read them in a spirit of hope and discovery, and was sometimes well rewarded. I also sought out many local and regional publications, as well as nonliterary periodicals that publish poems occasionally.
Let me say here what, overall, I was looking for.
I was listening, in all those pages and orderings of words, for music, for pulse and breath, for nongeneric voices.
I was looking for poems with a core (as in corazon). The core of a poem isn't something you extract from the poem's body and examine elsewhere; its living energies are manifest throughout, in rhythm, in language, in the arrangement of lines on the page and how this scoring translates into sound. A great many poems rang hollow and monotonous to me; at best they seemed ingenious literary devices, at worst "publish or perish" items for a vita or an M.F.A. dissertation -- academic commodities.
I was looking for poetry that could rouse me from fatigue, stir me from grief, poetry that was redemptive in the sense of offering a kind of deliverance or rescue of the imagination, and poetry that awoke delight -- lip-to-lip, spark-to-spark, pleasure in recognition, pleasure in strangeness.
I wanted poems from 1995 that were more durable and daring than ever -- not drawn from the headlines but able to resist the headlines and the shattering of morale behind them. I was looking for poems that could participate in this historical emergency, had that kind of tensility and beauty. I wasn't looking for up-to-the-minute "socially conscious" verse; I was interested in any poet's acknowledgment of the social and political loomings of this time-space -- that history goes on and we are in it. How any poet might take that to heart I could not, would not, attempt to predict. (I also wanted poems good enough to eat, to crunch between the teeth, to feel their juices bursting under the tongue, unmicrowavable poems.)
I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation. The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense.
I found -- no surprise -- that the great majority of poets published in literary magazines are white, yet relationships of race and power exist in their poems most often as silence or muffled subtext if not as cliché. Given the extreme racialization of our social and imaginative life, it's a peculiar kind of alienation that presumes race and racism (always linked to power) will haunt poets of "color" only. Like riches and poverty, like anti-Semitism, whiteness and color have a mythic life that uncontrollably infiltrates poetic language even when unnamed -- a legacy of poetic images drawn on racial fantasies, "frozen metaphors," as the critic Aldon Nielsen calls them. The assumptions behind "white" identity in a violently racialized society have their repercussions on poetry, on metaphor, on the civil life in which, for better or worse, oppositionally or imitatively, all art is rooted. For this racialization is more than a set of mythic ideas; it is a system of social and demographic power relations and racially inflected economic policies, and the de facto apartheid of our institutionalized literary culture reflects that system.
Most literary magazines in the United States and Canada are edited by white men (some by white women). A few of these editors clearly try to seek out and publish work that embodies the larger reaches of North American writing and experience. But they do so within a constricting foreground of "raceless" white identity, and usually in "special issues," not as regular practice. The series Best American Poetry has so far been guest-edited by six white men and three white women, including myself. The major awards and support grants for poets (such as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award) are administered largely by white judges and bestowed largely on white men. Beyond the recognition involved, which can lead to other opportunities, such prizes do literally allow someone to write -- they are inestimable gifts of time. Memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Chancellorships of the Academy of American Poets, all vested with the power to distribute other honors, are overwhelmingly passed on by white men to white men, in retention of collegial associations and influence. White women writers are affected by these conditions in that they may be passed over or disregarded as women; but as white people some of us benefit, in a career sense, from this literary apartheid. (James Ledbetter, in The Village Voice, and Katha Pollitt, in this magazine, have observed the same phenomenon in book and magazine publishing.)
In a more crucial, hands-on sense, no one's work benefits from an artistic climate of restrictive covenants and gated suburbs. Need I add that when in 1993 an African-American woman delivered her verse at a presidential inauguration, and another African-American woman was named Poet Laureate of the United States, these events did not vitiate the state's racist policies or the general human desolation the state is willing to countenance?
