It is finally time I brought myself to write about A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008 by Adrienne Rich. I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and everyday I sat down at my computer to blog I would look at it and decide, not today. This is not because the book is bad. Far from it. This is an excellent book. What has made me put this off for so long is because there are many good essays in the book and I had no idea how to write about all of them. The other issue is that Rich is not a light and frothy writer who makes for easy summation and sound bites.
Rich’s refusal to be easily digested and spit out is one of the things I love most about her. She is unabashedly intellectual while at the same time grounded in the practical. When she writes about other writers or poetry or Jews or gays and lesbians she writes out of the personal to a broader experience and understanding. She is one of those people you know has thought deeply about a subject and that what she says in her essay is only a small distillation of where her mind has journeyed. When I read Rich she makes me want to be smarter. She makes me want to be more; to strive to be a better, more aware and thoughtful human being. She never talks down or condescends, she expects you to rise to her level and she believes that you can.
The eye on the cover of A Human Eye belongs to the poet Muriel Rukeyser (fantastic poet, if you have never read her I highly recommend her), but the essays inside the book are viewed through the very human eye of Rich with the emphasis on human and all that being human entails. Many of the essays are on poetry, poets, and writers. Some of these essays were introductions to books, others appeared in literary journals, some were speeches or lectures. Here are a few particularly interesting quotes having to do with poetry. From the essay, “Iraqi Poetry Today:”
Poetry springs from a nexus of individual and shared experience, above all an experience of location–geophysical realities, visible landscape, spaces marked out by religion, education and politics, poverty and wealth, gender and physiognomy, subordination and independence. Poetry both articulates new upshootings of particularity and grows out of traditional compost. And it is often written in a desire to change the composition of the very soil from which it grows.
From the essay “‘Candidates for My Love’ Three Gay and Lesbian Poets:”
Poetry is a mixed medium: the visual image, the sound, the unexpected relation of words to their accepted usage, or, as Ezra Pound termed them, phanopoeia, melapoeia, logopoeia.
From “Poetry and the Forgotten Future:”
I hope never to idealize poetry–it has suffered enough from that. 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.
Also in the book is a provocative essay called “Jewish Days and Nights” in which Rich reflects on what it means to be Jewish and American Jews’ relationship and politics especially as they relate to Israel and Palestine. I love how she begins the essay remembering herself as a child reading her way through her father’s eclectic library that let her know, in spite of any limitations it might have had, “that it’s possible and necessary to be interested in everything.” She goes on to discuss the Israeli novelist Shulamith Hareven, Levantism, Jewish ethical and intellectual culture and how, in the second half of the twentieth century a sort of sameness had spread throughout it encouraging unanimity and discouraging dissidence and argument. She worries about the intellectual and spiritual price “American Jews” have paid:
Ignorance–or suppression–of the Jewish tradition of secular heretics and radicals who have repeatedly emerged at the crossroads of culture and thought. An idolatry of certain aspects of Jewish experience at the expense of others. An American Jewish default toward the Holocaust when politically challenged, a tendency to privilege Jewish suffering over all the sufferings of human history. A pulling away from centuries of Jewish conversation about justice, ethics, human rights, property, our obligations to others, toward Israel-centric chauvinism, fundamentalist ideas of blood and soil. These have been part of the price paid for middle-class Jewish American identity–and for the problematic and controversial “whiteness” of American Jews, the idolatry of class success that had disidentified itself from American class and racial struggles.
There is enough in this essay for a couple of blog posts. If you aren’t that interested in the other essays but are curious about Rich, I’d recommend this one. And, who knows, you might like it enough to try the other essays. Then you’ll be hooked and before you know it, you’ll be reading her poetry too. It could happen.