Jessica Jacobs, Editor-in-Chief
“She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
These are the final lines from Adrienne Rich’s “Power,” a poem at once about the life and death of Marie Curie and the need to both name and embrace the wounds inflicted upon women by self and society, as a means of rising above them. What I first loved about Rich’s writing and love to this day, is her adamant refusal to deny anything. Her commitment to writing in poetry and prose about the injustices she identified in the greater world. And her explorations of the world closer to home–of love, and sex, and family.
I had only seen Rich once in person at a long ago California book festival–a small woman, weaving through a crowd to an ad-hoc tented dais, graceful and self-possessed despite her advanced age and the intense heat of that day. Yet, when I read of her death yesterday, I felt as though I had lost someone whose words spoke not only to, but for me. From the messages that have sprung up on Facebook walls and literary sites far and wide (today’s flyer-pasted telephone poles and half-masted flagpoles) I know I am not alone in this.
In my search for consolation, I went where I have so often gone in the past: to Rich’s writing. In that spirit, here is a favorite excerpt from her 2006 National Book Award for Poetry acceptance speech:
In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over- quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.
I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. 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. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.
You can find this speech, in its entirety along with a lovely introduction by Mark Doty, here.
And, as I am deeply envious of anyone who heard this firsthand, a link to Rich’s 1974 National Book Award for Poetry acceptance speech, which was drafted by Rich, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker, on behalf of all of the women who served alongside these poets as Shelley’s unacknowledged world legislators.