"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).

     A 1984 talk, "Notes Towards a Politics of Location," announced Rich's interest in Marx. Rich resolved to "Begin with the material. Pick up again the long struggle against lofty and privileged abstraction" (AP 65). This radicalized empiricism, so to speak, she called "the core of the revolutionary process" (AP 65) and underwrites Rich's distrust of "theory"; "I have seen a woman sitting/ between the stove and the stars/ her fingers snuffing out the candles/ of pure theory" she says in her 1988 poem "Divisions of Labor" (TP 45).

     For all of her Marxism, Rich understood that history is made, it does not just unfold due to "objective conditions" (Rich 2011 60) and "historically necessary social relations of production and distribution." "Poetry isn't revolution, but it is a way of knowing/ why it must come," she writes in "Dreamwood" (Rich 1989 35); "the material and the dream can join/ / and that is the poem..." and the poem sustains if it cannot enact the revolutionary vision.

     It was to experience a revolution first hand that Rich traveled to Nicaragua in the summer of 1983. Two of her most important essays, "Blood Bread and Poetry" (1983), which uses the Nicaragua trip as a pretext, and "Notes Towards a Politics of Location" (1984) date from this time. Finally, in 1984, Rich moved to California. Before we might almost be forgiven for thinking her a New England poet despite her Southern family and Baltimore upbringing; thereafter, life in the Golden State and its sorry history is a major theme. "An Atlas of the Difficult World" provoked by the first Gulf War, closes her eighties and broaches the nineties.

     For this audience, Rich is pretty well known; Peter Dale Scott may not be. A one-time Canadian diplomat and Professor Emeritus of English at Berkeley, Scott is best known for his books on the JFK assassination and the nexus of drugs, oil and arms trading that drives actual-as opposed to the virtual-- US foreign policy. His concept "deep politics" is a historical-political theory that allows him to psychoanalyze, as it were, the actual workings of the State, including its inner conflicts and subjection to irrational forces though "deep political analysis." Scott offers a nuanced political theory that serves as the basis of his own historical work, which he defines as "all those political practices and arrangements, deliberate or not, which are usually repressed rather than acknowledged." (Scott 2006 xi). The key term here is 'deliberate,' as in, 'on purpose,' and its opposite, unintended, or truly unconscious; 'latent' in Freud's language. By its very nature, deep politics cannot know what it does, or what it is. Covert interventions whether by the CIA, or by a powerful poet, mobilize political forces and consequences beyond anyone's conscious control. History might be like the unintelligible mumblings of a person in a nightmare, but it reflects and expresses something real. We cannot, like Stephen Daedelus, awaken from the nightmare of history, but we can wake up to it by study, through investigative reporting, but also, by dissident poetry.

     The nightmare: in a late canto Pound spoke of "The terror/ and the European mind stops" (115/ 808). I suppose he meant the terror of nuclear annihilation. Scott's Coming to Jakarta is subtitled "a poem about terror." In it he speaks of a terror 'beyond the confines of my mind" (Scott 1988 18)3" -a kind of negative transcendence, which certainly could be about the Bomb, but probably refers to something a little different, the period of US history beginning with the National Security Act of 1947 that chartered both the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) and authorized the National Security State in which we now live, with its addiction to terroristic covert action, its bureaucratic paranoia and its contempt for democracy and law4. That terror began to be felt more intensely during the sixties, when critics of the invisible "machine that had taken over the mechanism" (Marcuse xvii) began to be assassinated, always -we were told--by improbable "lone gunman." The Vietnam War made terror visible abroad, and a wave of political murders made it visible at home. Nixon's aggressive blurring of foreign and domestic policy-public demonstrations against the war were considered a national security matter-simply confirmed that terror could not be contained in far away places. By the 1980s and Reagan it became obvious to many-our poets among them-that the United States was being run for the benefit of a few at the expense of the many. The decades since have seen a massive transfer of wealth from the middle classes to the super rich5, Pound would call this financial regime "usura," Scott does not use this term, but he does say, in Coming to Jakarta " EP however nuts/ you may have been/ in your Wagnerian way// you were right about banks/ the problem of stored desire, which becomes no one's...(Scott 1988 37). Scott uses September 11th to mark "the culmination of trends developing through a half-century: towards secret top-down decision making by small cabals, towards the militarization of law enforcement, towards plans for the sequestering of those who dissent, towards government off-the-books operations, transactions and assets, and toward governance by those who pay for political parties rather than those who participate in them" (Scott 2007 2). It should be stressed that Scott's cabals are symptomatic and structural, not extra-historical exceptions, but expressions of a "general syndrome" and part of our political structure" (Scott 1993 11)6.

