Poverties and Protest — Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 by Adrienne Rich

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
BY Adrienne Rich
(W.W. Norton, 2011)

Rich’s twenty-fifth book of poetry opens with the gorgeous musicality that has come to be one of the signature aspects of her work. “Waiting for Rain, for Music” begins:

Burn me some music Send my roots rain I’m swept
dry from inside Hard winds rack my core

A struggle at the roots of the mind Whoever said
it would go on and on like this

Straphangar swaying inside a runway car
palming a notebook scribbled in

contraband calligraphy against the war
poetry wages against itself

*

Once under a shed’s eaves
thunder drumming membrane of afternoon
electric scissors slitting the air

— p. 13

Rich’s poems are works of oratory as well as works of art, and her technical mastery of language is where the two faces of her craft come together in seamless pieces of prosody. Here, her choices in caesuras, stanza breaks, and line breaks work together to control the pacing and tenor of the poem. Rich’s poems are works of oratory as well as works of art, and her technical mastery of language is where the two faces of her craft come together in seamless pieces of prosody. Had she chosen to place each grouping of words on their own lines, this poem would read too slowly to connote urgency. Had she chosen to create the caesuras with periods rather than extra spacing, the tempo would read too quickly for the poem’s full meaning to unfold — and no accomplished orator would ever race through a speech. This poem, as with most all of the poems Rich has written over the course of her sixty-year career, has weighty social and political import: she knows exactly how to make the most of the genre to appeal both to the humanitarian consciousness and musical ear of all readers, and this combination results in eloquent and powerful poetry.

What makes Rich’s poems matter is that the speakers are not distant voices calling for change. On the contrary, they always have a stake in the issue at hand. Empathy is the hallmark of the work that has made her voice such an enduring one in the last half-century of social change. Indeed, many poems in Tonight No Poetry Will Serve are spoken by a voice deeply empathetic to victims of oppression. For example, “From Sickbed Shores” opens with this global perspective:

From shores of sickness: skin of the globe stretches and
snakes
out and in room sound of the universe bearing
undulant wavelengths to an exhausted ear

(sick body in a sick country: can it get well?

— p. 35

The wavelengths of all oppressed peoples’ voices reach into us through Rich’s technically sophisticated shape of line: the first line of the poem stretches as far as it physically can across the page; then makes an enjambed snap back to “snakes,” a dramatically short line; then stretches into another long line which ends with an expectant transitive verb. It is only the third line of the poem, and we are already hooked. Several stanzas later, we see that the “sick body” of the planet, with its stretched skin and “exhausted ear” is one in the same as the bound and tortured body of each prisoner:

wired wrists jerked-back heads
gagged mouths flooded lungs

All, all remote and near

Wavelengths —
whose? mine, theirs, ours even

yours who haven’t yet put in a word?

— p. 35

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