Political is Personal
This is an excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s Editorial Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1996, a title she qualifies by saying that these “are not, by any neutral or universal standard, the best poems written, or heard aloud, or published, in (North) America during 1995.”(2) So saying, she distances herself from what is usually a monument-making exercise, map-engendering, subject to economic concerns in various ways.
In this America where I'm writing now, suffering is diagnosed relentlessly as personal, individual, maybe familial, and at most to be "shared" with a group specific to the suffering, in the hope of "recovery." We lack a vocabulary for thinking about pain as communal and public, or as deriving from "skewed social relationships." Intimate revelations may be a kind of literary credit card today, but they don't help us out of emotional overdraft, they mostly recycle the same emotions over and over. The poems in this anthology are, in one way or another, victories, because they don't flinch at the materials and they don't stop at the personal.
– Adrienne Rich(1)
Understood differently, recycling the same emotions may seem like a satisfactory economy, depending on what new products we made of them. Adrienne Rich herself stopped passively “recycling” the moment she wrote, in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law:” “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters.”(3)
For the “thinking woman,” that is, the woman who is curious and does not delimit her sensitivities, there comes an awareness, sometime, that she is the place where the cycle must stop. “I am having to do this . . . here alone.”(4) But stopping is only a different form of action, or another perspective on what’s there. What the poet “has to do” in the “wreck” is to reclaim what was lost in history. She is trying to “connect” in order to understand herself and produce a “whole new poetry.”(5) Is whole newness ever possible?
In her 1958 essay, “A New Capital, Aldous Huxley, and Some Indians,” Elizabeth Bishop refers to the Uialapiti (Yawalapiti) tribe of Brazil and their collective sensibility. “If an Indian murders another, everyone is very sorry; the murderer is very sorry, too, and perhaps gives presents to the widow, but nothing further is done about it.”(7) (The Yawalapiti tribe now live in Xingu Indian Park and number about 200.)
What we desire is to bring into a world founded on discontinuity all the continuity such a world can sustain. . . . Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism—to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea [la mer allée avec le soleil].
Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, regarding the capacity for abstract thought in the Chinook language, quotes Franz Boas: “The proposition ‘The bad man killed the poor child’ is rendered in Chinook: ‘The man’s badness killed the child’s poverty’; and for ‘The woman used too small a basket’ they say: ‘The woman put the potentilla-roots into the smallness of a clam basket’.”(8)
Such attitudes devolve blame and emphasise unity within a common dynamic; discreteness is an illusion. That said, embracing the “other” is a complex process, often not possible or practical in the quotidian. Hélène Cixous was, on the one hand, suggesting the impossible, and on the other, only stating the obvious:
It was exuberant language, necessary to propel women towards their self-expression and to illuminate tendencies in the language of the previously unmapped.
“In the beginning are our differences. The new love dares for the other, wants the other, makes dizzying, precipitous flights between knowledge and invention.”
“. . . we are ourselves sea, sand, coral, sea weed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves . . . More or less wavily sea, earth, sky—what matter would rebuff us? We know how to speak them all.”
– Hélène Cixous(9)
Love is the mind’s notion of unity, said Hegel. I keep returning to this (maybe the ouroboros is my notion of unity) as it crops up over and over. Is definition and map-making also some attempt at love/unity? We do it all the time—in our public discourse, in our routine lives, in our work especially, re-defining the landscape with hardware and software, defining what’s by us, with us, in us.
History teaches that in the beginning the individual did not exist as an independent entity, but that the group dominated and did not allow the emancipation of a separate ego. We find this state in all departments of social and cultural life; everywhere at the outset there is an anonymous collectivity.
– Erich Neumann(10)
A recent article in The New Yorker talks about the falling popularity of the personal essay:
As the article says, “the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was.” We have, I suppose developed a global awareness that correlates with tribal awareness—without the love. In relation to poetry, there seems to be a divergence of trends: either people want us to comment on the prevailing systems and be “part of the solution” or they tolerate us as curious phenomena where anything goes (everyone leaves). One way or another, it’s not enough to simply reveal.
“The political landscape has been so phantasmagoric that even the most sensationally interesting personal essays have lost some currency when not tied head-on to the news,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey.” These days, she tends to see pitches “that center on systemic rather than personal trauma,” she added, “or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new reality.”
