How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.
At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.
It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.
What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?
It's not the falling flakes that halt me
but the quick gust that kicks them,
not tenacity of brown leaves clinging to the branch
but how the white shawl settles there,
not blackness bleeding on the porous page of the world
but the sponge of light that catches it,
not the hard, slick ground
but its gradual softening
so my every step leaves
an imprint that will only
last so long.
For barberry thorns, curled tresses of birch,
seeds of pomegranate and grape, for awe
of threes, small miracles of knees
that bend and hands that scrape,
gesticulate, mold, touch—for a world
dressed in gold with cape and skirts of pollen,
then blue and white with shadow and light,
for querulous rodents nesting in our wood,
for the child who sheds her heavy pack
to stretch her willow arms toward sun,
for every branch-born song that descends,
for dry islands on slick glacier ground,
working muscles’ hum, hearts’ synchrony,
for a world gone green again, its aching presence,
resplendent in our pauses, for whirled
perception teasing at the edge of sight, Orion
loosening his belt to the tune of galaxies’ spinning,
for the black holes that vacuum up dying stars
and the white holes that whelp them,
corpuscular joy that erupts and leaves a spiral trail,
for singing, clear or raspy, from belly and eyes,
for your fingers laced in mine,
for pink streaks at dusk, for rain made
of cherry blossoms, for darkness, for hail,
for swimming together in silence, in words—
praise for the litheness of limbs, lines
around a pensive mouth, cool crispness of cotton,
for your salt tongue, the black
forest of your chest, our bodies’ blur, praise
for the way your steps sound sure and tentative
at once—praise for ignorance,
praise for bliss, for I know nothing
but long to learn love’s alphabet tonight—
praise for fire which, though it burn our house,
graces with clearing to start again—
praise even for urns of our dead, for ash
that can never contain us, praise
for fluidity on the horizon of our days.
This year, I’m challenging myself–and any of you who care to join–to claim your own catwalk to move across steadily and with as much grace as we can muster. I’m not talking about a Kate Moss catwalk, but the kind that’s tethered near the tops of trees, a single cable you inch across for the heady experience, and just to convince yourself you can do it. Mine has something to do with picking up and moving on without one of my biggest cheerleaders, searching for contact with the wire, checking my fear at the tree and pressing on to the next one. (And yes, that’s me in the photo last year, nearly hyperventilating with a fear of heights but moving across as I’d urged my students to do. We all made it, unscathed.) The breeze will blow; my balance will not be constant; the air will grow cold. But walking the line requires trusting I can find some words, some truth. I’m harnessed in, after all, so all I love will break my fall.
In her poem, “Apples,” Grace Schulman writes, “beauty strikes just once,/ hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,/ tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.” The act of inching across the catwalk is a deliberate pursuit of beauty, but the risk is real, and it can feel like exile. Waiting months for the response of an esteemed publication. Then getting it. Over and over. There are compliments as well as critiques. There is hope. But the rope is high and the trek is long.
This month, I’m revising (for the twenty-something time) several poems in an evolving book-length manuscript while trying to work up a new class on portfolio development for creative writers and kick out a couple of new poem drafts. Then it’ll be a recommitment to sending out small batches of poems. Step by pensive step, I inch across. I think of my lifelong cheerleader, my confidante, my first reader, whose death still does not quite feel real. She wanted to be a writer, but wrote very little. She did publish one article and write a couple of stories and a song. She really wanted me to succeed. I have to walk the walk for myself . . . but I know it’s for her, too. At this rate I may not break any land speed records, but then, I’m not touching the ground.
So, what is your catwalk? What’s your plan to get across?
POETRY DISPATCH No.386 | November 27, 2012
Carol Ann Duffy
Editor’s Note: Though the “Poet Laureate” honor has never been my cup of tea (given the politics present in such selections), I do occasionally visit whatever fashionable Laureates have been honored on the American scene just to see if they have done anything of value for the poetry cause while holding office.
After a series of personal challenges in the past six months (fire, three moves, close deaths, and associated challenges), I’m baaaaack . . . . Now that I’ve dusted off, it’s back to teaching, pulling out the poetry manuscripts, mixing things up (big-time), greasing wheels, feeding my inner nerd, hoping I remember how to see upside-down through my legs like a kid, or, as Fitzgerald famously said, breathing underwater.
