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
The Genesis of "Yom Kippur 1984" (1987) p.252
This brief essay is a rare treat from a gifted poet; in it Rich dissects
the process of creating the poem "Yom Kippur 1984," explaining how she
weaves the events and facts of 1984 into her personal consciousness and
history. She also discusses her poetical intentions and the ways in which
these are modified through her honest interaction with the ideas that
confront her. This essay helps us to understand "Yom Kippur 1984" more
thoroughly, but the ideas she expresses here also help us to understand
other poetry as well.
Rich offers us a context through which to understand the personal voice
of poetry. What is the distinction between autobiography and poetry?
Note the importance of technical form to her process. In particular she
discusses her choice of line, allusion, dialogue, historical fact and of
setting or context. How does this help you understand the poem? the
relationship between content and form?
In what ways are her insights on the creation of the poem useful for our
creating the meaning of the poem?
We have come full circle from the beginning of the class and Oliver's
insistence that poets and poetry speak to other literature. How does Rich
speak with and through other literature? What does this tell us about the
nature and power of poetry?
Yom Kippur 1984 (124)
Yom Kippur 1984 should be read in conjunction with the essay, "Genesis of Yom Kippur, 1984."
What does the essay reveal to you? Analyze the use of specific technical devices
mentioned in Rich's essay.
An Atlas of the Difficult World (142)
An Atlas of the Difficult World represents the world in terms of its people
and their stories. What is the effect?
The poet speaks to us in the end of part I: "If you had known me / once,
you'd still know me now though in a different / light and life. This is no
place you ever knew me. / But it would not surprise you" (60-63).
What does the poet mean by being the same but in a different place? How does
the identity remain the same? How does the poetry remain the same?
What is significant about the different light and life?
In part II she suggests that the map is a mural and the distinction doesn't
matter. "where do we see it from is the question" (100). What is the meaning
of this question? How does one answer it? What is the significance?
In part III the poet is back in Vermont. What is the significance of her
remembering the biography of Charlotte Bronte? What has changed in the time
since she read it?
What do the objects of her house mean to her? How is the spider like the poet?
Who are those "urgently needed for the work of perception" (195)? What is
their role? Why are they no longer here?
Section V challenges the reader to "catch if you can your country's moment" (255).
What information or "material" as she says in line 247 does this include? Is
this the stuff of poetry? Why or why not? What are the implications of this section?
Section VI addresses Irish imigrants -- what is at issue for the people here?
How does this operate within "An Atlas of the difficult world"?
Section VIII appears to be a description or personfication of westward expansion
in the North America. What are the implications of this personification? What
does Rich suggest by her language? Who is responsible for the growth? What are
the consequences? How does the second part of the section fit with the first?
Along the same lines, whose story is the poet trying to understand in section IX?
What are the implications?
Section X represents scenes and quotations from southern California and George
Jackson. The time is 1991. What impact do these images and words have on you?
Section XI covers the outbreak of the Gulf War and the various reactions of the
American citizens. What causes the confusion for the speaker? What is the patriot
she defines? What is the pain of the "internal emigrant"?
In the final stanza the poet addresses her reader as "you" but she clearly
intends a diversity of readers. How does she describe them? What does the
reading of poetry mean in each case? What is the composite impression of these
readers? How is this an appropriate ending for "An Atlas of the Difficult World"?
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