03 June 2007

Poetry & Commitment

Yesterday afternoon I picked up this very slender volume by Adrienne Rich. Her concern is with "poetry as it's created and received" in a "violently politicized and brutually divided world." I find Rich's remarks on poetry and politics congenial. Hers is an incisive voice, one part of an estimable tradition of committed American writers that, as she rightly depicts it, represents less a "canon" to be authoritatively invoked, than a group of compatriots who, their "voices mingling in long conversation," each have "written against the silences of their time and location."

Despite its brevity, the argument Rich advances, spills over, well beyond the confines of poetry or even literature. For instance, there is a passage that strikes me as relevant to ongoing discussions of the uses of photography. And in it Rich endorses much the same view that I espouse:

“Poetry has been charged with ‘aestheticizing,’ thus being complicit in, the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. ... If to ‘aestheticize’ is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them as merely dramatic occasions for the artist rather than as structures of power to be revealed and dismantled - much hangs on the words ‘merely’ and ‘rather than.’ Opportunism is not the same as committed attention. But we can also define the ‘aesthetic’ not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.”

Replace the first word in that passage with "photography" and we hear the direct echo of too common criticisms of 'aestheticized' images of mayhem and pain and suffering. In response to such claims, I would reply: "Yeah! Like Adrienne said."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Jim. I was wondering if you'd care to unpack the ideas in the Rich quote a bit further. Is she suggesting that the aestheticization of suffering should be or can be defined as resistance? I'm not sure where she's going with it.

04 June, 2007 15:40  

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