Poetry and Moral Vision: A Symposium
by Ravi Shankar
Aftereffects of downpour lingered as mist in the early autumn afternoon at Connecticut College, neo-gothic buildings looming in groomed lawns like a scene from “Dead Poet’s Society.” Ten ’til two and I stood in a queue that snaked out of the Ernst Common Room in Blaustein, where the student body had apparently arrived en masse to see Adrienne Rich, a legend in her own time, if the turnout from the student population of a small liberal arts college in New England was to be trusted. Upon entering the room, I was doubly amazed. People sitting on radiators and window sills, lining the walls, jostling for position as if to glimpse a rock star: here, for a fleeting moment, it was apparent that poetry lived, even thrived, that it had not yet been exhumed in face of the movies. How heartening the clamor! The Daniel Klagsbrun Symposium had brought giants to Connecticut College in the past — Saul Bellow, Dorothy Allison, E.L. Doctorow, Tobias Wolff, Joseph Brodsky — but searching for a seat, I couldn’t imagine a greater buzz.
According to the brochure I was handed, the afternoon symposium was “A Public Conversation on Writing and Moral Vision” and joining Rich on the panel were poet, Suzanne Gardinier, writer and activist Mab Segrest, and fellow writer/moderator Blanche McCrary Boyd. When the women entered, the palpitations of conversation ebbed as all eyes swiveled to watch Rich, moving slowly, cane in hand, clearly wizened, but with sparkling eyes that seemed to take in the crowd even as she continued her conversation with Segrest. People parted to let them pass, the sounds of class being let out blooming in the distance, and I took note of how many took note, composition books perched on laps, pens twirling in fingers, laptops tapped on, a phenomenon that sounded the same note of wonderment I had heard earlier: poetry (or celebrity) lives!
Novelist and Connecticut College professor Blanche Boyd began the discussion by introducing the symposium and the panelists, handing out praise in gobbets, while lingering over her own resolutely mixed experience as a first-time novelist in a world — this undercurrent ran throughout the discussion — situated by doddering white males of a certain socioeconomic background. Nonetheless, and in light of the idea of poetry and moral vision, she hoped to convey her realization that prejudice was not enough to prevent her from using language to constitute the self more consciously. Writing was the most human act that she could imagine.
Adrienne Rich, by now the author of nearly twenty books of poetry and several books of prose, a veritable poetry giant, picked up on Boyd’s comments to discuss the intractable mysteries at the heart of words, how in the act of writing you discover secrets you never intended or can even recognize until you write them. This idea was resonant for Rich with the way forces that constitute society help determine what a self calls allowable, yet cannot fully quench the wellspring of truth someone carries with them. So Barbara Deming wrote “I’m a lesbian” on a piece of paper, then crumpled it up aghast, only to have the paper uncrumple itself over the course of the night until the word blared out at her the next morning, both accusation and event to precipitate the gradual acknowledgement of self. For Rich, growing up in a climate of segregation where the way language was used actively neutralized the actuality of experience, finding the words for what was not being said was crucial. To find them was hard, and writing was a form of spelunking, helping what’s buried deep, where it is obscure and diffuse and resists expression, find its way out, and in so doing, find form. Rich spoke of the essays of James Baldwin in this context and also of an out-of-print book by James Scully called Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, in which Scully argues that line breaks themselves can be seen as political acts. For Rich, as for Scully, the way the energy of a poem funneled itself through line breaks and caesuras in a poem charged or discharged an intentionality that was by its very nature political.
Activist and author Mab Segrest deepened that line of thinking by reminding the audience of how the political dimension of work like Rich’s had became critically devalued in the sixties because of its engagements. As a woman author in Tuskegee, Alabama, Segrest was taught that art was autotelic, the golden bird on the golden bough, a creature to be marveled at but never caught in the mire of quotidian life. Poetry was not meant to encompass such uncomfortable subjects as race relations, sexism, and social change; rather, it was Parnassian, Profound, and could be unraveled but only so far. Yet Rich soon realized that this aesthetic model, which scoffed at political poetry as didactic, wasn’t relevant to her, not when she saw all the institutionalized violence, from the federal government on down, embodied in her own backyard, in lynching and race riots, common enough occurrences in the decades she grew up in. Segrest felt that the Southern male poets whom she had been taught to value either consciously or unconsciously ignored these events, pointing out John Crowe Ransom as an exemplar of this attitude, quoting him as saying that slavery was cruel in theory but humane in practice. That was when she decided to use literature for politically motivated ends, and her efforts since then had been to push the beauty and terror inherent in language towards the beauty and terror manifest in the world.