3 He says that he wrote the first draft of this book length poem of 59 cantos in six weeks in October of 1980, "as a healing response after a publisher suppressed a prose book of mine about the JFK assassination that was already in page proofs for a print run of 250,000 copies. Jakarta began with a diffuse sense of nausea and terror, but quickly defined a focus: my stifling inability to dispel by prose the widespread denial of U.S. involvement in the 1965 Indonesian army massacre of leftists, when more than half a million people were killed. Soon however I was looking at the same process of denial in myself: I had once discounted my own University's [Cal Berkeley's] support of elements working with the army. In this way Jakarta took the form of an argument, at first with the external world, but increasingly with myself" (Minding 245). He first showed it to other poets three years later, in 1983, and published it in 1988.
4"...when you control/ most of the world/ you cannot stop// it has been managed before/ so you are expected/ to manage it again// the cunning plan/ becomes in the streets of Santiago/ a biblical whirlwind..."
(Scott 1988 135-6)
5 Individuals in the 99.999th percentile of wealth have seen their incomes increase by nearly 500% during this time (the source is Paul Krugman, Scott 2007, 3). In Scott's view, there exists an "'overworld'-that realm of wealthy or privileged society that, although not formally authorized or institutionalized, is the scene of successful influence of government by private power" (Scott 2007, 2). Kevin Phillips speaks of the "financialization" of our economy, that 'process whereby financial services, broadly construed, take over the dominant economic, cultural and political role in our national [and international] economy" (qtd. Scott 2007, 3).
6 These cabals might operate within the government, such as the "NSC staff" behind the Iran-Contra scandals or outside it, like Nixon's "plumbers" group. They might be foundations used to conceal and finance covert operations, they include think-tanks and influential entities like the Council or Foreign Relations, media empires such as Rupert Murdoch's International News Corp. or lobbying groups, like AIPAC. These are the cadres of class-war from above dedicated to "total global dominance at any price, without regard to consequences" (Scott 2007, 2). This overworld is connected in various ways to the actual underworld of international drug and weapons trafficking, the Mafia, drug cartels and the like.

Although the views I am rehearsing here are Scott's I'm confident that Rich would substantially agree with his description. In Poetry and Commitment Rich summed up the situation this way:

In my lifetime I have seen the breakdown of rights and citizenship where ordinary 'everybodies,' poets or not, have left politics to a political class bent on shoveling the elemental resources, the public commons of the entire world into private control. Where democracy has been left to the raiding of 'acknowledged' legislators, the highest bidders. In short, to a criminal element.
     Ordinary, comfortable Americans have looked aside when our fraternally-twinned parties-Democrat and Republican-have backed dictatorships against popular movements abroad; as their covert agencies, through torture and assassination, through supplied weapons and military training, have propped up repressive regimes in the name of anti-communism and our "national interests." Why did we think fascistic methods, the subversion of civil and human rights, would be contained somewhere else? Because as a nation, we've clung to a self-righteous false innocence, eyes shut to our own scenario, our body politic's internal bleeding (Rich 2007 15-6)7.

As she writes in her 1985 poem, "Blue Rock": "At the end of the twentieth century/ cardiac graphs of torture reply to poetry/ line by line" (Rich 1986 74). "A diffuse sense of nausea and terror," (Scott 2000 245) and the moral horror of complicity with murderous policies are things that Rich's poetry shares with Scott's; their work is to Scott "a healing response" (Scott 2000, 245) or, in the words of Marcuse, "a matter of physical and mental hygiene" against "nausea caused by 'a way of life'" that suffocates in its own affluence and privilege (Marcuse xvii).

The title Coming to Jakarta means confronting history. There, Scott finds a cold comfort in having "learnt from terror/ to see oneself as part of the enemy" (Scott 1988 62) because he knows now to look within, not only outside himself for "this darkness that governs us" (Scott 2000 20). Rich's concern about unwitting complicity with the powers that be, her "privilege"-especially verbal privilege-is one of the most constant anxieties in Your Native Land, Your Life. But with such privilege comes responsibility: "We move but our words stand/ become responsible/ for more than we intended" (Rich 33).

     Both poets anxiously link privilege-growing up in homes with books and art-to apolitical aestheticism. Rich worries whether the poet's solitude, the simple quiet space within which to compose and write, is itself a "privileged" space, a "privilege we can't afford in the world that is" (Rich 77). Scott notes mordantly, that "there have always been poets" (Scott 62) but what of it, in the face of the "destruction of rain forests/ 8000 species a year/ power and submission" (Scott 1988 62)? He worries about his "excessive inheritance" "as a refugee third-/ generation Canadian poet" (Scott 1988 90).

7 Rather than presenting statistics showing the concentration of wealth, as Scott does, Rich uses statistics of the concentration of prisoners-1 in 136 Americans--12 times as many black men in prison as white men (Rich 2007 16).. Both poets consider the effects of this ultimately terroristic regime, only from different ends of the moral telescope.

