(This post should perhaps be called, ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL READING FOR ALL POETS, GO AND BUY THIS BOOK NOW.)
I’ve been writing about Rich’s ideas — specifically, her ideas about the lack of a literary tradition for female writers — in my PhD thesis, and so when I was given book vouchers for my recent birthday I decided to spend them, partly, on a Rich-penned collection of essays I’ve been wanting to read for ages:
Thanks to my other reading of books by and about Rich, I already knew that she has the uncanny ability to take something you’ve never really thought about — because you thought you understood it — and to make you see it in such a new and different light that you feel your head might turn inside out. That happened so many times for me, with this book. Rich’s writing on the process of creating poetry is also among the best and truest I’ve ever seen from anyone — only Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead can beat this book for sheer, “yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” value. Rich is great at taking what you or I might see as guilty little writer’s habits — procrastination, self-doubt, unwillingness to start on a project if we’ve got other things on our minds — and legitimising them, saying “this thing is a necessary part of the writing process and we must embrace it.” From start to finish I was edified — this book made me so happy. It all felt so utterly relevant me, as a poet, as a teacher, as a politicised person. I found myself repeatedly folding over pages to return to later, grabbing my neon-pink highlighter to block-mark huge passages that just made so much sense.
Instead of gushing further, I’ll share just a few of those block-marked passages with you now, and you can see what you think…
On the invisibility of poetry
“Poetry itself, in our national life, is under house arrest, is officially “disappeared.” Like our past, our collective memory, it remains an unfathomed, a devalued, resource. The establishment of a national ‘Poet Laureateship’ notwithstanding, poetry has been set apart from the practical arts, from civic meaning. It is irrelevant to mass ‘entertainment’ and the accumulation of wealth — thus, out of sight, out of mind.” (p. 20)
On why poetry being invisible is a good thing
“And perhaps this is the hope: that poetry can keep its mechanical needs simple, its head clear of the fumes of how ’success’ is concocted in the capitals of promotion, marketing, consumerism, and in particular of the competition — taught in schools, abetted at home — that pushes the ’star’ at the expense of the culture as a whole, that makes people want stardom rather than participation, association, exchange and improvisation with others. Perhaps this is the hope: that poetry, by its nature, will never become leashed to profit, marketing, consumerism.” (p. 40)
On free time as a necessary ingredient in the making of great poetry
“Most of the poets I know, hearing of a sum of money, translate it not into possessions, but into time — that precious immaterial necessity of our lives. It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions. Sometimes the very knowledge of coming interruption dampens the flicker. [...] Most, if not all, of the names we know in North American poetry are the names of people who have had some access to freedom in time.” (p. 43)
On why the idea of poetry as ‘academic’ is a lie
“It’s a lie that poetry is only read by or ’speaks’ to people in the universities or elite intellectual circles; in many such places, poetry barely speaks at all. Poems are written and absorbed, silently and aloud, in prisons, prairie kitchens, urban basement workshops, branch libraries, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, offices, a public hospital for disabled people, an HIV support group. A poet can be born in a house with empty bookshelves. Sooner or later, s/he will need books. But books are not genes.” (p. 206-7)
On good poetry as a rejection of hatred and competitiveness
“To celebrate, to drive off evil, to nourish memory, to conjure the desired visitation. The revolutionary artist, the relayer of possibility, draws on such powers, in opposition to a technocratic society’s hatred of multiformity, hatred of the natural world, hatred of the body, hatred of women and darkness, hatred of disobedience. The revolutionary poet loves people, rivers, other creatures, stones, trees, inseparably from art, is not ashamed of these loves, and for them conjures a language that is public, intimate, inviting, terrifying, and beloved.” (p. 249-50)
Go buy this book.
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!