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Poetry is Politics

One of the best ways to write poetry is to read poetry: this is common knowledge probably spoken at every writing class in the world. However, this advice is not specific enough. The leader of the class should instead announce to the group of rookie writers that one of the best ways to write poetry is to read the poetry of Adrienne Rich.

Adrienne Cecile Rich was born on May 16, 1929, in Baltimore, and died on March 27, 2012. Over the course of her life, she taught classes about poetry, won countless awards, and published awe-inspiring poems and nonfiction books. Many of the poems she published were about the women’s movement and about religion. She stood to give a voice to those who were, at one point or another, deprived of one. Her poems confronted issues often avoided by the American public, such as lesbianism and the difficulties of motherhood.

The poetry of Adrienne Rich escapes formal definitions found in decrepit dictionaries, which is eye-opening to a young poet obsessed with the all-too-rigid ideas of simile and synecdoche. Instead of fitting in neat lines of ten syllables, Adrienne Rich’s poetry scatters words across the page in a manner that aims for significance instead of neatness. Her poem “Yom Kippur, 1984” is especially meaningful. But why limit an understanding of Adrienne Rich to the beauty of her poetry?

Adrienne Rich taught me that poetry is politics. In 1997, she rejected the National Medal for the Arts to protest disparities in power across different groups in the United States. She also explained that art is not designed to be a competition or a pursuit of monetary awards, but rather a mode of self-expression indivisible from humanity. Her position is valuable and relatable—nowadays, it is so easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of the day-to-day. Adrienne Rich’s explanation of art’s purpose reveals the honest nature of her work. She did not write poetry to win prizes, but to mean something, and she succeeded.

Plus, her perspective regarding the concentration of power in such few hands remains relevant today. In the United States, income inequality is incredibly pronounced—for example, in 2010, the female-to-male earnings ratio was a devastating 0.81. Discrimination fuels huge gaps in who truly holds the power in everyday life. If she were around today, Adrienne Rich would undoubtedly protest these differences in letters and in poetry. She would give a voice to those in need.

Her words contain the wisdom to guide us. Though certain aspects of her poetry seem less contemporary than when they were written, her ideas remain relevant. Perhaps a step in the process of activism would be to write more poems—or to participate in some other form of self-expression—that takes away the dangerous aspects of observing the world in silence.

That’s why writing classes need to start mentioning Adrienne Rich in the earliest moments of the course—because when we decide to write, we are taking on a far greater burden than just placing words on a page—we are claiming the ability to raise our voices and change the world. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Activism, Poetry
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How to cite this page

Landau, Rachel. "Poetry is Politics." 27 November 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/poetry-is-politics>.

The impact of Adrienne Rich on poetry in America since the second half of the twentieth century has been enormous. Too richly talented to be ignored by the literary establishment, she was at the same time too politically oriented to be comfortably digested.

Institution: Steven Barclay Agency

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