Reading: Adrienne Rich’s “Poetry and Commitment”

Yesterday, I re-read a short monograph called Poetry and Commitment, which is an essay by Adrienne Rich. I took it with me to the lake for the weekend, because I have had trouble lately sticking with one book. So I took this little book (and the new issue of the Oxford American).

I bought Poetry and Commitment about a year ago, when Mark Doty was coming to Montgomery for a week-long stay as Auburn University at Montgomery’s Weil Fellow and to make a presentation called “The Humanities and Human Rights.” I have pretty strong ties to the university, and so I asked sheepishly if he wouldn’t mind coming to speak to my high school creative writing class while he was here, if he had some free time. He said yes! I knew Mark Doty’s work mainly as a poet, but his talk was going to center on his nonfiction book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, so I bought that to read before he arrived. While buying that book, the Amazon.com search also brought up this little book by Adrienne Rich, for which Doty wrote the afterword. So, on a whim, and because I was interested in the title, I bought it too. Mark Doty came to speak to my upper-level class on afternoon, and though we all fully enjoyed his informal talk about writing and how his writing life has gone, I didn’t get the sense that my students really understood what an important person was sitting there in the front of them. But that’s another story . . .

Poetry and Commitment, which reads a lot like transcript of a speech that it is, discusses at length the poet’s place in social and political affairs, and it revolves around several ideas at once: the poet as a political entity, the poet as a person who has the right to be political if he wants to, and the way in which poems affect people even though the art form is no longer a popular, mainstream art form. She writes to open section 4: “I am a poet and one of the ‘everybodies’ in my country,” seems to be her focal point — that poets too have the right to make meaningful statements about life, and why shouldn’t they? In fact, they ought to, in some cases. Though Rich does make a point of warning against opportunism, against the temporal, fickle nature of “protest poetry,” and against thinking that all poetry can adhere to one definition or one set of goals. As the human beings who write it are complex, so should poetry be.

That aspect of commitment is the poet’s stand to be honest and forthright in his work, even when the stakes are high. Rich uses examples from all over the world of writers who say what they felt must be said, in ugly times when speaking up was necessary, and dangerous. Her lecture was given in 2006, near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, and she makes several references to her issues with his administration, too.

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