Poetry, Politics, and the Body

The Paris Review interviews Adrienne Rich about her new collection Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. Interviewer Kate Waldman observes that Rich’s latest poems are more political than her earlier work. Rich responds,

I’m not quite sure why you see Tonight No Poetry Will Serve as more overtly political than my other books. The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap. When I was younger I was undoubtedly caught in that trap—like many women, many poets—as a mode of conceiving experience.

In 1969 I wrote, “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political” (“The Blue Ghazals,” in The Will to Change [1971]). Writing that line was a moment of discovering what I’d already begun doing. Much of my earlier poetry had been moving in that direction, though I couldn’t see it or say it so directly.

“The personal is the political” has been repeated so often that the phrase has become empty. What is the intersection of the personal and the political? How can a touch be political? How can a poem about something as intimate as a touch be political?

Here’s a working definition of “the personal is the political”:

  1. The “political” refers to the struggle of an individual (the “personal”) to enter a social order. Even acceptance into a social order can be problematic if the terms of one’s acceptance mean that one’s unique experience, one’s singular selfhood, gets eradicated in the process. (See junior high school.) By the same token, one has to compromise the self to some degree to enter a social order. Otherwise, the result is narcissism and a delusional sense of autonomy. (See garden varieties of Libertarianism.)
  2. Aesthetics enters the political in two ways. First, the self is a kind of aesthetic object in the sense of balancing the particular and the general. A poem, for instance, can be written in the sonnet form yet still have meaning particular to itself–and both of these levels of meaning complement each other. In aesthetics, this is known as embodied form. Second, the aesthetic is itself a struggle between what is acceptance to say, write, film, or paint, and what isn’t acceptable in social and artistic terms.

Rich’s poetry has always been about how certain types of experience are rendered in verse. Her new collection is also about how certain experiences can’t be rendered in language at all. She tells the Paris Review her new book was inspired by Amy Goodman’s accounts of

Guantánamo, waterboarding, official U.S. denials of torture, the “renditioning” of presumed terrorists to countries where they would inevitably be tortured. The line “Tonight I think no poetry will serve” suggests that no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself. One begins to write of the sensual body, but other bodies “elsewhere” are terribly present.

So this is how Rich’s poetry is political. The body both is and isn’t the self, and in either case bodies enter the social realm under different terms. There’s also a limit to what poetry can depict, especially poetry that is fairly conventional in form like Rich’s. Flayed bodies haven’t entered poetry since Dante’s time. Which may be why the U.S. continues to tolerate the sequestering of foreign bodies at Guantánamo.

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