All entries for July 2006

July 26, 2006

'Love Calls Us to the Things of This World'

There is a line in this poem by Richard Wilbur which is very bold and challenging: 'The soul shrinks // From all that it is about to remember, / From the punctual rape of every blessed day'. Some writers, feminists, protest the use of 'rape' here, but I think that it is effective in the context of the poem. It tells of a surreal world of laundry where experience is always sublime, but then the feeling is burst as the inhabitants of the world awaken. I like the play of 'punctual' – 'puncture' – 'rape' here, and I think that the image works hard enough to justify using the image.

The Shirt of a Lad: Anonymous Poem trans. Tony Conran

As I did the washing one day
Under the bridge at Aberteifi,
and a golden stick to drub it,
And my sweetheart's shirt beneath it –
A knight came by on a charger,
Proud and swift and broad of shoulder,
And he asked if I would sell
The shirt of the lad that I loved so well.

No, I said, I will not trade –
Not if a hundred pounds were paid;
not if two hillsides I could keep
Full with wethers and white sheep;
Not if two fields of oxen
Under yoke were in the bargain;
Not if the herbs of all Llandewi,
Trodden and pressed were offered to me –
Not for the like of that I'd sell
The shirt of the lad that I love well.

July 24, 2006

First Day in North Wales

Coming into North Wales gives me a feeling of expectation. I remember travelling here when I was a teenager and still nervous about speaking Welsh in the North. I think that the North Waleans are rather like the Basques – sometimes brusque, occasionally unfriendly, but the North Waleans seemed like real Welsh, although now I realise that I only felt that way because of ingrained ideas about linguistic purity that still exist in Wales. I haven't spoken Welsh to any North Waleans yet, as I am still feeling a little shy. But I will when I have a chance.

July 22, 2006

Dead White Males versus Virago Women Writers

I read an article by Philip Hensher yesterday in The Independent entitled ‘Dead white male seeks publisher’ (21st July 2006, Arts and Books, p. 5).

Here Hensher considers Virago’s reissue of women’s classics that first brought the press to prominence. He praises Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, but damns Antonia White’s novel cycle:

The first one, Frost in May , I quite enjoyed in its naive way; it’s a very simple and fresh story about conventional school life. But after that: what a load of rubbish. The three other novels are extraordinarily technically inept. She can’t describe anything other than through a film of tremulous awareness. She can’t contrive incidents naturally at all. The characters have nothing to say apart from how they feel about each other. The whole thing is swathed in the most appalling snobbery – “each piece of furniture, old or new, had that inimitable air that comes from being acquired in the century it was made.” Lots of people like it, but I find it terribly difficult to regard it as in any sense a “classic”.

I am going to send this link to Sherah Wells who is writing her PhD on White. Maybe Hensher doesn’t like White – I am not familiar with the books so I can’t defend her – but what disturbs me is his idea of the “classic”. It seems rather elitist and traditionalist. The point of Virago’s books is that they are supposed to be an alternative canon, something to offset the problems of male literary canons (see my entry on Harold Bloom: and also on canonicity:

Hensher goes on to note how on losing his copy of Thackerey’s Pendennis , he is unable to find a new edition. His conclusion is:

Of course publishers aren’t really arbiters of literary quality. All they do is publish books which they believe will sell, and the label of “classic”, in this context, is really only a marketing tool. But I do find it rather odd that, these days it seems much easier to sell books by dead women authors than even the most famous of male authors.

While it is true that publishers are only interested in selling books, Hensher’s logic is not so sound for a number of reasons:

1. While there are now many books by ‘dead women authors’ in publication, there are many more which are only available via a research trip to the British Library.

2. The only reason that so many ‘dead women authors’ have been published is because of the painstaking work by women like Sherah Wells, who have worked hard to recover and republish women’s texts.

I suggest that if Hensher is so worried about Thackery, Disraeli, Meredith and Peacock that he should do something about it just as the feminists have and stop using ‘dead women writers’ as a straw man so to speak.

