To read her essays as guide to understanding her poetry and the central
themes of her art
Over the next three classes, I have assigned three important essays by Rich
because I believe they will meet the objectives of this class in an important
and direct way, by explaining in clear language how poetry functions in society.
What becomes clear to Rich, and to us through her essays, is that at this point in
history (1980s), she knows the consequences of speaking (or writing) and
the political implications of location or place. For instance, her essays and
poems for this week address the conditions of knowledge and ignorance in the
United States of America, a country with immense political and economic power
in the world, but also a country in which many of its inhabitants never see or
understand the consequences of its role for others. Moreover, she analyzes the
implications of cultural identities within our own national space, identities
formed by religion, education, family, and geography. What she insists on over
and over again is that every utterance has meaning, and that as responsible,
conscious human beings we need to investigate these meanings. The risk of ignorance
is no less than death, as she points out through example after example of the brutality
and violence born of ignorance.
Poetry is a way of naming the condition of pain and consequently becoming active in
resistance to the cause of pain. Unfortunately, in our society poetry is rendered
effete by the apolitical standards of literary value and the refusal to make art
useful and meaningful on a popular level. Rich works against these elite definitions
of art through both her open investigation of the poetic process in her essays and
through the direct connection between her poetry and her world. This world is also
our world, and her poetry asks us to recognize that land and those people.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity (1982) p. 224
Born of a southern gentile mother and a Jewish father, Rich learned to
assimilate according to the demands of her culture. She explores her
own split identity in terms of the external and internal forces that
shape her. In the process she raises difficult and necessary questions
about the facts of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. She also articulates
the value of community and degrees of awareness that lead to change.
She claims that reading the essays of James Baldwin in the fifties "stirred me
with a sense that apparently 'given' situations like racism could be analyzed
and described and that this could lead to action, to change" (236).
What are the implications of this realization?
How does this essay help you to understand better "For Ethel Rosenberg"?
How does this information open the meaning of "Sources"?
What is the speaker exploring in the opening sections of this poem?
With whom is she talking? What is her debate?
It will be especially important to have read the essay "Split at the Root"
to understand the images she refers to in this poem. What questions of
identity plague the speaker? How is this relevant to or for other readers
of the poem?
In the prose sections of VII and XXII the speaker addresses two individuals.
With whom does she speak? What is at issue with each? What is the effect?
What understanding does she come away with?
She criticizes the "New" Englanders and their climate. What is the significance
of the "short growing season"? How does the poet connect character with place?
In stanza XIII the speaker claims to see the old place in a new way. What does
she see that was unavailable to her before? What does this indicate about the
poet? What does this indicate about the durability of the poem?
How is believing one has a destiny the product of privilege? In contrast what
is the faith of the "despised and endangered"? (XV)
Throughout the poem, the speaker reflects on her own experiences with Judaism
and her own silences. What finally does her relationship with her father and
former husband suggest about her Jewish identity? How does the poem close? what
are the implications of the statement: "When I speak of an end to sufferng I don't
mean anesthesia. I mean knowing the world, and my place in it, not in order
to stare with bitterness or detachment, but as a pwerful and womanly series of choices."
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