But how could they? What can, and does, open out the field, forward the action for many beleaguered poets and poetries, are projects bringing both literacy and poetry into local communities, workplaces, libraries, reservations and prisons -- Laverne Zabielski's The Working Class Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky; June Jordan's Poetry for the People in the San Francisco Bay Area; the Guild Complex in Chicago; Native Women in the Arts in Toronto; inmate workshops run by groups like the Pelican Bay Information Project in California; and organizations like the National Writers' Voice Project, working through "family" Y.M.C.A.s around the country.
Apartheid of the imagination becomes a blockage in the throat of poetry. It is an artistic problem, a fault line in the tradition; it derives from a devastating social reality, and it cannot be addressed as an artistic problem only. We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation. Poetry, as Audre Lorde wrote long ago, is no luxury. But for our poetry -- the poetries of all of us -- to become equal to a time when so much has to be witnessed, recuperated, revalued, we as poets, we as readers, we as social beings, have large questions to ask ourselves and one another.
Career-minded poets, expending thought and energy on producing a "publishable manuscript," on marketing their wares and their reputations, as young poets are now urged (and even trained) to do, may have little time left over for thinking about the art itself, ancient and contemporary, and why it matters -- the state of the art itself as distinct from their own poems and vitas. This shallowness of perspective shows up in reams of self-absorbed, complacent poems appearing in literary magazines, poems that begin, "In the sepia wash of the old photograph..."; poems containing far too many words (computer-driven? anyway, verbally incontinent); poems without music; poems without dissonance; brittle poems of eternal boyishness; poems oozing male or female self-hatred; poems that belabor a pattern until it becomes numbing; poems with epigraphs that unfortunately say it all; poems that depend on brand names; others that depend on literary name-dropping ("I have often thought of Rilke here...").
Of course, such templates are not molded solely by a culture of de facto apartheid and a ruthless "market" economy; their use, surely, has to do with individual self-indulgence, passionlessness and passivity. But they have in common the stamp of deep alienation -- and obliviousness of that fact. ("Readers of this issue," says the editorial in The Paris Review, 134, "may...note that a theme seems to run throughout much of the content -- namely one of self-destruction. This is, in fact, a coincidence.")
I was also looking for poems that didn't simply reproduce familiar versions of "difference" and "identity." I agree with Charles Bernstein, poet-critic and exponent of L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, when he remarks in A Poetics that "difference" too often appears in poems simply as "subject matter and...local color" rather than as "form and content understood as an interlocking figure -- the one inaudible without the other." Indeed, there are legions of columnar poems in which the anecdote of an ethnic parent or grandparent is rehearsed in a generic voice and format, whatever the cultural setting. I was glad to find poems by Carolyn Lei-Lanilau, Kimiko Hahn, C.S. Giscombe and Wanda Coleman, among others, that embody dialectics of "otherness" in language itself, the strange and familiar interpenetrating.
But formal innovation alone is not what I was looking for. The most self-consciously innovative, linguistically nonlinear poetry, whatever its theory, can end up as stultifying and as disintegrative as the products of commercial mass media. It all depends. To hold up the mirror of language to a society in fracture, porous with lying and shrill with contempt for meaning, is not the same thing as creating -- if only in the poem itself -- another kind of space where other human and verbal relationships are possible. What Toni Morrison calls the "struggle to interpret and perform within a common language shareable imaginative worlds" surely requires keeping that language "endlessly flexible." It also requires vigilance against self-reference and solipsism.
I believe that poems are made of words and the breathing between them: That is the medium. I believe as well that poetry isn't language in the abstract but language as in: I want to learn your language. You need more than one language to get by in this city. To learn a language is to earn a soul. She is teaching English as a second language. It is forbidden to use that language in this workplace. A dead language is one that is no longer spoken; it can only be read.
We need poetry as living language, the core of every language, something that is still spoken, aloud or in the mind, muttered in secret, subversive, reaching around corners, crumpled into a pocket, performed to a community, read aloud to the dying, recited by heart, scratched or sprayed on a wall. That kind of language.
