At age 10, I decided to become a writer. Not to save the world, but to follow in the footsteps of Beaver Cleaver. (I'd just seen an episode of "Leave It to Beaver" where the Beaver had announced that he was going to take up writing.)
Today, a button sits under the mirror on my dresser. "Being politically correct means always having to say you're sorry," it says.
I tell you this so you won't think I'm a scold, before I confess my deepest secret: I believe that poetry can and must try to change an unjust world.
Everyone knows W. H. Auden said, "poetry makes nothing happen," and few things are as irksome as a crusader seeking "poetic justice."
Recently, I asked some poet and non-poet friends for their thoughts about political poetry. "Well, if it's not too self-righteous," one friend murmured, "if it has a sense of humor..." Another said, "hearing it is like taking medicine." "It's so boring and too topical," a pal said, sipping a beer.
These comments led me to an epiphany: people hate political poetry, as they do all poetry, when it's bad. With all due respect to language poetry, we don't engage with poetry when it lacks compelling imagery, diction or meaning—when it's not art. We aren't drawn in, if it doesn't grab us in the solar plexus
Last month, Adrienne Rich, was awarded the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York. Rich, one of our great, if not the greatest, of our contemporary political poets, has been writing poetry for over 50 years. At age 21, she won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1951 for her first book A Change of World. Since the early 1960's, Rich has written in searing prose and poetry about the civil rights and women's liberation movements; being a lesbian; her opposition to war and other once taboo subjects. In 1974, she received the National Book Award for her poetry collection Diving Into the Wreck.
Decades later, Rich's poetry still rings true. "Cruelty is rarely conscious/one slip of the tongue," Rich writes in the poem "The Photograph of the Unmade Bed," published in her 1971 book The Will to Change. "....I never asked you to explain/that act of violence," she continues, "what dazed me was our ignorance/of our will to hurt each other."
Her most recent poetry collection School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 is a stinging rebuke against the war in Iraq. "One: I don't know where your mother/is Two: I don't know/why they are trying to hurt us/Three: or the latitude and longitude/of their hatred," a teacher says in the book's title poem set in a schoolhouse under the siege of war.
Not surprisingly, some in male-dominated and post-feminist circles have criticized Rich for being too "shrill," leftist, and male-bashing. Others have said that her work is too difficult and didactic.
Yet, many of us—male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poet and reader—have come to know who we are, to find our voice through our engagement with Rich's poetry. Poetry is not a luxury, Rich once said. This is more true than ever in today's strife-driven, often ruthless, corporate-controlled world. The recognition bestowed upon Rich by the National Book Foundation was a timely and welcome celebration not only of her work, but of political poetry.
In her acceptance speech at the Nov. 15 awards ceremony, Rich said that contrary to "the free market critique," poetry isn't useless. Poetry is seen as inadequate and "we poets are advised to fold our tents," Rich said. Yet, throughout the world, she asserted, "transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together." When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, she added, "we can be, to almost a physical degree, touched and moved."
Each of us has had our own experience of being touched by poetry. Five years ago, I was in the hospital receiving blood transfusions because I was severely anemic. The docs told me they weren't sure if I had a life-threatening type of anemia; but that I should relax and stop being "hysterical." I relaxed when a friend read Ogden Nash to me and the physicians stopped talking to me as if I were an "hysterical woman," after a medical student named Regan began reading Sylvia Plath's poetry to them. Later, she told me that the medicos were using poetry in their teaching rounds to make their med students more sensitive to patients. Not a huge leap for the universe, but a small step for poetry.
At the Book Awards ceremony, Rich said that the task of poetry isn't to make us not feel the pain of suffering, but to disprove "the dictum 'that there is no alternative.'" Perhaps, this is what sometimes makes us uncomfortable with political poetry or what is often called "the poetry of witness." It takes us away from our comfort zone, makes us confront our prejudices and challenges us to improve society. Yet, political poetry when it's good, jumpstarts our desire to work for change.
If you want to "witness" poetry at its best, read Rich. Her work will rock your world.