Adrienne Rich – Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

What is political activisim anyway? It’s something both prepared for and spontaneous – like making poetry.

When we do and think and feel certain things privately and in secret, even when thousands of people are doing, thinking, whispering these things privately and in secret, there is still no general, collective understanding from which to move. Each takes her or his risks in isolation. We may think of ourselves as individual rebels, and individual rebels can easily be shot down. The relationship among so many feelings remains unclear. But these thoughts and feelings, suppressed and stored-up and whispered, have an incendiary component. You cannot tell where or how they will connect, spreading underground from rootlet to rootlet till every grass blade is afire from every other. This is that “spontaneity” which party “leaders,” secret governments, and closed systems dread. Poetry, in its own way is a carrier of the sparks, because it too comes out of silence, seeking connection with unseen others.” (58 Rich “The hermit’s scream”)

For Rich, there is rebellion in refusal, but love is in action. To be an activist is to sustain the limits of your love in action. Rich explains that in political activism, one expresses faith in a cause, activism is an expression of love to likeminded, an acknowledgment of one’s bonds to those around them. “An activists faith can never be unquestioning, can never stop responding to “new passions and new forces,” can never oversimplify, as believers and activists are often tempted or pressured to do” (60).

What can we use to unify our concerns and private worries? Activism is capable of taking many forms. If every action becomes a political action, Poetry is among the most beautiful in form. Poetry is capable of being the vehicle for a voice to be expressed, simultaneously singular and multiplied in recognition, rising as the voice of the silenced oppressed. Poetry is the outside being internalized, privately worried because it is the core of what is everywhere, a breath of this perception becoming external again in compressed expression. Letting it out because you have faith that others will recognize the vision and become aware. Poetry is an attempt at untangling an internal gnarl composed of rage and love, channeling an outside through one’s core in order to unite all those who scream privately and silently; the poem unfolding that rage just enough for it to become active.

“A so-called “political” poem comes – if it comes as poetry at all – from fearful and raging, deep and tangled questions within: in Lorde’s case – How do you deal with the things you believe? How do I put myself on the line? How can I destroy what needs to die in me without destroying others at random?” (72).

Poetry is the creation of an internal distinction between anger as “affliction” or anger as “the concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: This must change” (59). Poetry is non violent rage, and the depth of love, the imaginings of the pains of others, recognition in a world separated by pressures and forces.


Rich, Adrienne. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.

About Michael Johnson

One comment

  1. You had me at ‘Adrienne Rich’. 🙂

    Marie Marshall

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