Suzanne Gardinier, winner of the AWP Award Series in Poetry in 1992 for her booklength poem “The New World” and clearly the youngest among the group, spoke about how she came to poetry and to politics simultaneously. She recalled being in Civics class in middle school and wondering about why the wonderfully resonant names of rivers and of states — Susquehanna or Oklahoma1 —sounded so different from the other words that surrounded her. Slowly she came to the realization that there were people behind those words, lost histories, and that spurred her to ask more questions, eventually in the forms of poems. A successful poem, for her, acted as lever in the world, causing some small movement that hopefully translated, tectonically, into larger social change.
Boyd next asked the question: where does justice live? Through her experience, meritocracy was clearly a myth and the playing field was never level, though her personality made her more an intervener than an activist (unlike Segrest in this respect) when it came to instigating change. Rich responded by asserting that her sense of justice came from a child’s notion of “that’s not fair,” the sense of powerlessness felt in the face of adults who barred certain actions, certain words, “because they told you so.” That early sensibility gradually evolved into identification with those who were less fortunate and suffering social injustices, so it was no surprise that the civil rights movement spoke so persuasively to her. Her poems, then, became a natural extension of that concern.
Rich then questioned the rest of the panelists about what a writer could do when the power of mass media was so pervasive as to be overwhelming. Publishing, as a conglomerate of conglomerates, is at root structured no differently than other corporate entities, a fact inimical to the distribution and reception of important ideas not justified by profit margin. For a long time, Rich had struggled with circumventing the mechanisms that sought to insulate those in power by replicating their hegemonies. Boyd responded by quoting John Berryman’s Dream Song 74, “Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter explaining how bad it had been in this world,” by which she seemed to imply (though it was never fully explicated) that it took courage and pain to live a life of art and conviction. Segrest felt that it was in the cultivation of alternative spaces and grassroots movements that any form of art ignored by the mass media had to thrive. She brought up the women’s movement as an example of how close and connected the community was during that time. In the small space of independent bookstores and coffee houses, a tangible bond between performer and audience was built, and both electricity and tears were profuse, creating the kind of climate in which ideas about feminism and new kinds of poetry could flourish. Rich finished by recognizing that history was non-linear, the “we” of society moving laterally, as well as forwards or backwards, and that writers were crucial in helping create any given era’s moral vision. In her mind, the only tenable end in the world and in her work was to help disempower despair, the one luxury that humans could ill afford.
At this point, the floor was opened to questions and instantaneously a bevy of arms shot into the air. The first question referenced Rich’s seminal address at the Smith College commencement in 1979, in which she introduced the term “token woman.” “To become a token woman,” she said at the time, “whether you win the Nobel Prize or merely get tenure at the cost of denying your sisters, is to become something less than a man…since men are loyal at least to their own worldview, their laws of brotherhood and self-interest.” The questioner wondered if Rich still felt the same way and, rather surprisingly, Rich confessed that she felt that way more than ever, that the phenomenon of post-feminism had blinded itself to the ways, subtler now, in which sexism was still rampant. The sense of building a voice communally, rather than individually, remained crucial for many marginalized groups, including women and in fact, Rich eschewed the term feminism for the more antiquated and lofty notion of “women’s liberation,” a struggle she clearly saw as ongoing.
Rich next answered a question about the diminished relevance of contemporary American poets. In other countries, writers have a voice in the governing of the people (such as Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia), but in the US, poetry is perceived as so elite and ethereal that it has no political weight. Rich partially blamed the predominant aesthetic, when she was growing up, that asserted that politics and art were nearly diametrically opposed. Poets such as John Crowe Ransom, James Merrill, and Alan Tate cultivated a polished, self-immersive mastery of form that had as much relevance to Rich’s daily life as eggnog has in summertime. Yet in China, Bei Dao’s poems were pasted around Tiananmen Square, under the very real threat of imprisonment or execution, because they spoke to and about the people. Rich maintained that the kind of luxury it takes to afford aestheticism was an indulgence, and that what one chooses not to see, not to include in a poem, was a political decision nonetheless.