Formal innovation always challenges us to "keep the language flexible." It may -- or it may not -- collaborate (against its own theories) with the rhetoric of deception that seeks to rob language of meaning. I go on searching for poetic means that may help us meet the present crisis of evacuation of meaning.
In the America where I'm writing now, suffering is diagnosed relentlessly as personal, individual, maybe familial, and at most to be "shared" with a group specific to the suffering, in the hope of "recovery." We lack a vocabulary for thinking about pain as communal and public, or as deriving from "skewed social relations" (Charles Bernstein). Intimate revelations may be a kind of literary credit card today, but they don't help us out of emotional overdraft; they mostly recycle the same emotions over and over.
Maturity in poetry, as in ordinary life, surely means taking our places in history, in accountability, in a web of responsibilities met or failed, of received and changing forms, arguments with community or tradition, a long dialogue between art and justice. It means finding our rightful, necessary voices in a greater conversation, its tones, gestures, riffs and rifts. The poems I chose, different from each other in so many ways, ride on stubborn belief in continuity and beauty, in poetry's incalculable power to help us go on.
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Adrienne Rich to Neil Baldwin,
Executive Director of the National Book Foundation (NBF)
August 22, 2000
Neil Baldwin, Executive
The National Book Foundation
260 Fifth Avenue, Room 904
New York, NY 10001
Dear Neil Baldwin,
I have been out of town and could only now reply to your letter. I appreciate the care with which you and Meg Kearney responded to mine. Yet it seems to me that you and your colleagues are missing a point, or a principle here: this principle being the way in which corporate entities give with the left hand and take with the right from the public welfare, and how we are to respond and deal with that.
We all know that industries which pursue exploitative labor practices, which damage the environment, which create serious public health risks or are otherwise undermining of public well-being in the name of corporate profit, also endeavor to rescue their image (and gain positive advertising) through philanthropy of various kind: Exxon, Nike and Philip Morris are merely three examples. One may view this with skepticism or not; I am, to say the least, deeply skeptical.
In the case of Borders and the National Book Foundation, I see a particularly intricate and disingenuous connection between Borders' harassment of the independent bookselling community (self-styled "competition") and its self-promotion via the Foundation. To put it bluntly, the National Book Foundation is presently providing credibility and respectability to a corporate enemy of independent bookselling. I should not need to detail to you, of all people, the vital importance of both independent presses and independent bookstores to any genuine freedom of diversity of expression, in a country where media are being swallowed by media, and fewer and fewer ideas are made available by the resulting conglomerates.
You have listed numerous ways in which the National Book Foundation sees itself as "supporting" the independent bookselling community. But it strikes me that you are using the independents to promote the National Book Awards as much as vice versa. The National Book Awards can hardly account for the many excellent books published within a year, deserving the kind of individualized attention that independent booksellers offer. There is nothing supremely special about National Book Awards. Many are of course excellent; others may be simply books which have been called to an attention they may or may not merit. Offering NBA "stickers" to independent bookstores hardly addresses the issue of the independents' struggle to survive--not just as businesses but as locations of independent thinking and a wide variety of books. Finally: how do you support independents by promoting corporate efforts to destroy them? Here, I think, neutrality is not an option.
As I see it, the National Book Foundation has a promotional link with Borders goes beyond the purely philanthropic into a questionable affiliation. Borders has a practice of using such affiliations to gain credibility and access to communities which are debating the invasion of box stores and chains. When pressed they--like other chains--argue the merits of a competitive market. But with Borders' already existing economic leverage or huge proportions relative to independent stores, there is no competition here. (Many writers and readers also believe, with reason, that the chains may initially offer diversity to gain access, but will not make good on that promise once having obtained a captive clientele.)
It's one thing to accept money as a philanthropic foundation. One might wish to scrutinize the sources. But it's another thing to sell validation in return, validation which participates in injuring a leading, indispensable component of our intellectual environment: the independent bookstore. I truly hope you will consider this.
As it is, I don't want to link myself with Borders; hence I must again regretfully decline your invitation to participate in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE. I hope however that this conversation can stay open.
Return to Adrienne Rich