This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us

from James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: The American Myth” (198) as quoted in Adrienne Rich’s essay collection A Human Eye (2009)

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed a strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness…This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

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on Adrienne

from Hugh MacDiarmid’s manifesto “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” quoted by Adrienne in her speech/essay “Poetry and Commitment.”

A poetry the quality of which
Is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
Its material founded, like Gray’s, on difficult knowledge
And its metres those of a poet
Who has studied Pindar and Welsh poetry,
But, more than that, its words coming from a mind
Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers
Of human lives—aware of the innumerable dead
And the innumerable to-be-born…

A speech, a poetry, to bring to bear upon life
The concentrated strength of all our being…

Poetry of such an integration as cannot be effected
Until a new and conscious organization of society
Generates a new view
Of the world as a whole…

—A learned poetry wholly free
of the brutal love of ignorance;
And the poetry of a poet with no use
For any of the simpler forms of personal success

March 28th 2012

If you really know me, you’ll know
that I could quite possibly sing sections of “Sources”
to that three-finger-picked high melody soaring up Foggy Mountain.

On days like this I know what Adrienne meant
by “split at the root,” I know, because she taught me to know,
that everything that lies stored in us
is the source of our strength and that
the horrible place that opens in our center
when we are so split
is where poetry
grows in that most uncomfortable
most quickening
womb.

Novels vs. Poems

more from Sarah Maquire’s essay “‘Singing About the Dark Times’: Poetry and Conflict”, this time on the difference between the novel and poetry:

But it is only in the past three hundred years, initially in Europe and then later in its colonies, that prose, specifically in the form of the novel, has taken over from poetry as the dominant language-based art form – though we should bear in mind that, for most of the habitable world, poetry continues to retain its primary status.

The ‘rise of the novel’, as the literary critic, Ian Watt, called his ground-breaking book of that name, is congruent with the rise of capitalism, with the development of individualism, personal life, privacy, the Protestant notion of conscience – all the things that we now think make us who we are. It is the novel’s job to articulate and instruct us in those values. It is through novels that we learn how to be ourselves, how to find our place in the infinite complexities of the world around us.

One of the reasons, I think, that poetry provokes such anxiety in contemporary western society is that it resists fulfilling that role of instruction upon which the edifice of the novel rests. As Plato recognised, real poetry unsettles us, it stirs our emotions. Adrienne Rich once called poetry ‘a wick of desire’: ‘It reminds you’ she said, ‘where and when and how you are living and might live'[34]. And in all this, it is something about the form of poetry that is so provocative.

it will not be simple, it will not be long

from Contradictions: Tracking Poems by Adrienne Rich

Final Notations

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple

You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives

it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will