July 21, 2006

Poem by Marina Tsvetayeva for Parted Lovers (trans Elaine Feinstein)

Marina Tsvetaeva

I leave for a writing retreat in North Wales tomorrow where I will keep this poem in mind.

No one has taken anything away

No one has taken away anything—–
there is a sweetness for me in being apart.
I kiss you now across the many
hundreds of miles that separate us.

I know: our gifts are unequal, which is
why my voice is—–quiet, for the first time.
What can my untutored verse
matter to you, a young Derzhavin?

For your terrible flight I give you blessing.
Fly, then, young eagle! You
have stared into the sun, without blinking.
Can my young gaze be too heavy for you?

No one has ever stared more
tenderly or more fixedly after you…
I kiss you—–across hundreds of
separating years.


Marina Tsvetayeva, Selected Poems , trans. Elaine Feinstein (London: Hutchinson, 1986), p. 3–4.

Write to Your MP Today!

The Israel–Lebanon crisis is spiralling out of control. Please feel free to use this template to write to your MP, if you so choose.

Dear …,

I am writing to you out of concern over the Israel–Lebanon conflict. Israel has now defied a demand by Kofi Annan for there to be an immediate end to the crisis and the UK should not be condoning these actions. As the MP, Clare Short stated yesterday, 'massive killing of innocent Lebanese civilians and destruction of infrastructure' amounts to war crimes. I am very disappointed that this government is allowing this to happen without intervention. Our ambivalence about civilian deaths in Lebanon has given Israel the sign that it needs to continue and this is unacceptable. Please represent my views in parliament.

July 20, 2006

Passages from the Bible

Some passages from the Bible have been playing on my mind recently. First these sections from the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon.

Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon. A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love. What is thy beloved more than another beloved, O thou fairest among women? what is thy beloved more than another beloved, that thou dost so charge us? My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand. His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven. His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set. His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh. His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires. His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars. His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Sad here that the woman is punished for her hesitation (see part in bold). She hesitates when having to open her self to an other and suffers as consequence – when the moment of confrontation comes her 'soul' fails her and the lover disappears. When she searches for him, tries to reach him, it is impossible and as a result she is beaten and humiliated. The moment is lost and perhaps the watchmen represent the passing of time or her conscience.

Also this from Revelations…

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

I have written from the Song of Songs before in 'The Jewel Box' for example:

The Jewel Box

A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
óSong of Solomon 4:12

I become a closed gardd, collapsing castell. Yet hear that!
A knock at my clogwyn: a boda reach of nesting thatch,
brim of ewinedd, esgyrn or dannedd. Remember the rivet grip and
the maharen. My lover is a pauper to whom I gift my fingers
as music for speaking and silence; yet I am a milwr.
I do not beg for fleshly talk, a luxurious bed: muscling
in a square room, I bring love. Who is that there raveling in
the closed garden? The maharen, who will have my purse, brings
a pearl and a boy knock–knocks at humming piano keys.
My love is the thrum of brown nightingale, for he sings
the bell of me and recalls begging entry. Who shall enter?
Remember the gweddw: she, of knitting or dam, spindles
at my door. But who will come in? My love knocks at pearl
and purse; yet I am a square room with such long lessons
in my fingers, tokens of paupers. But still a knock–knock
at eryr defiance, at a boda reach. Now will you not come in?
A pauper without, I tap at doorframes and windowpanes.

Some of the Welsh Words

boda: buzzard
maharen: ram
milwr: soldier
eryr: eagle

July 18, 2006

A Talk on Robinson Jeffers by Allen C. Jones, University of New Mexico, USA

Robinson Jeffers

‘Poetry and the Impossibility of Action’, 14th July, Poetry and Politics, Stirling.

