Arts of the Possible: Adrienne Rich on Writing, Capitalism, Freedom, and How Silence Fertilizes the Human Imagination
By Maria Popova
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his piercing eulogy to Robert Frost, contemplating the artist’s role in society and urging us to “never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” More than three decades later, another of humanity’s greatest poets and custodians of dignity explored this enduring relationship between art, power, and truth more closely and dimensionally than anyone before or since.
The poet was Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) and the exploration a remarkable 1997 lecture that became the title piece in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library) — the same anthology that gave us the spectacular letter with which Rich became the only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in one of creative culture’s most courageous acts of political dissent.
Rich begins by considering the perilous interplay of the market and the mind in capitalist culture:
We have become a pyramidic society of the omnivorously acquisitive few, an insecure, dwindling middle class, and a multiplying number of ill-served, throwaway citizens and workers [resulting in] a kind of public breakdown, with symptoms along a spectrum from acute self-involvement to extreme anxiety to individual and group violence.
Exactly two decades after E.F. Schumacher’s ennobling case for reimagining capitalist society to prioritize people over products and creativity over consumption, Rich laments “the self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism” around the world and considers “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions of all this” — for, lest we forget, the space between words and their true meanings is vast and filled with the fog of confusion. She writes:
In the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.
Capitalism presents itself as obedience to a law of nature, man’s “natural” and overwhelming predisposition toward activity that is competitive, aggressive, and acquisitive. Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital. Where, in any mainstream public discourse, is this self-referential monologue put to the question?
Perhaps it is the poet in Rich most riled by this propagandic corruption of language — for what is a poet if not one who remedies “the feeling that the contemporary language is not equivalent to the contemporary fact”? But the legacy of this disconnect, Rich reminds us in a sentiment tenfold more urgent today, transcends the poetic and bleeds into the practicalities of civic life:
Our past is seeded in our present and is trying to become our future.
These concerns engage me as a citizen, feeling daily in my relationships with my fellow citizens the effects of a system based in the accumulation of wealth — the value against which all other values must justify themselves. We all feel these effects, almost namelessly, as we go about our individual lives…
But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s, concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image making; a malnourishment that extends from the body to the imagination itself. Capital vulgarizes and reduces complex relations to a banal iconography.
Lamenting that terms like “consumers” and “baby boomers” feed the dual demon of contempt and self-contempt — one reduces people to their acquisition of commodities and the other “infantilizes and demeans an entire generation” — Rich examines how this collapse of language into shallowness impacts the artist’s responsibility to tussle with human relationships, which she has long considered the raw material of our private truths. She writes:
Any artist faces the necessity to explore, by whatever means, human relationships — which may or may not be perceived as political. But there are also, and always, the changing questions of the medium itself, the craft and its demands.
That craft, Rich argues, is honed in the sacred space of silence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Paul Goodman’s nine types of silence, she writes:
The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?
Although silence externally enforced, Rich notes, is a tool of oppression and censorship, silence willfully elected is a force of growth. She writes:
Silence … can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination, it can, as in great open spaces — I think of those plains stretching far below the Hopi mesas in Arizona — be the nimbus of a way of life, a condition of vision. Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.
Echoing Wendell Berry’s conception of silence as a sanctuary where “one’s inner voices become audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Rich places the extinction of such fertilizing silence in its cultural context:
Even in conversation, here in North America, we who so eagerly unpack our most private concerns before strangers dread the imaginative space that silence might open between two people or within a group. Television, obviously, abhors such silence.
I am reminded here of a wonderful 19th-century guide to the art of conversation, which asserted that “the power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse.” The writer, Rich argues, is one who honors the silence while creating a space for connection and conversation:
Whatever her or his social identity, the writer is, by the nature of the act of writing, someone who strives for communication and connection, someone who searches, through language, to keep alive the conversation with what Octavio Paz has called “the lost community.” Even if what’s written feels like a note thrust into a bottle to be thrown into the sea.
But the successful transmission of the bottle requires a benevolent sea, which brings us back to the political dimension of art as a technology of freedom. Rich captures the true measure of democracy:
The survival of a great diversity of books … depends on diverse interests having the means to make such books available.
It also means a nonelite but educated audience, a population who are literate, who read and talk to each other, who may be factory workers or bakers or bank tellers or paramedicals or plumbers or computer consultants or farmworkers, whose first language may be Croatian or Tagalog or Spanish or Vietnamese but who are given to critical thinking, who care about art, an intelligentsia beyond intellectual specialists.
Nearly three decades after James Baldwin remarked that the whole capitalist system “is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa,” Rich considers the prerequisite for such a nonelitist, democratic landscape of thought and imagination:
If we are writers writing first of all from our own desire and need, if this is irresistible work for us, if in writing we experience certain kinds of power and freedom that may be unavailable to us in other ways — surely it would follow that we would want to make that kind of forming, shaping, naming, telling, accessible for anyone who can use it. It would seem only natural for writers to care passionately about literacy, public education, public libraries, public opportunities in all the arts. But more: if we care about the freedom of the word, about language as a liberatory current, if we care about the imagination, we will care about economic justice.
For the pull and suck of Capital’s project tend toward reducing, not expanding, overall human intelligence, wit, expressiveness, creative rebellion.
Writing and teaching are kinds of work, and the relative creative freedom of the writer or teacher depends on the conditions of human labor overall and everywhere.
For what are we, anyway, at our best, but one small, persistent cluster in a greater ferment of human activity — still and forever turning toward, tuned for, the possible, the unrealized and irrepressible design?
Arts of the Possible is a trove of lucid idealism in its entirety. Complement it with Rich on what “truth” really means, her superb 1977 commencement address on the real value of education, and her homage to Marie Curie.
Published May 19, 2015