To read her essays as guide to understanding her poetry and the central
themes of her art
Over these 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
Blood, Bread and Poetry: The Location of the Poet (1984) p. 239
In this essay, Rich argues that the North American culture of which she
is part relegates poetry to an elite and apolitical status. As a
consequence, she -- the poet-- is "destined to be a luxury" and poetry
itself will always be politically ineffective. What evidence do we have
for this in our culture? What are the implications for this national
attitude toward poetry? How does it differ from the attitude in Nicaragua?
What are the implications of the differences?
What does Rich's personal journey toward understanding the political
potential of poetry suggest about the ways poetry is taught? about the
relationship between literature and politics? How does this resonate with
your own experience of literature?
Note her reaction to Yeats....
She explains that her own discovery of poetry outside the "canon" leads
her to see history in a new way. Why is it important to confront the facts
of history this way?
"Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant
culture is at risk from this mental fragmentation and needs an art which can
resist it" (244). Explain.
"But in reading de Beauvoir and Baldwin, I began to taste the concrete reality
of being unfree, how continuous and permeating and corrosive a condition it is,
and how it is maintained through culture as much as through the use of force" (246).
It seems to me that this statement has tremendous implication. What does she
mean by the power of culture to maintain a condition of oppression? How does
culture operate this way? What are the implications for the poet? What are
the implications for the reader of poetry?
As we come to the conclusion of our study of poetry, I would like for you to think
about your attitudes and assumptions about poetry. In particular, reflect on
"There is the falsely mystical view of art that assumes a kind of
supernatural inspiration, a possession by universal forces unrelated to questions
of power and privilege or the art's relation to bread and blood. In this view,
the channel of art can only become clogged and midirected by the artist's concern
with merely temporary and local disturbances. The song is higher than the
struggle, and the artist must choose between politics -- here defined as earth-bound
factionalism, corrupt power struggles -- and art, which exists on some transcendent
plane. This view of literature has dominated literary criticism in England and
America for nearly a century. In the fifties and early sixties there was much
shaking of heads if an artist was found 'meddling in politics'; art was mystical
and universal, but the artist was also, apparently, irresponsible and emotional
and politically naive" (246).
North American Time (114)
The essay "Blood, Bread and Poetry" is important for understanding the themes
of "North American Time."
In the opening stanza what does the speaker fear? What does it mean for her
to say in the following stanza: "Everything we write / will be used against
us / or against those we love" (11-13).
What is the "verbal privilege" she mentions in Stanzas II and IV?
What is the effect of the names and places mentioned in stanza VI?
What is the meaning of the repeated phrase you or I need "to know these
things"? What is it that we/she needs to know? Why? What is the cost of
not knowing suggested by the poem?
What is the meaning Julia de Burgos' words in the final stanza? what is
the effect of including them here? Why do we need to remember these things?
What works against that in "North America"? What is "North American Time"?
Back to Top of Page