Finding a Way Forward from the Pandemic in the Words of the Poets

Lawrence Joseph on Robert Hayden, Etel Adnan, Adrienne Rich, and Cathy Park Hong

Everyone, everywhere, on the planet who speaks or writes is speaking and writing now in a time of global pandemic. The pandemic has changed every dimension of our lives. Its economic consequences are unfathomable.

As David Harvey writes: “COVID-19 exhibits all the characteristic of a class, gendered, and socialized pandemic.” Politically, the relentless criminal malevolence of Trump and his circle of enablers and conspirators continues unabated. The iniquitous economic structures of corporate-statist power are being laid bare. Decades of economic and political injustice toward the poor, the sick, the disabled, women, people of color, those who work for hourly wages or in the gig economy, those with no or inadequate health insurance, are horribly magnified. Decisions as to who gets care and why, Pope Francis warns, run “the risk of viral genocide.” The pandemic is a precursor of all the diseases that will be unleashed by global warming and climate change.

Abstractly mapping out the political and economic dimensions of the pandemic doesn’t, of course, begin to touch the infinity of sensual and emotional experiences in our individual and collective lives now. For those deeper narratives, we turn to our writers. Elizabeth Bishop wrote: “Every good writer takes into account the social problems of his times . . . and in one way or another, all good poetry reflects those problems.” The four poets I write on here—Robert Hayden, Etel Adnan, Adrienne Rich, Cathy Park Hong—each powerfully confronts political and economic pressures that existed prior to the pandemic. Each provides us with a way forward to understand and resist the terrible realities that so deeply affect us now.

*

Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden is among the great poets in American literature.  Each of the one hundred or so poems in Hayden’s Collected Poems is well-worth reading and re-reading and studying. Every word in a poem by Hayden counts. Composed with metrical complexity in patterned or in open, often experimental forms, visually arresting on the page, deeply rooted in sounds of song, Hayden crafted his poems to a perfection that he never fails to achieve.

Hayden’s poems reveal the truths of African American—that is to say, American—history. In the title poem of his last book, [American Journal], Hayden’s extraterrestrial persona, “here among them the americans,” disguises himself

in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations white black
red brown yellow the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live by which they
justify their cruelties to one another.

America is “as much a problem in metaphysics as // it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our / galaxy.” In “Frederick Douglass,” Hayden writes of

this man, this Douglass, former slave, this Negro

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,

this man, superb in love and logic, this man

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

This love, superb in its logic, a fleshed out dream of a beautiful, needful thing, is infused throughout Hayden’s poetry. Hayden seeks, in the deepest sense,  a transcendent “angle of ascent,” a spiritual transformation of America’s inhuman, systemic, historical horrors.

“Every good writer takes into account the social problems of his times . . . and in one way or another, all good poetry reflects those problems.”

In part I of the title poem of Words for a Mourning Time, the poet mourns an America “self-destructive, self-betrayed.” In part II, he writes:

Killing people to save, to free them?

With napalm lighting routes to the future”; in part IV, Vietnam is a “bloodclotted name in my consciousness

recurring and recurring

like the obsessive thought many midnights

now of my own dying.”

In part VI, we witness:

“Lord Riot

naked

in flaming clothes

cannibal rule

of anger’s

carousels”;

and, famously, in part IX:

We must not be frightened nor cajoled

into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.

We must go on struggling to be human . . . Reclaim now, now renew the vision of

a human world where godliness

is possible.

Hayden’s “Elegies for Paradise Valley” reflects back on his childhood in Detroit’s Black Belt, Paradise Valley, where Hayden was born in 1913. His family was poor. The poet remembers “Godfearing // elders, even Godless grifters, tried // as best they could to shelter / us.” In “Summertime and the Living…”,  he remembers the elders for whom there were “no vacations,” “so harshened after each unrelenting day // that they were shouting-angry.”  Summer was “the poor folks’ time // of year.”  “Those Winter Sundays”—a poem that will be read canonically in Anglophone literature for centuries to come—places us in those Sunday mornings in winter in Detroit where the poet’s father,

got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him

the poet continues, as he wakes and hears “the cold splintering, breaking.” When the rooms were warm, the father would call, and the poet, slowly, “would rise and dress, // fearing the chronic angers of that house,”

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The cruel inhuman truths of systemic racism in Paradise Valley, in that Detroit; the poet’s father, a poor laborer, worked Sundays too; his child, the poet, in those early years of Fordist capitalism remembering him, transformed by love’s superb logic.

