Monday, April 02, 2012

In Praise of Poetry

This piece by Katha Pollitt on Adrienne Rich is quite lovely. From it:
The death of Adrienne Rich marks not only the end of a long and transcendent literary career—thirty books of poetry and prose, prizes beyond counting—but the end of a kind of poetry that mattered in the world beyond poetry. It is hard to believe, given the plethora of articles with titles like “Is Poetry Dead?,” that there was a moment not so long ago when poetry and poets played a central role in our cultural and political life. Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot were iconic figures, even to people who never cracked a book, and so, in her old age, was Marianne Moore; what Robert Lowell wrote about the war in Vietnam or black civil rights or his marriage or his madness was news. It was proper, and gratifying, that the New York Times began its obituary of Adrienne Rich on the front page, but it made me wonder if an American poet would ever be honored that way again.
In 1951, W. H. Auden, who selected the twenty-one-year-old Adrienne Cecile Rich’s first book, “A Change of World,” for the Yale Younger Poets series, wrote that her poems were “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them.” (This way of writing about women’s work was hardly limited to Auden. Floating around my parents’ house was an early book by Doris Lessing whose jacket copy informed the prospective reader that the author was an “attractive young woman.”) Talk about not seeing history massing its forces round the corner. In 1963, the year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” Rich published her first great book, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” with its indelible title sequence:

A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.
The beak that grips her, she becomes. And Nature,
that sprung-lidded, still commodious
steamer-trunk of tempora and mores
gets stuffed with it all:        the mildewed orange-flowers,
the female pills, the terrible breasts
of Boadicea beneath flat foxes’ heads and orchids.

Katha writes about poetry as politics. Perhaps that role of poetry is dying, though I think song lyrics at their best continue that political role.

I love poetry, including poetry which might be called political. It can give those inchoate feelings an identity before they have been named, and it can speak across eons and across worlds in ways which prose struggles with.