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On Poetry & Social Change: Claudia Rankine Discusses Adrienne Rich at New Yorker
In answer to the question “Does poetry play a role in social change?,” Adrienne Rich once answered:
Yes, where poetry is liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves, replenishing our desire. . . . In poetry words can say more than they mean and mean more than they say. In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.
There are many great poets, but not all of them alter the ways in which we understand the world we live in; not all of them suggest that words can be held responsible. Remarkably, Adrienne Rich did this, and continues to do this, for generations of readers.
Rich’s desire for a transformative writing that would invent new ways to be, to see, and to speak drew me to her work in the early nineteen-eighties, while I was a student at Williams College. Midway through a cold and snowy semester in the Berkshires, I read for the first time James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” from 1962, and two collections by Rich, her 1969 “Leaflets” and her 1971–1972 “Diving into the Wreck.” In Baldwin’s text I underlined the following:
Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself.
Rich’s interrogation of the “guarding” of systems was the subject of everything she wrote in the years leading up to my introduction to her work. “Leaflets,” “Diving into the Wreck,” and “The Dream of a Common Language,” from 1978, were all examples of this, as were her other works, all the way to her final poems, in 2012. And though I did not have the critic Helen Vendler’s experience upon encountering Rich—“Four years after she published her first book, I read it in almost disbelieving wonder; someone my age was writing down my life. . . . Here was a poet who seemed, by a miracle, a twin: I had not known till then how much I had wanted a contemporary and a woman as a speaking voice of life”—I was immediately drawn to Rich’s interest in what echoes past the silences in a life that wasn’t necessarily my life.
In my copy of Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken,” the faded yellow highlighter still remains recognizable on pages after more than thirty years: “Both the victimization and the anger experienced by women are real, and have real sources, everywhere in the environment, built into society, language, the structures of thought.” As a nineteen-year-old, I read in Rich and Baldwin a twinned dissatisfaction with systems invested in a single, dominant, oppressive narrative. My initial understanding of feminism and racism came from these two writers in the same weeks and months.
Read more at the New Yorker.