Nov 30, 2006

Adrienne Rich on What Poetry Can Do

Adrienne Rich made a feeble, supremely vague, yet weirdly grandiose attempt at telling the world why poetry matters during the hardest of times in the Guardian (UK) last weekend. The short essay can be found here:,,1950812,00.html

After reading the piece I came away even less convinced that poetry matters much to living in a world of strife and troubles. Though Rich seems to have meant well, to be brave in showing the world that poetry can help us deal with such massive tribulations as genocide, she fails to make a sound case for poetry’s importance and offers not a single poem that could conceivably make any difference to genocide or to any currently serious, important, and collective issue in politics, society, or philosophy. Rather, near the end of her fogbound discussion, she wanders around to the suggestion that poetry is crucial to the development of a rich emotional life in men and women:

There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together -- and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses -- how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".

This is little more than blather, special pleading as vague as it is confused. Perhaps Rich, as Yvor Winters would have recommended, could have offered a telling example or two that would have helped us understand her. She should have given us a passage of “poetic language” or a whole poem that “quite literally” keeps “bodies and souls together,” since what those portentous phrases mean is just about nothing without a concrete example or two -- or a dozen -- to give them conceptual solidity. And she should have showed how poetic language can give us even “more,” since it’s impossible to guess what might constitute this “more” she’s talking about. She should have given us, too, a strong example of how poetry “imprints the life of the feelings” in some vitally important way that addresses an issue as daunting and colossal as genocide -- and perhaps an explanation of some kind for what she means by saying that poetry “imprints” feelings.

I’m just guessing (because one can do little more than guess about prose this nebulous) but what Rich seems to be saying is that the very best poetry can do when helping us through genocide and war and massive suffering is make us see the beauty or emotional resonance of the little details of our lives, as is shown in the appallingly vapid and trivial examples she gives of what poetry accomplishes: “how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger.” These are her examples of the best poetry can do in this world?!! Is this a summation of the best that can be said for poetry from one of modernity’s most decorated and applauded poets: that poetry shows us the beauty of little things. (To repeat, I’ll admit that I’m guessing that this is what she means, for she nowhere says what this affected drivel precisely signifies). This is pure Romanticism, friends, icky right to the bottom.

Rich’s examples of poetry’s best offerings to a world of woe reminds me of a widespread cliché found in many, many modern poems (to my mind, not a few of William Carlos Williams’s poems qualify) and of countless movies of all kinds -- especially so-called art films. To take one perhaps better known example that popped into my mind is from the film “American Beauty,” in which to show how magnificently sensitive the main character is, the film shows that character, a young drug dealer, showing his girlfriend the most brilliant piece of video he has taken in his short life: that of a colorful little garbage bag being blown about a sidewalk on a swirling wind. Now there’s a sight to meet the troubles of life -- something to get you through genocide! Have a friend dying miserably of cancer? Go out and watch a trash bag tumble on a breeze. Why wouldn’t watching a sewage spill spread in an alleyway work as well? That scene is the trite, icky equivalent of Rich’s “blur of smoke in the air.” Yet one more example -- there are hundreds of them -- I take from Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry,” an Iranian film: a man contemplating suicide is convinced not to do it by a fellow who reminds him of just that, the taste of cherries. Oh, please!

Rich pops in a little comment about imagination in the third quoted paragraph, but that doesn’t make sense or help in context, since all she appears to be saying is that you need imagination to see the beauty in shoes for sale or discarded garbage bags or the exquisite patterns sewage can make on the ground.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the sound of the rain and the look of many a shop window are nice and sweet. I do enjoy nice and sweet things, as most people do. But is the enjoyment of nice, sweet things what gives us strength or understanding to meet the great issues of life? Is this all poetry can do to aid us in finding the meaning of life and addressing the vast evils that confront us? Is this the most that poetry can say -- the best poetry can say?

Compare Rich’s puerile vision for poetry to what, say, Edgar Bowers accomplished in his great “The Virgin Mary,” from the Winters Canon, to see how truly great poetry can rise far beyond such foolish trivialities.

If Adrienne Rich in this piece says all that can be said for poetry, it’s probably inevitable and right that poetry plays no role in world affairs and has receded so far from public importance. Yet this belief that poetry at its best is the hyper-appreciation of details is spreading ever farther and wider in literary culture. It’s a cliché, my friends. Winters discussed this matter often, especially in his early writings, such as found in Primitivism and Decadence, in which he drew attention to the hyper-sensitivity to detail as a hallmark of the modern associationist writing style, which stems from Romanticism. Judging from Rich’s piece, it appears that those writing techniques are widely believed to be ALL that poetry can do in the face of the Big Issues: charmingly describe little things.

All this can make a Wintersian sigh with annoyance that so many writers think that all literature can give us in the face of the evil and suffering in modern times is a few winks of beauty or a swirl or two of sweet emotions. Of course, I think turning to Winters’s theory of literature is much more profitable, for poetry, for literature, for life. According to Winters, writers and poets make rational statements about human experiences and endeavor to conform the emotions properly to the rational understanding achieved. The proper adjustment of the emotions, unified with intellectual comprehension, is what separates poetry and fiction from prose discourse. We can only hope that more poets will take up the serious work that Winters believed poetry can do, as opposed to the insipid purposes poets like Adrienne Rich have for poetry.


Joe L. said...

You misread Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherries." Kiarostami has acknowledged the homoerotic nature of the drive to suicide in the film. In a brilliant use of negative space, he never tells the audience whether them man has been successful. Instead, he ends the film with the actors and film crew picnicking around the fictitious gravesite. You see. It's a movie.

Ben Kilpela said...

I don't think I'm misreading AK, but thanks, Joe, for the comment. Precious few have the the comments been at the outset of this blog. I will forebear from telling you how I judge the film as a whole (there is nothing even within spitting distance of "brilliant" about it), since what's at issue in my entry is the film's very strongly emphasized reference to the taste of cherries, not the nature of suicide. In any case, I hope you keep reading and commenting.

iamnasra said...

I enjoyed reading What Poetry Can Do