– Jia Tolentino, quoting Laura Bennett of Slate magazine(11)
Kristeva is talking about integrity of expression, which I believe, has to do with real empathic imagination, whether with the self or with others. The problem with both “self” and “other” is that every perception, every entity, expresses eons of hidden information that requires some active excavation. This is not just about politics, economics, history or science, but a conflation of elements of them all with involved primary experience and the random event.
“Ethics” should be understood here to mean the negativizing of narcissism within a practice; in other words, a practice is ethical when it dissolves those narcissistic fixations (ones that are narrowly confined to the subject) to which the signifying process succumbs in its socio-symbolic realization.
– Julia Kristeva(12)
In her extraordinary, declaratory work of “connection,” The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich ultimately arrives at a kind of motion, a process rather than a destination. In the pivotal poem, “XVIII” of “Twenty-One Love Poems”, she disagrees with her lover’s opinion and finds herself alone again: “I am Adrienne alone.”(13) A remarkable statement in a poetic climate of persona—the speaker identifying with the poet. Ultimately, it’s not the physical “other” that she befriends but the notion of the other in herself.
An ancient idea, re-iterated in modern psychology. How to preserve self-love from “narcissism” is a constant issue. Ethics and sensitivity circle round with fear, profit and self-justification. George Saunders, wonderful writer that he is, is saying an oddly ouroborean thing here:
I am the lover and the loved,
home and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks . . . (14)
As a person I have no interest whatsoever in life and death, and good and evil and all that; I am mostly concerned with the experience of things, so I try on different personas and walk away equally from the destructive and constructive. I suffer for a while, enjoy for a while, come and go, am sometimes a hurricane, sometimes a balmy wind, visible, invisible, hot, cold, tepid, passionate, empathic, apathetic. Give me a subject.
I think most works of art, even very dark ones, ultimately fulfil the purpose of some kind of moral power, but my experience is, if that sets out to be your plan, you’ll make something that’s reductive and facile. Better to open up to the thing via technical means, in other words, trying to make people and voices that are interesting, that are truthful. . . . if you can focus on the technical, in my experience, the moral ethical, like some kind of moral creature, will slowly drift out of the woods, but if you look directly at it it runs off. . . . As a person I’m very interested in life and death, and good and evil and all that, but it seems to me you just work on making the fictional reality undeniable to your reader and all of that will sort of take care of itself more naturally.(15)
BEYOND THE WHITE SKY
(The World According to Parvit, Cloud)
This planet I survey was always the same, just differently
organised, producing and devouring itself,
endlessly. There’s no such nature here as square.
Me on no map, just floating over billions of lights
and insistent seas. The waves keep you sharp, friends,
remind you not to cave in and bubbleise, be not Parvit.
But be-yearn to me with your pulses, feel for free.
Like she in the cellar behind the concrete door, beyond
the anteroom, without scissors or glue, tearfully
tearing crayoned hearts and sticking them with Nivea.
To mark. The day. Of her mother’s birth. Under the
unleavened mattress they become her atomic clock.
She, chained in the Columbian jungle, whose father
told her to use each political second, says the Rosary
every noon because far away Mama does too. I, Parvit,
am true pole mother, over and above these gestures,
dispersed in the extreme. Therefore in the sea a buoy.
– Máighréad Medbh(16)
(1) Introduction to The Best American Poetry 1996, New York: Scribner, 1996.
(3) Snapshots of a Daughter-In-Law, New York: W. W. Norton, 1967 (Originally published by Harper & Row, 1963).
(4) “Diving into the Wreck,” Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972, New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
(5) “Transcendental Etude”, The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978, 72-77.
(6) "Artifice of Absorption", EPC Digital Library, © 2014 Charles Bernstein.
(7) Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose & Letters. The Library of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC., 2008, 397.
(8) Boas, Franz. “Handbook of American Indian Languages,” Part 1, Bulletin 40, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington D.C., 2011, pp. 657-8. (Quoted in Lévi-Strauss, Claude, The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press / London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966, 1.)
(9) “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs, Vol.1, No.4. (Summer,1976), 893, 889.
(10) The Origins & History of Consciousness, Vol. II, (1949, 1954), Translated by R. F. C. Hull, New York: Harper & Bros., 1962, 268.
(11) Tolentino, Jia. “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over”, The New Yorker, May 18, 2017.
(12) Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language (1974). Transl. Margaret Waller, Introduction by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 233.
(13) The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978, 34.
(14) “Transcendental Etude”, ibid., 76.
(15) Times Literary Supplement, Podcast.
(16) from Parvit of Agelast: A Verse Fantasy, Dublin: Arlen House, 2016.