Essay on Poetic Theory

Someone is Writing a Poem (1993)

by Adrienne Rich

Introduction

A feminist poet and critic, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore and attended Radcliffe College in the 1950s. After college, Rich married and started a family; during the 1960s, her awareness of feminist and civil rights issues grew. She eventually divorced her husband and taught at several universities, among them Stanford, Cornell, San Jose State, and Brandeis; since the 1970s she has lived with her partner, the writer Michelle Cliff.

Rich’s work has evolved from her first two collections, A Change of World (1951), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and The Diamond Cutters (1955), which were restrained and formal in technique, to become increasingly political, global, and personal. She has written of archetypical female figures, historical events, and ecological conditions as well as the individual experience of love; her poems have come to rely less on traditional forms, and in her collections she dates her poems as if they comprise a continual record. Rich is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Diving into the Wreck (1973), winner of the National Book Award, The Dream of a Common Language (1978), The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950–1984, An Atlas of a Difficult World: Poems 1988–1991, Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991–1995, and Fox: Poems 1998–2000; as well as the prose collections Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986) and What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993).

Rich makes a distinction between poetry and the “political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators” in “Someone Is Writing a Poem.” Poetry is “an exchange of electrical currents through language” and does not require “high technology” to be effective. In the essay, Rich layers sounds, images, and references, as well as a poem by Lynn Emmanuel about a mother and daughter watching a nuclear-bomb test on television, to create an argument for the power of language.

 

Emmanuel’s poem about the bomb, Rich points out, “would be mere ‘message’ and forgettable without the poem’s visual fury, its extraordinary leaps of sound and image.” By choosing the poem, Rich seconds the choice the writer made in creating this poem that privileges language over destruction; she observes of the woman writing the poem: “She can’t remain a spectator, hypnotized by the gorgeousness of a destructive force launched far beyond her control. She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language.” 

The society whose modernization has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present.

The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing and deserves nothing. Those who are watching to see what happens next will never act and such must be the spectator’s condition.

                                                                                       —Guy Debord

In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received. It’s an exchange of electrical currents through language—that daily, mundane, abused, and ill-prized medium, that instrument of deception and revelation, that material thing, that knife, rag, boat, spoon/reed become pipe/tree trunk become drum/mud become clay flute/conch shell become summons to freedom/old trousers and petticoats become iconography in appliqué/rubber bands stretched around a box become lyre. Diane Glancy: Poetry uses the hub of a torque converter for a jello mold. I once saw, in a Chautauqua vaudeville, a man who made recognizably tonal music by manipulating a variety of sizes of wooden spoons with his astonishing fingers. Take that old, material utensil, language, found all about you, blank with familiarity, smeared with daily use, and make it into something that means more than it says. What poetry is made of is so old, so familiar, that it’s easy to forget that it’s not just the words, but polyrhythmic sounds, speech in its first endeavors (every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome), prismatic meanings lit by each others’ light, stained by each others’ shadows. In the wash of poetry the old, beaten, worn stones of language take on colors that disappear when you sieve them up out of the streambed and try to sort them out.

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And all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished.

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I can’t write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed. Perhaps you have read such poems and decided you don’t care for poetry; something turned you away. I can’t write a poem from dishonest motives; it will betray its shoddy provenance, like an ill-made tool, a scissors, a drill, it will not serve its purpose, it will come apart in your hands at the point of stress. I can’t write a poem simply from good intentions, wanting to set things right, make it all better; the energy will leak out of it, it will end by meaning less than it says.

I can’t write a poem that transcends my own limits, though poetry has often pushed me beyond old horizons, and writing a poem has shown me how far out a part of me was walking beyond the rest. I can expect a reader to feel my limits as I cannot, in terms of her or his own landscape, to ask: But what has this to do with me? Do I exist in this poem? And this is not a simple or naive question. We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to receive the experience of the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend.

Someone writing a poem believes in a reader, in readers, of that poem. The “who” of that reader quivers like a jellyfish. Self-reference is always possible: that my “I” is a universal “we,” that the reader is my clone. That sending letters to myself is enough for attention to be paid. That my chip of mirror contains the world.

But most often someone writing a poem believes in, depends on, a delicate, vibrating range of difference, that an “I” can become a “we” without extinguishing others, that a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images. A language that itself has learned from the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.

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Spectacles controlled and designed to manipulate mass opinion, mass emotions depend increasingly on the ownership of vast and expensive technologies and on the physical distance of the spectators from the spectacle. (The bombing of Baghdad, the studios where competing camera shots were selected and edited and juxtaposed to project via satellite dazzling images of a clean, nonbloody war.) I’m not claiming any kind of purity for poetry, only its own particular way of being. But it’s notable that the making of and participation in poetry is so independent of high technology. A good sound system at a reading is of course a great advantage. Poetry readings can now be heard on tape, radio, recorded on video. But poetry would get lost in an immense technological performance scene. What poetry can give has to be given through language and voice, not through massive effects of lighting, sound, superimposed film images, nor as a mere adjunct to spectacle.

