All entries for Monday 17 July 2006

July 17, 2006

Adrienne Rich: Poetry and Commitment

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Adrienne Rich

Rich begins by citing Hugh Macdiarmid who states that to be a poet one must have studied Pindar and Welsh poetry (!). Macdiarmid asks for the organisation of society with poetics to match. He wants the “difficult knowledge” in poetry and evokes the image of the poet as a nurse in an operating theatre.

In thinking about commitment, Rich turns to Shelley who wrote in 1821 that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Yet Rich suggests that this statement is used too much out of context to suggest that simply the act of composing verse has moral power. Shelley wanted to change legislation and for him poetry and philosophy could be active confrontation. Copies of his poem ‘Queen Mab’ were pirated and spread in a kind of free speech movement.

Rich calls on the Greek, Yanis Ritzos, who was jailed for his leftist stance. Ritzos wrote that the poet as the first citizen of his country must be concerned with politics. She also calls on the South African poet, Dennis Bruton, who stated that the poet as poet has no obligation to be committed, but the poet as man does .

Rich wonders whether a poet can state ‘my verse works’? How can a poet reconcile the political struggle and the personal? Can they be complimentary and not in opposition?

At this point Rich recognises a difference between types of politically committed poetry:
1. Protest poetry (which she describes as opportunism and shallow handwringing),
2. Dissident poetry (not self/other, breaking boundaries and silences, talking back, part of the world not a mirror of it).

Rich suggests that the poet lives in poetry and experience. Therefore one must be concerned with the breakdown of rights and citizenship, the abuses of public commerce by private corporations, backed dictatorships, repressive parties, regimes in the name of anti-communist feeling and the best interests of our own nations. Rich sees common self-righteous innocence as internal bleeding. She quotes teh African-Amereican writer, James Baldwin, who stated, ‘If you don’t know my father how can you know the people in Tehran?’ Rich notes that there is a ratio of 12-1 black to white male prisoners in US jails and that it is usually the poorest that end up being executed and imprisoned.

Is this just about global conflicts, the West versus China etc? Does it simply concern countries where writers are imprisoned? Rich thinks not. The US does torture others as the Iraq conflict and the war on terrorism has shown, but it also silences potential and actual writers.

It is Brecht who asks ‘What are we working for?’ Rich replies ’ for another nation’ or ‘for unacknowledged clusters of people’. She notes the protest gatherings over the US Mexico border bill and she emphasises that the protesters were not just Mexicans but many others at risk of their own deportation. Rich describes this as ‘a new politicised generation’ existing in Chiapas, Seattle, Paris, Mumbai and in the worldwide women’s and indigenous peoples’ movement.

Yet Rich stresses that she is not trying to idealise poetry. Poetry is not a ‘healing lotion’ or ‘a kind of linguistic aromatherapy’. It is rather ‘transmissions across frontiers’. Whitman in thinking about civil war and poetic war described poetry as ‘a conversation overheard in the dusk’ demonstrating the obscurity of democracy itself.

Yet how can one aestheticize collective punishment, rape, genocide? She refers to Adorno who later changed his mind about poetry’s barbarism after reading Celan. For the activist desperation and exhaustion must also be the materials of poetry. Rich states: ‘If poetry died after every genocide, there would be no poets left in the world’.

The conflict is between opportunism and committed attention. Poetry is not a mass market product. It is not a great object of consumption. It is sometimes too difficult for the average reader. It is an elite form but the wealthy don’t bid for it. A free market critique of poetry would find it redundant.

Yet Rich believes that poetry has transformative meaning. It has the capacity to remind us of something that we are forbidden to see. Rich refers to Glissant’s poetics of relation and describes how ‘in the unspeakable, the nucleus of relation and the world resides’.

Israel? Palestine? A poem by Admiel Kosman

Writing about web page /zoebrigley/entry/response_to_attacks/

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This poem was presented by Lisa Katz at the Poetry and Politics conference that I attended at University of Stirling this week. It is her translation of the Israeli poet, Admile Kosman, which appeared in Leviathan Quarterly, for which I was editorial assistant.

I told the Jerusalem city watchman that my beloved lives here

I told the Jerusalem city watchman that my beloved lies here.
But I didn't have any proof. I forgot everything,
my name and my place of origin,
the name of my mountainous country
and the site of the distant and foreign town
from which I came to the edge of the city
where she rests
in tranquility,
my beloved!

I told the Jerusalem city watchman that my beloved lies here.
The Jeruslaem city watchman consulted, through his army–issue telephone,
the guard deployed outside the Gate of Water, but
oh no! I wasn't carrying my documents!
I had only two tablets,
two tablets of a loving heart,
of a loving heart, very heavy
made of marble.

What am I to do?
Please tell me, my watchmen,
good watchmen, defenders of the city,
good old boys.
I didn't have a photo in my pocket,
nor a paper document,
only iron certificates,
certificates in stone,
crumbling histirical limestone documents.

Watchmen! Guards of the Western Wall!
My watchmen! Guards of the city
where she rests now
in her bed
in tranquility
my beloved!

You, you – watchmen devoted to your task,
deployed now at the portals in the walls.
Listen, listen,
I'm calling on you for help
from the outskirts of the city.

Could you please
just wake her
up – just for a minute –
my beauty –

my beauty
sleeping now
in tranquility
inside my city, mine,
in her bed?

Please, one of you guards of teh city of Jerusalem,
call to her! Wake her up! With a cordless or mobile phone!
Wtachers of the city, heroes and soldiers!
Please, please, call to her
to come to me right now.

Perhaps she's ready?
Perhaps she's already dripping with frankincense
and myrrh?

And wrapped –
for me alone –
in a night–

Perhaps I'll see
Perhaps she'll lift her glance
to me –

from behind the barbed wire?


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