No Poetry Will Serve

At the end of my senior year of college, my Early British Literature professor asked me to identify my two "literary parents." He said all writers have them, but few can identify them, or are unwilling to do so honestly, and that one cannot truly be a writer until one identifies one's parents. I thought for a moment and responded with Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich.

That was over a decade ago, and even though, today, I reject the embedded heteronormativity of the question and think that it's kind of a ridiculous statement to say one can't be a writer without having an answer to such a question, and while I'm not sure I'd say Lowell has held the position (though as I type this I'm not so sure I wasn't right the first time), Adrienne Rich has certainly maintained her Bloomian influence on my writing and poetics.

Here's one poem of hers that I've long admired.


The Eye

A balcony, violet shade on stucco fruit in a plastic bowl on the iron
     raggedy legged table, grapes and sliced melon, saucers, a knife, wine
in a couple of thick short tumblers cream cheese once came in: our snack
     in the eye of the war     There are places where fruit is implausible, even
rest is implausible, places where wine if any should be poured into wounds
     but we're not yet there or it's not here yet it's the war
not us, that moves, pauses and hurtles forward into the neck
     and groin of the city, the soft indefensible places but not here yet

Behind the balcony an apartment, papers, pillows, green vines still watered
     there are waterless places but not here yet, there's a bureau topped with marble
and combs and brushes on it, little tubes for lips and eyebrows, a dish of coins and keys
     there's a bed a desk a cane rocker a bookcase civilization
cage with a skittery bird, there are birdless places but not
     here yet, this bird must creak and flutter in the name of all
uprooted orchards, limbless groves
     this bird standing for wings and song that here can't fly

Our bed quilted     wine poured     future uncertain     you'd think
     people like us would have it scanned and planned     tickets to somewhere
would be in the drawer     with all of our education you'd think we'd have taken measures
     soon as ash started turning up on the eges of everything ash
in the leaves of books ash on the leaves of trees and in the veins of the passive
     innocent life we were leading calling it hope
you'd think that and we thought this     it's the war not us that's moving
     like shade on the balcony

Adrienne Rich
from The School Among the Ruins


Rich's most recent book is Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010. Here's an excerpt from a recent must-read interview she gave Paris Review:

In “Waiting for Rain, for Music” there are the lines “Straphanger swaying in a runaway car/ palming a notebook scribbled//in contraband calligraphy against the war/ poetry wages against itself.” What is this war? 
I was imagining someone in a subway car, trying perhaps to write a poem “against war” as so many of us have done during and since the Vietnam era (and, historically, way back). But to be “against war” has come to seem too easy a stance. War exists in a texture of possession and deprivation, economic and religious dogmas, racism, colonialist exploitation, nationalism, unequal power. Who decides to make war? Who is destroyed in it? Who creates the rhetoric of “terror” and “democracy”? And so this poet in the subway has to write “in contraband calligraphy” against a poetry that makes “peace” seem all too easy or comfortable, war too morally simple. Poetry without a critical social vision, if you will. 

What are the obligations of poetry? Have they changed in your lifetime? 
I don’t know that poetry itself has any universal or unique obligations. It’s a great ongoing human activity of making, over different times, under different circumstances. For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference. 
Nothing “obliges” us to behave as honorable human beings except each others’ possible examples of honesty and generosity and courage and lucidity, suggesting a greater social compact.