I need to make a crucial distinction here. The means of high technology are, as the poet Luís J. Rodriguez has said of the microchip, “surrounded by social relations and power mechanisms which arose out of another time, another period: . . . [they are] imprisoned by capitalism.” The spectacles produced by these means carry the messages of those social relations and power mechanisms: that our conditions are inevitable, that randomness prevails, that the only possible response is passive absorption and identification.

But there is a different kind of performance at the heart of the renascence of poetry as an oral art—the art of the griot, performed in alliance with music and dance, to evoke and catalyze a community or communities against passivity and victimization, to recall people to their spiritual and historic sources. Such art, here and now, does not and cannot depend on huge economic and technical resources, though in a different system of social relations it might well draw upon highly sophisticated technologies for its own ends without becoming dominated by them.

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Someone is writing a poem. Words are being set down in a force field. It’s as if the words themselves have magnetic charges; they veer together or in polarity, they swerve against each other. Part of the force field, the charge, is the working history of the words themselves, how someone has known them, used them, doubted and relied on them in a life. Part of the movement among the words belongs to sound—the guttural, the liquid, the choppy, the drawn-out, the breathy, the visceral, the downlight. The theater of any poem is a collection of decisions about space and time—how are these words to lie on the page, with what pauses, what headlong motion, what phrasing, how can they meet the breath of the someone who comes along to read them? And in part the field is charged by the way images swim into the brain through written language: swan, kettle, icicle, ashes, scab, tamarack, tractor, veil, slime, teeth, freckle.

Lynn Emanuel writes of a nuclear-bomb test watched on television in the Nevada desert by a single mother and daughter living on the edge in a motel:

          THE PLANET KRYPTON

          Outside the window the McGill smelter
          sent a red dust down on the smoking yards of copper,
          on the railroad tracks’ frayed ends disappeared
          into the congestion of the afternoon. Ely lay dull

          and scuffed: a miner’s boot toe worn away and dim,
          while my mother knelt before the Philco to coax
          the detonation from the static. From the Las Vegas
          Tonapah Artillery and Gunnery Range the sound

          of the atom bomb came biting like a swarm
          of bees. We sat in the hot Nevada dark, delighted,
          when the switch was tripped and the bomb hoisted
          up its silky, hooded, glittering, uncoiling length;

          it hissed and spit, it sizzled like a poker in a toddy.
          The bomb was no mind and all body; it sent a fire
          of static down the spine. In the dark it glowed like the coils
          of an electric stove. It stripped every leaf from every

          branch until a willow by a creek was a bouquet
          of switches resinous, naked, flexible, and fine.
          Bathed in the light of KDWN, Las Vegas,
          my crouched mother looked radioactive, swampy,

          glaucous, like something from the Planet Krypton.
          In the suave, brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were
          not poor. In the atom’s fizz and pop we heard possibility
          uncorked. Taffeta wraps whispered on davenports.

          A new planet bloomed above us; in its light
          the stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
          The world was beginning all over again, fresh and hot;
          we could have anything we wanted.

In the suave, brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were/not poor. This, you could say, is the political core of the poem, the “meaning” without which it could not exist. All that the bomb was meant to mean, as spectacle of power promising limitless possibilities to the powerless, all the falseness of its promise, the original devastation of two cities, the ongoing fallout into local communities, reservations—all the way to the Pacific Islands—this is the driving impulse of the poem, the energy it rides. Yet all this would be mere “message” and forgettable without the poem’s visual fury, its extraordinary leaps of sound and image: Ely lay dull/and scuffed: a miner’s boot toe worn away and dim . . . . Tafetta wraps whispered on davenports. The Planet Krypton is Superman’s planet, falling apart, the bits of rubble it flings to earth dangerous to the hero; Earth has become its own Planet Krypton—autotoxic.

At a certain point, a woman, writing this poem, has had to reckon the power of poetry as distinct from the power of the nuclear bomb, of the radioactive lesions of her planet, the power of poverty to reduce people to spectators of distantly conjured events. She can’t remain a spectator, hypnotized by the gorgeousness of a destructive force launched far beyond her control. She can feel the old primary appetites for destruction and creation within her; she chooses for creation and for language. But to do this she has to see clearly—and to make visible—how destructive power once seemed to serve her needs, how the bomb’s silky, hooded, glittering, uncoiling length might enthrall a mother and daughter as they watched, two marginal women, clinging to the edges of a speck in the desert. Her handling of that need, that destructiveness, in language, is how she takes on her true power.

Adrienne Rich, "Someone Is Writing a Poem" from What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Copyright © 1993 by Adrienne Rich.  Used by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Warning: This selection may not be reproduced, storied in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher.
Originally Published: May 12, 2010

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 Adrienne  Rich

Biography

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich was one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. Widely read and hugely influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has hewed closely to the story of post-war American poetry itself. Her earliest work, including A Change of World (1951) which won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, was formally exact and decorous, while her work of the late 1960s and 70s became increasingly . . .

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