Charles Altieri: On "Power"

[The task of "Power"] is to reverse traditions expectations of the role of myth in poetry. The first lines echo Kore myths as the poet thinks of a bottle of medicine unearthed from a construction site. Rich, however, quickly shifts from medicine to the making of medical cures, from passivity to activity, and hence from mythic associations to a specific historical figure, Madame Curie, whose legacy can take concrete form in discursive language. Curie is not quite a model. Instead she establishes a different kind of authority. The poet need not locate single models from the past but can try to construct a sense of community with a variety of women who appear in memory. Even the differences that prevent the past from passing on models become potentially productive by demanding a reciprocal dialogue. Sympathy with another's problems can lead to understanding features of one's own condition, and efforts at self-definition can become instruments for appreciating the problems oppressing others.

In this exchange there is considerable sustenance for Rich's hopes to overcome several dichotomies, especially that between private and public lives. As a community forms with the past, and as sympathy produces self-knowledge, it is possible to imagine poetry as a form of action. In poems one aligns oneself with other women and one tries to dramatize one's capacity to take power through and for them. If Curie died "denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power," then one can use her life to see how the two aspects might be united. And one can use one's sympathy as the contrastive term directing and dignifying the poet's quest to explore her own wounds as potential sources of power. Her project can depend not on a fantasized self but on grounding the imagination in history and then testing oneself against its realities. Once we have this historical consciousness, it is possible to give poetic voice a concrete focus. Instead of a person's being absorbed within scenes, scenes become challenges to the poet to produce a discursive poetic framework adapting them to the concerns of a society. Now Rich's greatest liability becomes an important source of strength. Her obsession with victimhood and her various forms of self-staging become states she can offer within a version of Augustine's confessional community.


Title Charles Altieri: On "Power" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Altieri Criticism Target Adrienne Rich
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 23 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry
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