Jones suggests that there are two aspects to Jeffers’ ‘inhumanism’: a commitment to astonishing beauty and a belief that mankind is not central in the world. This is very interesting and I think that it teaches a lesson about putting the human subject at the heart of one’s poetics. Jones thinks that Jeffers constructs a sublime, but not like that of Wordsworth where the human mind dominates nature. The sublime is not egotistical in Jeffers. I wondered here about later Romantics where the sublime is also less egotistical – could comparisons be made here?

Jones points out that Jeffers has two audiences: an environmental audience and an audience of high modernists. He then presents a whole poem:

‘The Purse Seine’

Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon; daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in. I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the narrowing
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars. Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers—or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls—or anarchy, the mass-disasters. These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.

[Note: sadly the blog formatting is ignoring some of the spaces between words on the lines in this poem, but it gives an idea of what the poem is about.]

The apocalypse here is a beautiful scene and although it presents extinction, there is a feeling that man is not central. The fish are equivalent to humans. [Here I have written in my notes ‘Beauty>abyss’, but what did Jones mean here?]

Jones compares ‘The Purse-Seine’ to ‘Birds and Fishes’ in which the dying fish offer a world outside that of humanity. Jones is adamant that Jeffers purpose is to remake the sublime via the terrible beauty and purity in nature. Yet where does this leave the human subject who must extinguish the self for beauty?

In one poem, Jeffers desires to be a deer laid down as a carcass for death. Yet he cannot reach ‘that beautiful place’ and answering the question of whether humans can be actors, Jeffers peruses the bones of the deer and realises that ‘I must wear mine’. Can poetry here become poiesis?

A Short Biography of Robinson Jeffers
As a boy Jeffers tried to fly using homemade wings. As an adult he wrote many poems describing birds or referring to the myth of Icarus; his favourite symbol was the hawk. While a student at the University of Southern California, Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, who was three years his senior and married to a well-respected attorney. After an intense affair that led to public scandal and Kuster’s divorce, the couple married and raised two boys. The family lived in the famous Tor House in Carmel, California, built by Jeffers own handsafter he learned stone masonry. The unusual structure of this monument to Kuster was inspired by Jeffers’ fascination with medieval literature. The house has Gothic arched windows, a secret stairway and even a sunken dungeon. Because his wife was enchanted by the sea, Jeffers also constructed the forty-foot Hawk Tower by hauling huge stones from the beach, stacking and cementing them by hand. A hawk soared overhead as talisman every day-and then vanished on the tower’s completion.

Robbing the Bride (published in The New Welsh Review )

Writing about web page

Turn back, turn back, my pretty young bride,
in a house of murderers you’ve arrived.

Sue Williams - Wish U Were Here

The bride looks up. A bird is perched in a cage above her head. From its beak come the ominous words again: ‘Turn back, turn back, my pretty young bride’. The house is dark, the time for meeting has come, yet though she searches the house from top to bottom, the bride cannot find the bridegroom. Instead she comes upon an old crone who is weary of life in that house of thieves. ‘If they find you here they will kill you’, the crone tells her. ‘You must hide here amongst these barrels and in the morning run home’. The young woman hides and in the early hours, she hears voices. A group of men burst into the room carrying a struggling girl. They fill the victim’s mouth with red, white and yellow wine until her heart bursts. The bride watches the bridegroom sever the poor creature’s limbs, salt her wounds and eat her body. The victim’s severed finger still holding a ring is flung aside and falls beside the bride where she is hiding.

The story is Grimm brothers’ The Robber Bridegroom, a variation on the traditional Bluebeard fable, and the severed finger with ring represents the fate of the bride in heterosexual relationships. There are many versions of the Bluebeard story which tells how a bride discovers her husbandís murdered wife or wives. A precursor of the gothic and horror genres, the Bluebeard story prefigures what some critics call Ďparanoid womanís storiesí. From Bronteís Jane Eyre to Du Maurierís Rebecca, from Hitchcockís Suspicion to Zemeckisí What Lies Beneath, the Bluebeard themes of doubt and anxiety concerning male intentions are prevalent. Bruno Bettelheim writes that Bluebeard stories realise a young woman’s ‘worst fears about sex’, since the betrayal reveals a fraught and violent world of relationships (306). A ghostly fear is heightened by the underbelly of heterosexual union as Bluebeards stalk women’s dreams capturing them physically or emotionally.

