I so enjoyed reading the little chapbook Poetry and Commitment by Adrienne Rich that I had to let it sit a few days and then read it again! If you’ve been hanging around here long you’ve heard me say it before, Adrienne Rich is my favorite poet. So when she was awarded the 2006 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguish Contribution to American Letters I was beside myself with joy. This little chapbook contains Mark Doty’s award ceremony introduction of Rich and Rich’s address, sort of.
I say sort of because Poetry and Commitment was first delivered as the plenary lecture at the 2006 Conference on Poetry and Politics at Stirling University, Scotland. What Rich read at the National Book Awards was a version of the original. Norton was good enough to publish the original.
Rich’s first book of poetry, A Change of World, was published in 1951 and won the Yale Younger Poets Series award. At that time she strove to be quite conventional and received praise from W.H. Auden for her very Auden-like work. But in her third book, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law in 1963, she begins to discover what would become her true voice. At the same time she also began to realize that what she was taught poetry was supposed to be is not what she thought poetry should be. By the end of the 1960s and with the publication in 1971 of her sixth book, The Will to Change, she had hit her stride and there has been no looking back since. If you have the opportunity to read her books in order of publication, it is a pleasure to watch her poetry and voice develop.
Poetry and Commitment is a mini manifesto of what she thinks poetry can and should do. For Rich, poetry must be engaged with the world. Poetry is action and the poet must be committed to the act of poetry itself and the poem acting in the world. She quotes the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos who, while under house arrest in 1970, was asked by an official of the Greek military junta why would a poet get mixed up politics. Ritsos answered:
A poet is the first citizen of his country and for this very reason it is the duty of the poet to be concerned about the politics of his country.
There is a difference, however, between protest poetry and dissident poetry. Protest poetry is reactive, often predictable and shallow. Dissident poetry is what Rich writes and believes is the purpose of poetry. She quotes James Scully’s definition of dissident poetry:
Dissident poetry does not respect boundaries between private and public, self and other. In breaking boundaries, it breaks silences, speaking for, or at best, with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life…It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as part of the world, not simply as a mirror of it.
But poetry is not to be idealized either. Nor is it a panacea. Poetry is part of the rough and tumble of everyday life:
Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.
It is right for us to expect our poets to look at the world, to see as clearly as they can and to write poetry about what it is they have seen. It is a poet’s job to dig deep and to show us what they have found. In this way they can show us ourselves, not in a mirror, but show us ourselves behind the mirror. And, this poetry can help us envision a different and better future, one “whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom.”
I think what resonates with me most about Rich’s poetry and prose, she has several books of essays too, is her compassion. She truly cares and she writes her poetry as she lives her life, with commitment.