     For both, poetic privilege is figured in images of height. Scott worries about "the fake/ clairvoyance of altitude' (Scott 1988 13) as his plane curves north above Cape Cod. He sees that "If we are to escape// we must go another way" (Scott 1988 69). As a romantic student, Scott even climbed Mt. Snowden is search of a Wordsworth- moment, but found himself in a "dense fog" and "in the end the sunburst/ over the summit revealed //no more than a cog railway/ sloping down into the west" (CJ 74) a resonant image of dissatisfactions with the Romantic attitude 150 years later. (Rich refutes the Romantic "myth that Nature makes us free" of time and history in "Living Memory" (Rich 1989 47). Worse, Scott can link height to murderous "policy decisions." Writing about the four power disarmament talks at the UN, for which he was a Canadian government observer (CJ 91), he laments:

At the power center alas
	so many new nations
so many ambitious men

still candidates for
the curse of pre-eminence
not yet terrorized by war

and now [ie 1965] bloodbaths in peacetime
	they have designed for themselves 
with the insomniac clarity

one associates with mountains
	the roof of the world (CJ 92)	

This is the birds'-eye view taken of global policy-makers; history transformed into creating "positive climates" for foreign investment by massacring peasants.

     Still airborne, Scott notices that "Already we are descending/ into these shadows which//hang about as if there / were something much more urgent. Left wholly unsaid' (Scott 1988 130 Likewise, in "North American Time" "gliding at night/ in a plane over New York City," Rich feels like a "messenger...called to engage / this field of light and darkness" -a "grandiose idea" belied by the fact that what she must engage, "is meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence" ( Rich 1986 36). Responsibility just means response-that is what a true poet is called to do. Both poets need to try to persuade themselves that what they are doing is "honest work" (Rich 1986 68), that they are exposing power by speaking truth to it. Rich: "Reading and writing/ are not sacred yet people have been killed/ as if they were" (Rich 1986 109). The ceaseless labor of revolutionary change is one of Rich's most insistent themes-yet that labor in language ironically drives both poets to the edge of the sayable and beyond.

     In his best known book, Deep Politics and the JFK Assassination, (1993, 1996) Scott surprisingly mentions his own poetry, where "I take issue with the enlightenment contempt for poetry and religion; I propose that, in the spirit of Dante and the Tao Te Ching, we should move instead toward a deeper Enmindment that respects the truths of darkness, as well as those of light" (Scott 1996 22). It is this movement toward Enmindment, beyond history proper that will be fully expressed in the final movement of Seculum, Minding the Darkness (2000). He writes there:

I believe in enmindment
	and poetic politics
the intuition of an agenda

not just from the past
	still less from the nihilistic
assertion of pure possibility

but from the familiar silence
	of a source beyond self 
accessible to anyone

liberated from possession... (Scott's emphasis MD 14-5) 

The term "agenda" is a clear reference to Pound, who used the word to mean roughly "things that need doing." 8

     Not incidentally, Rich imagines divinity as "a Mindfulness" at the end of "Turning" the baffled poem about the intractable issue of Israel-Palestine that closes Time's Power. There she imagines a divinity a cell might hallucinate
the eye-intent, impassioned-
behind the lens of the microscope

so I have thought of you,
whatever you are-a mindfulness-
whatever you are: the place beyond all places,

beyond boundaries, green lines,
wire-netted walls
the place beyond documents.  (Rich 1989 54).  

Mindfulness and Enmindment-not exactly the same, but both "beyond" history -beyond documents for Rich, beyond the self for Scott. There is a strange convergence here; Scott's unresigned "poetic politics" is not passive, while Rich's inscrutable mindfulness, beyond Torah, Bible or Koran, beyond documents, therefore, ahistorical, "unamable by choice" becomes a strangely Taoist "solitude of no absence" best figured in the frequent imagery of the desert as promised land and land of broken promises, where there is "always and never, a bush on fire" (Rich 1989, 30); nothing Marxist about this! But Rich's poem ends with questions that her imagined divinity cannot or will not answer. Part of the lesson is that "poetry never stood a chance/ of standing outside of history" (Rich 1986 33), which is where our political problems must, after all, be solved, and yet poetry must try. This is the true poet's dissident agenda (93/ 639, 641) and zone of struggle.

8 For that reason William Cookson's Poundian literary review is called Agenda.

Work Cited

Carr, Edward Hallett. What is History? Vintage. NY. 1961.
Dunayevskaya, Raya. Marxism and Freedom. 4th ed. NY. Columbia UP. 1988.
Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization. Beacon Press. Boston. 1966.
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New Directions. NY. 1986.
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible. W.W. Norton. NY. 2001.
---. An Atlas of the Difficult World. W.W. Norton. NY. 1991.
---. Poetry and Commitment. W.W. Norton. NY. 2007.
---. Time's Power: Poems 1985-1988. W.W. Norton. NY. 1989.
---. Your Native Land, Your Life. W.W. Norton. NY. 1986.
Scott, Peter Dale. Coming to Jakarta. New Directions. NY. 1988.
---. Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. Berkeley. U. of Cal. P. 1996.
---. Listening to the Candle. New Directions. NY. 1992.
---. Minding the Darkness. New Directions. NY. 2000.
---. The Road to 9/11. Berkeley. U. of Cal. P. 2007.