Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
In Rich's 1976 anthology, The Dream of a Common Language, the poem "Origins and History of Consciousness" appears in the section called "Power." Power, to Rich, means more than one thing: it is the power of connection, the "drive" of poetry to form bonds between people, and political power. For Rich, poetry and art are never divorced from politics. No matter what people might say, a poem is never an apolitical act. As she writes in her essay "Arts of the Possible," every "real" poem breaks a "silence," and the question to ask is "what kind of voice [good or evil] is breaking the silence?"
Rich's 1980 essay "Compulsory Education and Lesbian Existence," for example, sometimes connected to "Origins and History of Consciousness," discusses the politics of women's acts of connecting. It explores the theme of female liberation and not only advocates for lesbian relationships but for connections between women in general as a way to resist "male tyranny" and build women's "radical rebellion" in quiet ways.
In "Origins and History of Consciousness," Rich writes:
No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
She describes this whiteness of the wall as what is behind literature and history ("photographs of dead heroines"). A white wall is pure, untouched, and is what Rich in her essay "Six Meditations in Place of a Lecture" calls "the unbuilt house ...the soul." When we get to the heart of poetry, to the heart of becoming truly conscious of who and what we are, we confront our souls.
But when we confront our souls, we confront our politics as well. For Rich, any "real" poem, any poem that writes on the white wall of soul, is political. In "Arts of the Possible," Rich writes of living in a U.S. society in "extreme pain," a society in which human relationships are blocked, and in which a "malnourishment . . . extends . . . to the imagination itself." She asks "With whom do your believe your lots is cast?"—the privileged or the unprivileged?
In what could be read, at least in parts, as an extremely personal poem, Rich in "Origins" writes politically of
of someone beaten up far down in the street
causing each of us to listen to her own inward scream.
We are not disconnected from the sufferings of others.
In this poem, with its talk for a "drive to connect" and desire for a common language, Rich alludes to a central, lifetime preoccupation: her belief that a healthy and humane society would value all people having, as she writes in "Arts of the Possible:"
time and space for love, for sleep and dreaming, time to create art, time for both solitude and communal life, time to explore the idea of an expanding universe of freedom.
Poetry is thus centrally important and not just for the elite; we all need time and space to confront the "whiteness" of our souls.