May 2009

Gina Myers

nonfiction

A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1996-2008

Throughout her career as a poet, essayist, and activist, Adrienne Rich has been known for her progressive politics and sharp social critiques. In this new collection, A Human Eye: Essays on Art and Society, 1996 – 2008, she turns her eye towards an examination of poetry and explores the purposes of art in times of extremity, noting art's ability “to revive [the] human spirit, stimulate consciousness, [and] restore a brutalized humanity.” This vibrant collection of essays, introductions and lectures defines commitment and what it means not just to be a poet, but what it means to be a person, citizen, and member of the world.   

The collection takes its title from Marx, who wrote, “The eye has become a human eye only when its subject has become a human, social object.”  Rich explains, “When art -- as language, music, or in palpable, physically present silence -- can induce that kind of seeing, holding, and responding, it can restore us to our senses.” Throughout the collection, Rich discusses poets and writers, historic and contemporary, who have had this ability, through engagement and a commitment to social justice, to restore us to our senses, calling our attention to the human.

Through several essays, Rich charts her own development. Whether it be a close reading of a text that was important to her, such as LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer, or her Jewish identity and the freedom given to her as a young child by her father’s library, which let her know “it’s possible and necessary to be interested in everything.” This allowing of “philosophy, history, foreign literatures in translation, novels, plays, [and] poetry many kinds” to exist together in “one room of the mind” spills into these essays, so that they are not merely a comment on one poet’s work, but part of a much larger conversation. A conversation that takes into consideration the historical, political, and social situation of the poet, and also a conversation that spans generations and takes into account our own historical, political, and social situation. For the words, many written years and years ago, are still vital and relevant today. 

The words of Whitman are placed into conversation with the words of James Baldwin. Their words are placed into conversation with the Scottish Marxist poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Che Guevera are in conversation with Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. And all of these writers, thinkers, and revolutionaries are in conversation with Rich. In this sense, this book is much more than just a collection of individual essays. As Rich notes in the foreword, the essays themselves work together to “describe a wider arc: not simply one reader’s preferences and choices but an ardent conversation among the quick and the dead, different generations, histories, temperaments.” 

Many of Rich’s ideas culminate in the essay “Poetry and the Forgotten Future,” originally given as a lecture in 2006.  Opening with lines from MacDiarmid’s poem, “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” which calls for poetry coming from a mind “Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers / Of human lives -- aware of the innumerable dead / And the innumerable to-be-born,” the essay discusses commitment, the direct activism of writers, the difference between protest poetry and dissident poetry as defined by James Scully (who is featured in another essay in this collection), and “an engaged poetics that endures the weight of the unknown, the untracked, the unrealized, along with its urgencies for and against.”

This idea of urgency is central to Rich’s readings and to her own poetics. In “Permeable Membrane,” a statement of poetics, Rich declares the need for “[c]ommitment to a poetics not defined by the market, not complacent courtier verse or prose cut by template. A poetics of longing, of organic necessity.” 

One argument of this collection, and one which Rich claims Muriel Rukeyser understood better than most American poets, is that the individual life is shaped in history and in collectivity. This sense of the individual shaped in history and in collectivity, combines with urgency, the necessity to speak, in “‘Candidates for My Love’: Three Gay and Lesbian Poets.” Looking at many generations of the gay and lesbian movement, Rich cites many lives “of defiance and creation,” and reaffirms “that radical politics is a great confluent project of the human imagination, of which art and literature are indispensable tributaries.”   

Besides getting at larger issues of social justice and engaged living, this collection does a great service to the voices it brings together. Her introduction to Three Classic Essays on How to Change the World: Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Marx is aptly titled “Three Classics for New Readers,” and in her essay on Muriel Rukeyser, she notes, “this poet has readers waiting for her who perhaps, holding this book, will be seeing her name for the first time.” In her essay on the out-of-print The Dead Lecturer, she advises, “borrow a copy from the public library, from a friend’s bookshelf, or get hold of it secondhand.” There are a number of poets in this collection who readers may encounter for the first time. Thomas Avena and James Scully are names I’ve encountered for the first time, and after reading “The Voiceprints of her Language,” I found myself searching for June Jordan’s collected poems.

A Human Eye is an excellent collection of essays and an important contribution to the ongoing conversation of what it means to be engaged in life and social justice. Rich adds her voice to the many voices that are part of this conversation. She writes, “There is no ‘progress’ -- political or otherwise -- in poetry -- only riffs, echoes, of many poems and poets speaking into the future and back toward the past. Breaking with one tradition to discover another. Returning to an abandoned tradition, like an abandoned house, to find it inhabited by new guests.” Poetry acts as an exchange of energy. Rich notes, “Poetry has a way of resonating beyond its original source moment. Maybe because poetic truths depend not on a structure of ideas but on a medium, not on fixed relationships but on metaphor: lightning flashes of connection.” 

A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1996-2008 by Adrienne Rich
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393070069
208 Pages