*

Etel Adnan

It’s impossible to circumscribe the magnanimous depth and breadth of Etel Adnan’s; artistic genius. Internationally acclaimed as a poet, writer, essayist and painter, Adnan was born in Beirut in 1925, the only child of a Greek Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard, and taught at Dominican College in San Rafael from 1958 to 1972, a time during which, actively involved in the antiwar movement against the Vietnam War, she became, in her words, “an American poet.”

In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two Beirut daily newspapers, and, in 1979, returned to California. For decades she has divided her life between Beirut, the San Francisco area, and Paris, where—she just turned 95—she now lives and works. A renowned visual artist, Adnan’s paintings have been exhibited throughout the world, including at exDOCUMENTA 13, in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, The New Museum, and Museum der Moderne Salzburg.

In 2014, Nightboat Books added To look at the sea is to become what one is—a two-volume, eight hundred pages, retrospective collection of fifty years of Adnan’s writingto its excellent list, and since then has published Adnan’s Night (2016), Surge (2018), and Sea and Fog (2019). To look at the sea is to become what one is encompasses the astonishing spectrum of Adnan’s writing from poetry, fiction, essay and memoir, to philosophical tract, feminist treatise and political manifesto. Equally astonishing is the breath-taking range of subjects and motifs that reoccur throughout Adnan’s work, which parallel what she has experienced during her remarkable life. “Politics is such an important part of our lives, whether we like it or not, “Adnan has said. “The presence of war in almost everything I write.” History and politics dictate what she writes.

Her poetry and poem-like prose are deeply associative, combining thoughts, feelings, ideas, perceptions, and observations diffused and across different times and places. Her work is sensual and intellectual. Languages of terror and violence intersperse with languages of intimacy and startling beauty. Driven in its moral witness, her poetry often pushes up against the boundaries of language itself.

In 2005, City Lights published Adnan’s In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. Composed of six prose poem sections, its language, its political and emotional depth, will more than startle you. The final section, “To Be in a Time of War,” written during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is the most powerful poem explicitly on war I’ve ever read. In times of political crisis, it’s a poem that I return to again and again.

*

Adrienne Rich 

Adrienne Rich’s achievements and contributions to American poetry are monumental. Her Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (2016) and Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry (2018) are, combined, of epical proportion. Her work ambitiously and courageously opens up a poetic critique of every aspect of politics and economics. It is morally passionate, visionary, intellectual, generous, dignified, graceful, and emotionally charged to the utmost degree. Formally, she is radical, finding forms to fit her work’s ever-changing and expanding content. Her work engages issues of war, racism, sexism and class, which she reveals as inexorably tied, as they are, to the destructive forces of capitalist, statist, imperialist American corporatism.

For Rich, poetry is a means through which forms of inhuman power can be exposed.

The ways by which she applies her political insights to the practice of  poetry are unique. Her poetry never reflects a primary concern with herself; she is, aesthetically, not interested simply in self-expression, or in portraying autobiography. The “I” in her poems is a dramatic “I,” who is at the same time intensely personal and deeply social. The poet inside a wrecked society must will an imagined common language to get to human love, which is, for Rich. the central subject of any personal or social order. Poetry of ideological commitment must enter the heart and mind, become as real as one’s body, as vital as life itself.

“The words are maps,” Rich writes in her great 1972 poem “Diving into the Wreck.” A recurrent motif in Rich’s work is the mapping-out of an aesthetic. In the thirteen section title poem of  An Atlas of the Difficult World  (1991)—another one of Rich’s countless great poems—she picks up the motif again. The poem creates an American geography of marginality, of worlds of hatred, suffering and violence that try our senses of light and darkness, beauty and love. The poem is written with a sensuous clarity that bears witness to an America in which “some who have learned to handle and contemplate the shapes of powerlessness and power // as the nurse learns hip and thigh and weight of the body he has to lift and sponge, day upon day.” In part II of An Atlas of the Difficult  World, Rich presents “the great ques­tion” asked by the “philosopher of op­pression, theorist/of the victories of force,” Simone Weil, “What are you going through” In this time of global pandemic, Rich allows us to restate Weil’s great question collectively: What are we now going through?