Women’s doubt and anxiety is a significant theme in the work of Sue Williams, an artist nominated for the Artes Mundi prize for 2006. The prize stipulates that the artists must explore ideas of the human condition and Williams’ interrogation of the underbelly of heterosexuality is illuminating in a very human way. Her compositions are disturbingly squalid – the muddled lines, uneven boundaries, graffiti–like text and rough spontaneous sketches. Williams’ art often expresses moments of doubt or betrayal where trust fails and in interview, Williams admits that such issues emerge out of her own personal concerns: ‘I trust on a level that worries people around me. I put myself into dangerous positions.’ Like the bride of the Grimm fairytale, the women of Williams’ lingering portraits seem to be in danger.

In one of a series of paintings entitled, Wish U Were Here, a woman veiled in white material poses with a wreath on her head and long–stemmed flowers that she holds at her side. She stands silently like a statue about to be unveiled. Williams admits that the veil is a significant symbol in her art and she links it to a personal moment of doubt. She describes her first experience of marriage in terms not unlike those of The Robber Bridegroom:

I stared at my shoes as I walked up the aisle. I kept wondering if I had left the price–tags on the soles with their huge red Xs. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something wrong. I was sure that I could not play the role of wife. I refused to wear a veil when I married, although I came from a very religious background. The veil to me represents the farce of the virgin, another role that women have to play.

The white sheet is a symbol of the hymen and virginity yet the wreath and flowers suggests that she is a kind of sacrificial offering. Hovering slightly above her head is a dark shape like a cloud, a hole or a rift. Behind the figure, a graffiti scrawl ‘Wish U were Here?’ is barely legible yet it compounds the rift, the hole, the doubt. The situation is unsettling and the suggested purity and hence immaturity of the subject seems to relate to Williams’ idea that ‘as children, women are taught to be the seductress yet we are ignorant of what to expect or how to deal with it’.

The white sheet then also represents a certain ignorance of heterosexual relations. An interesting comparison is Isak Dinesen’s story ‘The Blank Page’, which tells the story of an order of nuns who weave the royal linen. On the morning after the royal marriage, the linen is hung from the window with evidence of the bride’s virginity. In return for their linen, the nuns receive the central piece of the sheet which they frame in a gallery and hang like art, yet one sheet in the gallery is blank raising questions. Had the bride already lost her virginity? Did she escape marriage altogether with its brutal parading of female pain? We cannot know the story and similarly in Williams’ painting, the white sheet is a blank page, a paradoxical strategy. Jacques Derrida’s description of the hymen as the feminine veil, a site of power, is relevant here and Williams’ mysterious women recall Derrida’s suggestion that the veil both ‘hides and shows the truth of what is present’(418).

Women’s sexual potency or impotence is at stake in Williams’ work and some portraits reveal knowing and aggressive women. These heroines represent the Bluebeard heroine after her experience of male violence and brutality. Tania Modleski explores the gothic genre to which the Bluebeard fable belongs. Modleski writes how usually the heroine ‘feels a strong identification with a woman from the remote or very recent past, a woman who in almost every case has died a mysterious and perhaps violent or gruesome death’ (69). In the Bluebeard tale, the women who communicate with the heroine are her husband’s dead wives, those who have suffered the brutal consequences of marital relations.

