Words Into Action

A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008 BY Adrienne Rich. W. W. Norton & Company. . 15.

The cover of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008

Adrienne Rich dated all her poems because she wanted each one to "speak for that moment." Through that simple gesture, she was showing us that her poetry was of its time and not outside it. After Trump was elected president, I began to do the same.

Reality was pulled from under my feet, and I needed to document and date everything to make sense of it. I read how climate scientists are frantically copying data into independent servers because they fear that years of research will vanish under Trump's administration. In my own small way, to counteract the hypertrophy of false information, I've been archiving the present with the permanent ink of poetry.

I talked to friends who question if it's even ethical to write poetry in the age of Trump. I have those doubts myself. The act of writing poetry seems anemic, even frivolous, when there is so much work to be done as foot-to-pavement protesters. This is why I've been turning to Rich's A Human Eye (2009), a collection of speeches and manifestos on how art can effect social change. Reading her essays, I am reassured that, of course, we write poems because that is our vocation, and every skill set is necessary in opposing autocratic agendas. Art does not stand apart and speak for society but is rather part of the world; poets are embedded in social movements in the way teachers or migrant workers are embedded, and our creative output is just one facet of those movements. "My verse works," writes Rich, "as participant in political struggle, and at the personal, visceral level where it's received and its witness acknowledged. These are two responses to the question of poetry and commitment, which I take as complementary, not in opposition."

Rich also reminds us that writers must, like the scientists who are compiling their guerrilla archives, safeguard truth while providing alternate models of the future. She writes, "For now, poetry has the capacity—in its own ways and by its own means—to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom—that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the 'free' market." She suggests that the poet's struggle to continually "redefine freedom" will require patience, a commitment to remind the public of this nation's possibilities: "This ongoing future, written off over and over, is still within view."

Cathy Park Hong is working on a collection of essays on race, art, and poetry.