The panelists ended the day’s discussion by speaking about their writing process. For Rich, a poem began accidentally: an overheard scrap of conversation, a snippet of music, a spot of light glinting off a windowpane at a particular angle — these things initiated a process that ended in revelation, and hopefully not just a personal one but one that communicating, started a dialogue that the reader might continue in the world. Her writing is tantamount, when it succeeds, to a kind of activism, to an active rebuttal of alienation — the manifestation of fragmentation and internal discord that separates us from one another — and the inertia of the status quo, which more and more resembles the opposite of empathy. Rich’s larger point was that as readers, we need be voracious and possessive; that we can’t just receive a tradition, we need to claim one. Before exiting the room to a rousing standing ovation, supported by a cane yet downright sprightly, Rich left the audience with twinkling eye and one final thought: a passionate reader reads critically from the depths of who they are, and therein lay the pith of her opinion on the relationship between writing and moral vision. We all write from and read out of what we believe. Like Chinua Achebe’s delineation of the racism inherent in Joseph Conrad’s vision of Africa in Heart of Darkness, there’s a difference between craftsmanship and integrity, or as Keats would have it, truth and beauty. The works of literature best able to embody both are what will last and rightly so.
Poetry and politics. Politics and poetry. Perhaps from the very moment Plato banished poets from his ideal republic, there was cause for a contentious (yet parasitic) relationship between the two. Between those who use sonnets to rebuke and those who play Wittgensteinian language games, there’s both worldview and moral vision at stake and to deny this would not only be imprudent, it would be impossible. Exiting into the afternoon’s pungent mist, watching Adrienne Rich wobble through a cordon of well-wishers, the words of another poet who would have been right at home on this panel, Marianne Moore, came to mind: “But rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say. / And with no integrity, a [hu]man is not likely to write the / kind of book I read.”
Though I doubted I could ever fully agree with that statement, I felt, whether rightly or wrongly, that Adrienne Rich and the other panelists would have, and therefore had only gone but so far in their investigations, leaving aside questions of what we’re to make of amoral or immoral poetry. There’s a concordance between art and morality that is more complex and variegated than the discussion had (or indeed could have) afforded, and leaning into the dampness then, having spent two hours watching specters of racism and classism and sexism exorcised from the facades of modern institutions by a group of skilled women writers, it was the voice of a dead white male, Sophocles in Philoctetes, translated by another old white male, Seamus Heaney in The Cure at Troy, that came to mind:
Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, every one of them
Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake,
No matter what.
People so deep into
Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.
People so staunch and true, they’re fixated,
Shining with self-regard like polished stones.
And their whole life spent admiring themselves
For their own long-suffering.
Licking their wounds
And flashing them around like decorations.
I hate it, I always hated it, and I am
A part of it myself.
And a part of you.
Clearly, there’s no part of poetry not touched by politics, in some sense or other, and though in my estimation, the most successful political poem is the least demagogic, the speech-acts and lyrics most worth preserving are those that spark something in the listener, the reader, that surpasses the purely linguistic act to alter perception in some minute or vast way. I agree with Rich that a crucial role of poetry is to help us make moral distinctions — whether positive or negative — and thereby distinguish between heroes, victims, Gods, human beings, and the shapes they throw. For if it were not, what other medium would convey this charge?
Indeed over half of American state names (Twenty-eight) are derived from Native American origins. For example, “Utah” comes from a Navajo word meaning upper or higher up, as applied to a Shoshone tribe called Ute, and “Kansas” comes from the Sioux word for “south wind people.”
Ravi Shankar is poet-in-residence at Central Connecticut State University and the founding editor of the online journal of the arts, Drunken Boat. His first book, Instrumentality, is due out in Summer 2004 from Word Press. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in such places as the Paris Review, Poets &Writers, Time Out New York, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review and others. He is currently editing an anthology of South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern poetry. You can read an interview with him at: Jacket Magazine.