I’ve been reading poets new and ancient, the most ancient of whom is Rumi. From eight centuries back, he speaks more clearly through translators like Coleman Barks than most, regardless of their epoch or their age, as in these lines from “Who Says Words with My Mouth?”: “Who looks out with my eyes? What is my soul? / I cannot stop asking” (Selected Poems by Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks [New York: HarperCollins, 1995]). On September 11th this year, at an interfaith community commemoration at Hudson River Music Hall featuring preachers, poets like Paul Pines, and musicians including Duke Ellington‘s granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, I had the privilege and joy of reading Rumi. Preparing for that event, I immersed myself in Rumi’s ecstatic love and wisdom, a tasty tonic for the soul.
If you had told me two decades ago that very soon our culture would broadly celebrate a thirteenth century Persian ecstatic mystic poet, I wouldn’t even have believed you. Rumi’s appeal transcends his faith tradition, eschews false piety, embraces all humanity. You just have to sip his work to get it.
So, if you’re here, if you read or write poetry, what revives your soul? For whose poems do you head when your head is down? Scroll down a little and post a comment, please.
In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:
The New Androgyne
She will be like the deaf mute turned composer:
ink will pulse through her veins the color
of half-lit midnight when grass sways slightly
By turns she will be gardener and stargazer peasant
and prophet bag-lady and carpetbagger
pointillist and modern dancer
delivering mother and midwife delivering
the mother and her child
You will see her gradually
rising with the sun her origins uncertain
her language raw and bold her hands stained
strong-boned her eyes deep as Andromeda
She will take by the first two fingers
anyone who will enter the labyrinth listen
to the crackling of leaves as she infuses them with breath
and witness her gypsy dance as she steadily
wrenches an arc of bone from her side
In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich. While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.
Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of : Writing as Re-VisionEmily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.
- “Adrienne Rich,” Missouri Review
- “In Memoriam: Adrienne Rich,” Paris Review
- “Adrienne Rich,” New York Times obituary
- Bonus Track: Honoring Adrienne Rich, “Diving Into the Wreck” (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- In Memorium: Adrienne Rich (manonmona.wordpress.com)
In my meditative poems I try to convey a sense of struggle all seekers share. Here’s the most recent product of this quest:
Photo Credit: Majeztic Arabians
Along the slim blade that divides
time from timelessness,
a newborn foal rises, cross-
legged, collapses and rises again
to fall again and again until, un-
stopped by fear or thought
of failure, he pulls himself aright
by sheer belief in uprightness:
not transcendence, not some heady
levitation over wracking waters, but
stillness and movement congeal,
transfigured light vibrant
as anchored sprouts
of orange maple leaves.
Poetry–like music, like theater, like many arts and community activities–brings people together. And when people get together, as the world screen has displayed prominently in the past year, stuff happens–good stuff. Empowerment. Liberation. Education. Social justice.
Political rallying is not the only kind of populist empowerment. Poets do it too. And the powers-that-be are threatened.
As an adult educator, I warn students that some of the sacred cows of their childhood are about to be put to pasture. Education is subversive. So is the message of Jesus (you know, the Jesus that tossed the money-grubbers out of the temple; that showed up the Romans by feeding the hungry that the powerful would rather conscript or enslave; that said, and showed, that love is a verb.) So poetry, too, is subversive.
Across the world, poets are still being persecuted, as truth-tellers always are. In China, Zhu Yufu has been imprisoned for subversion for responding to the populist movements with a poem that inspired followers to initiate a “Jasmine Revolution.”
Some exciting developments here in the States render clear and apparent the links, the possibilities, between poetry and justice. Split This Rock! in Washington, D.C. is a great example. There, March 22-25, poets gathered for “four days of poetry, community building, and creative transformation.” The lineup there includes such literary luminaries as Alice Walker, Jose Padua, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sonia Sanchez, and others.
And I was at the Colrain Conference in Massachusetts with Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press, Ellen Dore Watson of the Masschusetts Review and Smith College, and founder Joan Houlihan with a dozen other poets who constantly reminded me that poetry without authentic compassion is worthless. Poetry requires compassion.
Here’s to poetry. To subversion. To justice. To love as a verb. And to those who are willing to risk their freedom for the sake of truth, love, justice–and poetry.