Arts of the Possible

by Adrienne Rich
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740


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In the foreword to her book Arts of the Possible, distinguished poet Adrienne Rich reflects on the fifty years she has been writing poetry, calling herself the “poet of oppositional imagination.” She notes that her book is for people interested in imagination and “wider horizons,” not the quotidian details of daily life or the strictly personal concerns of much contemporary poetry. Indeed, for more than four decades, Rich has challenged readers and students to expand their horizons, offering alternative ways of viewing culture and life. Arts of the Possiblecontinues Rich’s crusade to open eyes and ears.

Rich chooses to begin her book with four essays from earlier in her career. She does so to provide the reader with both background and context. The final eight essays were written during the 1990’s. The juxtaposition of the new with the old allows the reader to view Rich’s thinking across time, and allows Rich to clarify and, at times, modify her earlier stance on several issues. At the heart of Rich’s book, however, is the belief that poetry and politics are inextricably bound together. Good poetry, according to Rich, is not (and cannot) be about the personal without acknowledging the cultural and social milieu in which it arises. This philosophy underpins and connects Rich’s writing across the years.

“When We Dead Awaken’: Writing as Re-vision,” the opening essay, is perhaps Rich’s most anthologized and quoted piece of prose. Written in 1971, the essay argues that, for women, the act of revision is also an act of survival. Rich contends that feminist literary critique can help women re-vision themselves and the culture in which they live.

Indeed, Rich further asserts that knowledge of the literature of the past is essential for women, so that they can then resee this literature in a radical new way. Such radical revision is the only way that women can break through the restrictions that the literature of the past holds over them. Using biographical detail to illustrate this point, Rich traces her own transformation from a young woman writing to please her father to a young mother who began to understand that “politics was not something out there’ but something in here’ and of the essence of [her] condition.” Rich, writing in 1971, believed that all women need to experience a similar transformation because “[t]he creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is a self-generating energy for destruction.” Women, therefore, need to tap their creative energy for their own survival and perhaps for the survival of the species.

Rich expands her themes in another early essay, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” written in 1984 to be delivered as a talk in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in the same year. In structure, the essay is a series of short notes, divided by white space and dividing lines. The divisions in the text mirror Rich’s growing understanding of the divisions between women. Rich first identifies herself as a white feminist from the United States, before further defining herself as a Jew and lesbian. She takes to task the women’s movement, grounded in white Western culture, that renders women’s lives into a homogenous abstraction. Rich describes her own growth toward this understanding: “It was in the writings but also the actions and speeches and sermons of Black United States citizens that I began to experience the meaning of my whiteness as a point of location for which I needed to take responsibility.”

What Rich decries is the many ways that the feminist movement has been “thoughtlessly” white and Western. That is, white women, by their act of defining the women’s movement as “we,” neglect to include issues of race, culture, social class, and geography as the true locations of women’s lived experiences. Rather, white women see their own experiences as normative for women, in much the same way that patriarchy defines the male experience as normative for the human race. Consequently, Rich turns to an inspection of the political action of women around the world as the source for her understanding of what the women’s movement must be and needs to be. She calls for white women to read the work of African American theorists and writers, not as work written in anger and in response to white feminism, but work arising as an “organic development of the Black movement. . . .” Rich closes by arguing that white Euro-feminists will be isolated from worldwide movements of liberation and justice if they are unable to understand that their experiences are located in their own whiteness rather than in the universal experiences of women throughout the world.

The material in Arts of the Possible from the 1990’s takes many forms. For example, Rich includes two interviews, forewords and introductions to anthologies, speeches, and a letter to National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander refusing the National Medal for the Arts. In these newer pieces, Rich continues to define and struggle with the aesthetics and purposes of poetry. In “Defying the Space that Separates,” for example, written in 1996, Rich passionately writes about what poetry needs to be and do: “Maturity in poetry, as in ordinary life, surely means taking our places in history, in accountability, in a web of responsibilities met or failed, of received and changing forms, arguments with community or tradition, a long dialogue between art and justice.” Likewise, in “Poetry and the Public Sphere,” Rich identifies an essential paradox in poetry: On the one hand, each person reads and writes out of her own experience, and therefore no poetry is universal or normative; on the other hand, poetry can and must have meaning for the collective community as well.