*

Cathy Park Hong

I first became aware of Cathy Park Hong’s poetry with her 2002 book Translating Mo’um (mo’um is he Korean word for mom). Translating Mo’um was followed in 2007 by Dance Dance Revolution, in 2012 by Engine Empire, in late February of this year by her prose essay Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. Each book, brilliant in its language, stunning in its structure and ambitions, informs the others. Hong has spoken of the “interactive possibilities” of poetry for the sake of providing “alternative ways of living within the existing real.” “What,” she asks, “are ways in which the poetic praxis can be a ritual for social experimentation?”  Hong’s poetry is grounded on its language. Hong loves to get inside what Williams Carlos Williams called “the chemistries of words.”

Her books are metaphoric in the deepest sense of the word, a carrying over of multiple dimensions of language and meaning into other dimensions of language and meaning. Hong’s books are journeys of languages of race, labor, capital, technology. She adheres to Wallace Stevens’s dictum that “poetry is a scholar’s art”: hers is a poetry of re-search. “English is always in transition,” she has said, “although the Standard version is more likely to be frozen in its glass cube. But spoken, English is a busy traffic of dialects, accents, and slang words going in and out of fashion. Slang is especially fascinating. I love outdated slang dictionaries, these words are artifacts that tell you the mindset and squeamish taboos of a certain milieu during a certain time period.” Hong creates an ever-new language of ever-new spoken sounds which, once you’ve heard them, stay with you.

Dance Dance Revolution was chosen by Adrienne Rich for the 2006 Barnard Women Poets Prize. In her citation, Rich praised Hong’s “passionate, artful worldly poems” for their “mixture of imagination, language, and historical consciousness.” Hong’s poetry makes a reader “feel and think simultaneously, and rather than implying a nihilistic or negative vision of the future, it leaves this reader, at least, revitalized.” Dance Dance Revolution is densely and complexly plotted, including the plotting of its language, or, more accurately, its languages.

In Rich’s words, Hong creates “a fluid international language called Desert Creole, which draws, the poem tells us, from 600 emigré language groups including Caribbean patois, Asian ‘pidgin,’ Spanish, Latin, German and Middle English.” Engine Empire, also intricately plotted, is a trilogy written in various forms and voices that looks hard at the destructive racist and class effects of industrialization and technology in shifting periods of time. Reading it, after reading Dance Dance Revolution, will not only change your way of thinking about the possibilities of poetry, but also about language itself.

Shortly after Adrienne Rich died in April 2012, Hong wrote a tribute, “Memories and Thoughts on Adrienne Rich,” for the Poetry Foundation blog. I find it to be among the most insightful and moving pieces on Rich’s poetry and her person. “It wasn’t until after college that I read ‘Diving into the Wreck’ and I realized that her poetry was so breathtaking and so powerful because of her commitment to the collective,” Hong writes. “The whole poem is a slow build-up of the diver’s exploration and then it ends with the “I” metamorphosing into “you” and finally “we”… Her poetry sears with a diamond-cut certainty. She does not hesitate even when she reaches the unknowable. Intention burns in every line of her poems. Her rhetoric was also constantly evolving . . . What Adrienne has been most consistent about: that there is no separation between poet and participant in the political life, that we are part of the world.” Hong concludes with a credo: “Despite the moans, that poetry is useless, we must have faith in its world urgency”—words that remind us that poetry’s urgent presence remains, right now, as it’s always been, as crucial as ever.

__________________________________________

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Lawrence Joseph
Lawrence Joseph
Lawrence Joseph is the author of seveb books of poems, most recently, A Certain Clarity (FSG, 2020). His other books of poems include So Where Are We? (FSG, 2017), Into It (FSG,2005) and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 (FSG, 2005). He is also the author of Lawyerland (FSG, 1997), a novel. He is the Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law, and has taught creative writing at Princeton. A native of Detroit, he lives in New York City.





More Story
A Conversation with Susan Choi Absolutely Filled With Spoilers! Bookable features established authors and emerging talent in conversation with host and author Amanda Stern, perhaps best...