Some of Williams’ works seem to empathise with the murdered victim of the Bluebeard rather than the heroine. Williams’ dirty linen on line series of sketches empathises with the women in Dinesen’s gallery who could not remain a blank page. The grubby paper is etched with images that tell what happens to women who trust and as a consequence are betrayed. One image features an explicit act of coitus with the woman’s legs splayed open. The sexual act is mechanical and forced and the faces of the lovers are smudged, blank. A scribbled caption reads ‘10 pounds work’ revealing the sordid nature of this pecuniary exchange. The fate of the gullible woman is to be leeched of identity and Williams’ subject is devoured emotionally and physically with a similar symbolism to the victim of the Robber Bridegroom.

Sue Williams - Wish U Were Here

Communication between the murdered wives and the struggling heroine is an important element of the Bluebeard fable. Williams sets up a similar dynamic with the woman who has suffered pain trying to warn an immature other. Another painting in the Wish U Were Here series portrays a battle between two women. Williams explains the aggression in some of her works in relation to the survival of artists in ‘a male world’: ‘Sometimes we rebel against this and try to behave like a man – we survive by taking on a male role in a male world’. The prominent subject in the battle here seems to be a mixture of stereotypical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements; the agitator reveals a powerfully aggressive stance pulling the hair of the other woman, yet she retains her high–heeled shoes and feminine tutu. Williams explains that ‘there are ‘male’ attitudes within me, yet I also suffer acutely female pain: no man can understand this painful area’.

The symbol of the veil is developed here too as the aggressor of the battle is shrouded by her own hair. The veil of hair is a development of the blank sheet; hair represents burgeoning sexuality yet it is also reminiscent of vengeful women from the furies of Ancient Greece to Sadako in Nakata’s The Ring. The veiled woman is aggressively present, yet there is an uncanny sense of blankness. Williams describes how sometimes ‘the veil refers to the woman not quite knowing who she is – a certain lack of identity’. This explains the frustrated pose of the subject as she grips the hair of a blonde who gazes at some point beyond the frame. The blonde’s lack of awareness of the painful grip on her hair suggests preoccupation, ignorance and blindness. The active stance of the central figure is a stark contrast and there is a sense that two halves of a self are at war as the vengeful victim of betrayal reproaches the new victim for her blind trust.

Williams’ view of heterosexual relationships is not so bleak and she relates this to her own experience of bringing up a son: ‘I made sure that he was very aware of women and I taught him to never hurt another human being’. Williams has ensured that stories of heterosexual union will not always mean the death or betrayal of the bride. Women writers who use fable and folktales, such as Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Lorna Sage, have all emphasised the importance of using stories in which heroines win by using their own cunning. In these tales, we can see female playfulness, nonsense and laughter or perhaps what the feminist Luce Irigarary calls jouissance. Williams’ Mmmmm! seems to be an expression of defiant jouissance. The title’s unintelligible, onomatopoeic sound indicates the subversive feminine, while the mass of jumbled bodies, feminine objects and graffiti text aggrandise the female figure who leans forward at the centre of the chaos. The subject does not exist on a blank page, yet she is portrayed as sexually and physically powerful.

The Robber Bridegroom ends not with the heroine’s escape but with cunning manipulation of her Bluebeard through the art of storytelling. On the day of celebrations for the wedding, the guests sat around the table and told stories, yet the bride was silent until the groom asked her to join in. The bride tells of a ‘dream’ she has had, a dream of a dark house, a bird’s warnings, an old crone and a hiding place amongst barrels. She tells of the struggling maiden: of her burst heart, severed limbs and salted wounds. She tells of the ringed finger that was chopped from the maiden’s hand and with these words, she holds it up for all to see. The robber is seized at once to be executed with the rest of his gang, but the bride’s fate is a blank page.

Bruno Bettelheim: The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Knopf, 1977); Jacques Derrida: The Post Card, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987);
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, ‘The Robber Bridegroom’ in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Maria Tatar (London: Norton, 1999); Tania Modleski: Loving with a Vengeance (Hamdon, Conneticut.: Archon Books, 1982).

July 17, 2006

Adrienne Rich: Poetry and Commitment

Writing about web page

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’.


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