Adrienne Rich – Does Poetry Matter?

Adrienne Rich has published more than sixteen volumes of poetry, three collections of essays, and a feminist study on motherhood. Her work has been translated into German, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, and Japanese. Her latest book, Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (W.W. Norton, 1999) has just been released in January. In the Fall of 98, Adrienne Rich, in conjunction with Dionne Brand, visited Calgary as a guest of Markin-Flanagan’s Distinguished Visiting Writer Programme. paulo da costa spoke with Adrienne Rich during her weeklong visit which included readings, panel discussions and the screening of the movie: Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand in conversation.


paulo da costa: In our technological, violent, apathetical world, why does poetry matter?

Adrienne Rich: You start with a small question. (Laughs.) Poetry has always mattered, through human history, through all kinds of cultures, all kinds of violence and human desolation, as well as periods of great human affirmation. It’s been associated with the power of the word, with the sacred, with magic and transformation, with the oral narratives that help a people cohere. In this disintegrative, technologically-manic time, when public language is so debased, poetry continues to matter because it’s the art that reintegrates words, speech, voice, breath, music, bodily tempo, and the powers of the imagination.

Poetry reaches into places in us that we are suppose to ignore or mistrust, that are perceived as subversive or non-useful, in what is fast becoming known as global culture. “Global culture” is of course not a culture: it’s the global marketing and imposing of commodities and images for the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

In 1945, just at the end of World War II, the American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote a remarkable book called The Life of Poetry. In it she says that on any particular day in the world, if poetry ceased to exist, it would immediately be reinvented on that same day.

pdc: You mention this global world, this global culture. At filling Station we receive much poetry that is painfully self-absorbed, painfully private. It appears that many poets are retreating into the private world. The personal does not appear to be political any longer. What do you see happening here?

AR: I can only speak for what I see in the States. There has been, compared to the Sixties and Seventies, a huge retrenchment –not just in poetry– into the personal. A withdrawal from thinking in terms of social and collective values, needs and solutions. The consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, for instance, becoming “support-groups” or therapy groups. The therapeutic solution ties in very well with our whole ethos of individualism, individual self-reliance in a so called pioneer country, the belief that every immigrant who came somehow made it on their own. Of course they didn’t. They made it in communities and, where possible, by gaining political power as a group.

It’s not that I rule out the psychological perspective. We’ve learned a lot from the great psychologists. Wilhelm Reich wrote about the relationship between fascism and sexual repression. Freud rediscovered the underworld of consciousness that European rationalism had denied. But when you have a nation of people in therapy and counselling, “support” groups for every kind of human condition, where, in the clichés of that milieu, people “share” and “heal,” the question, “What for?”, “What now?” is no longer asked. Can individual psychic wounds really heal in an abusive and fragmented society? Audre Lorde has a poem which begins, “What do we want from each other/ after we have told our stories?” Where do we go to explore our stake with others in such a society?

pdc: Do you see many poets caught in the labyrinth of self, not reaching the people?

AR: I think many poets have settled for one level ofpossibility. The linear narrative, the restricted I, theahistorical poem. There’s been real hostility towardpolitical poetry in the U.S., hostility or, at best,incomprehension. I’m speaking of those who have institutional power over what gets published, over grants andprizes and reviewing. Most of them, though not all, arewhite and male. But even as American society is unravelling,becoming more violent and punitive, wonderful political poetshave been emerging. I think of some younger poets like

Kimiko Hahn, Marilyn Chin, Martin Espada, Juan Felipe

Herrera, Fanny Howe, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Linda McCarriston. So different in their poetics, their sensibilities–yet each connecting the private and public.

It’s difficult for poets like these to get published, to be discussed seriously as part of the poetry of our time. A book of poems doesn’t just come out by chance, an editor has to select it, a publisher has to distribute it or you will never see it. I’m sure this is true in Canada too.

pdc: As poetry steps from poet to product, we do not see the eye of the poet, hear the breath of the poet. Does poetry lose strength then?

AR: I think we do hear it through readings. In the U.S. there are more poetry readings than there have ever been, with larger and larger audiences. I’m going from Calgary to the Dodge Festival in New,”Jersey. It lasts for three days and a large roster of poets reads to thousands of high-school students, their teachers, and general audiences. The kids are riveted to hearing poetry, and they also go around reading their poems to each other. It’s a glorious ferment. And there are poetry festivals like that in many states, community events.

pdc: It is the oral poetry, the word as breath that is making a comeback and not the text?

AR: I think many poets, including myself, write both for the voice and for the page. I certainly write for the person alone in the library, who pulls down a book and it opens to a poem. I am also very conscious of what it means to read these poems aloud. Increasingly I think of poetry as a theatre of voices, not as coming from a single “I” or from any one position. I want to imagine voices different from my own.

pdc: Poetry continues to be seen by some as a priestly profession. Priestly in the sense that there is an aura of mystery, of distance. The language of poetry seems not to speak to a large segment of the population, perhaps it even intimidates people.

AR: In a society where some people are far more educated than others, in which public education is ill-funded–here I am peaking of the U.S.–while we build more and more prisons to incarcerate youth who ought to be in school, there is already a gap between those with education and those without. Those with educational privilege can be seen as arrogant, remote, alien–and very often they believe themselves superior.

I am uncomfortable with talking of poetry as a priestly profession, because I have little use for organized religions and priestly hierarchies. They have demoralized, persecuted, so many, including women, gays, non-believers. I think of poetry as something out there in the world and within each of us. I don’t mean that everyone can write poetry–it’s an art, a craft, it requires enormous commitment like any art. But there’s a core of desire in each of us and poetry goes to and comes from that core. It’s the social, economic, institutional gap that makes it difficult.

pdc: I draw the priestly parallel in relation to the text, the priests were the medium to the text…

AR: Which was supposedly given from God or the gods…

pdc: Yes, and for instance, monks from the Middle Ages were the interpreters of he text, deliverers of the word, which gave them power. The people, in awe, believed they depended on them to access the spiritual world.

AR: Literacy was denied to most people, too…I don’t want to succumb to the idea that for the generation, or generations, raised on television, the text is irrelevant or so intimidating that they won’t deal with it. If you teach, you see this is not true. It may be that newer generations do not worship the text as some of their elders do. I think also that young people know they are being betrayed by he mass electronic media. It caricatures them, caricatures others. It is not really about them though it targets them as consumers.

pdc: Have you felt heard as a poet?

AR: In later life, I have. But the fact that I’m here, alive, and published has to do with the privileges I was born into–class and skin color–education, and the fact of being a woman, which has pushed me to question, to search for new methods, though for years I was doing this in isolation. I had been asking myself, “What is a woman, what does it mean to be a woman poet?”

The women’s movement appeared at a very crucial moment in my life. There was a whole political movement asking such questions and others I had never asked. I began to feel heard in that movement. But it was because my voice was resonating with other voices.

I guess what concerns me always is the need for a field, a rich compost, for any art to flourish. But however isolate or unheard you may feel, if you have the need to write poetry, are compelled to write it, you go on, whether there is resonance or not. You have to give your art everything you can–I don’t mean only writing, but studying other poets and poetics, thinking, reading what poets have written other than their poetry.

Thinking about the place of poetry in the world, what might be possible. What your place as a poet might be. You have to do that.



©1998 paulodacosta


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