"Two Poets' Agenda in the Age of Terror (the 1980s):
Adrienne Rich and Peter Dale Scott."
By Alec Marsh
I want to bring together two poets born within months of each other in 1929 and very active in the 1980s (and beyond) Adrienne Rich and Peter Dale Scott, because both are deeply concerned with poetry's relationship with history. In his three-part long poem Seculum (1988-2000) Scott struggles openly with the legacy and influence of Pound's Cantos-"the poem including history," while Rich writes in her great poem of 1983 "North American Time" -"Poetry never stood a chance/ of standing outside history" (Rich 33). This shared concern has made me think about the influence of Ezra Pound on these political poets. In the case of one, Scott, the influence is direct, obvious and ambivalent--Scott actively wrestles with The Cantos in Seculum, the first volume of which, Coming to Jakarta, was published in 1988. Pound's effect on Rich is harder to trace, not least because she did not read The Cantos and loathed his politics. Nonetheless, the influence is there too, because Pound is the prototype of the dissident poet, and any sustainable dissident poetry requires a theory of history-that is, it must ask "why"? Why things were the way they were, and what caused them to be the way they are (see Carr 1961 113-143).
In a late talk, Poetry and Commitment, Rich used James Scully to define dissident poetry against mere protest poetry, which is "conceptually shallow" and "reactive" rather than truly critical-this is because protest poetry is often propagandistic, repeating a party line or ideology; it is self-righteous, not self critical-it knows why things happened already. Dissident poetry, by contrast, "does not respect boundaries of public and private, self and other." It breaks boundaries, breaks silences, "opening poetry up, putting it in the middle of life"; this poetry "talks back" and "acts as part of the world" (qtd. Rich 2007 P&C 14). Pound, with his passion for "clear demarcations" and strict definitions would probably disagree with this formula, but he would certainly concur that poetry is about breaking silences -or in his language, lifting the "blackout" imposed by the oppressors-it has a clear forensic function.1 As The Pisan Cantos show, he was not afraid to bring himself into the poetry. In a later formula, Rich explicitly includes Pound among those poets whose work is "an exchange of energy, which, in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions" (Rich's emphasis 2007, 38).
Although Rich detested theory, preferring to concentrate on "social practice"; her own theory of history is a revolutionary Marxist-feminism, accepting Marx's thesis that all history hitherto is the history of class struggle, but arguing that this paradigm "erased women's labor except in the paid workplace." In fact, there is a "caste struggle" between men and "the second sex" of women. Recognizing that women were marginalized and forgotten in every revolutionary movement, Rich saw women as oppressed within all classes; in short, capitalism is "not the single source of all oppressions"; rather, patriarchy is. In the work of the anti-Communist, but "Marxist-humanist" Raya Dunayevskaya, Rich found a Marxist-feminism that was useful (AP 83-97)2. Her researches in this direction led Rich to other women on the Left who provided models for a revolutionary feminist life. Marxism stands behind Rich's distrust of the word 'feminism' and powers her insistent alternative: women's liberation.
1 In her last book, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, ...
2 In Marxism and Freedom (1958, 1971), Dunayevskaya presents "the putrescent smog of communism" (43)as the antithesis of "Marxist-Humanism" (see "Intro. to second edition" pp. 16-20). Dunayevskaya constantly links "Marx's philosophy of freedom" to the black struggle for human rights in the United States. She speaks of 'the American roots of Marxism" (21) and links the abolitionist movement to Marx via Marx's admiration for Wendell Phillips (82-3). Dunayevskaya was the first to translate Marx's 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts into English in 1958 (18).