An interesting essay, although not originally written as an essay at all, is the letter that Rich wrote to Jane Alexander refusing to accept the National Medal for the Arts. The original letter is followed by an article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, expanding Rich’s reasoning. Rich cites her growing concern about the “radical disparities of wealth and power in America [that] are widening at a devastating rate.” Rich did not want her art and her name to be used by the power structures of the United States government. Likewise, she did not think that it was fitting for her to be honored when “the people at large are so dishonored.” This letter and the accompanying article illustrate again the close connection Rich finds between art and politics. Although she says that the relationship between poetry and social justice is a complicated one, there is never any doubt that she believes such a relationship is primary to the welfare of the poet and the state.

The title essay appears last in the collection. “Arts of the Possible” was first given as the Troy Lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1997 and was published in the Massachusetts Review the same year. Rich begins the essay by identifying several concerns, all connected to the degradation and dissolution of the United States as a democratic republic. She is especially troubled by the way language is manipulated in order to allow free enterprise capitalism to masquerade as democracy. “This devaluation of language, this flattening of images, results in a massive inarticulation, even among the educated. Language itself collapses into shallowness.” This collapse leads to the commodification of all life, including relationships and feelings.

Because writers work specifically with the language of relationships and feelings, they need to struggle especially hard against the way capitalism and free enterprise turn relationships and feelings into commodities. Further, Rich calls on writers to ask questions about the lives they have come to live, to question what it is they write and why, and to concern themselves with seeing and writing reality, not the gloss. This implies, of course, that writing is an intensely political, intensely dangerous activity.

Rich ends the essay urging writers and intellectuals to ask questions, and to question the questions. She believes that there is great power in such work: “Writers and intellectuals can name, we can describe, we can depict, we can witness—without sacrificing craft, nuance, or beauty.” Indeed, it is only by recognizing and exercising the political in poetry that poets can potentially effect change in the very systems that degrade both language and individuals.

By the end of Arts of the Possible, the reader has been able to watch some key ideas develop over time. Certainly, Rich’s notions of capitalism and Marxism have shifted and evolved, although her final stance is that Marxism cannot and must not be identified with totalitarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union. Rather, the questions that Karl Marx raised about community, freedom, and human worth are the essence of what Rich believes poets should address.

A second important idea evolving through the pages of the books is the complicated relationship between self and community. In its extremes, notions of the self can be perverted into identity politics. That is, individuals can only speak from their own cultural and ethnic background to people of the same cultural and ethnic background. Pushed to logical absurdity, each individual would only be able to talk and write to herself or himself. Rich asserts that there is a time and place for identity politics, but she further argues that it is a temporary location, not a destination. Thus, while Rich calls repeatedly for white, Western women to consider the experience of women of color throughout the world, and not to make the mistake of universalizing their own experiences, she nevertheless calls for a building of connections and community. The tension, then, is between the recognition of the material conditions of individual selves, and the creation of a community that both respects and includes a wide variety of lived experiences. This push and pull between the individual and the communal creates the poetry Rich wants to read.

Arts of the Possible is anything but light summer reading. The essays can be difficult and the philosophy abstract. This should not be taken as negative criticism. Important ideas need space and time to develop; complicated thoughts cannot always be expressed briefly or simply. Throughout the essays, Rich imparts a poet’s sensibility to her prose, making some passages sing, and others sigh, and still others moan with the weight of the world.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (April 15, 2001): 1527.

Lambda Book Report 9 (May, 2001): 22.

Library Journal 126 (April 15, 2001): 94.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 26, 2001): 83.

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