A Human Eye

Book by Adrienne Rich; W.W. Norton, 2009, 280 pp.

Adrienne Rich’s new book A Human Eye: Essays on Art and Society focuses on poets who write socially-engaged verse, such as Muriel Rukeyser, June Jordan, and Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), James Baldwin, an anthology called Iraqi Poetry Today—and spotlights lesser-known figures like San Francisco poet Thomas Avena who wrote about love and AIDS, and poet-critic James Scully who, like Rich, sees poetry in the context of social engagement. Overall, Rich’s essays offer a guidebook to modern literature that—quoting Muriel Rukesyer—champions poetry as "an exchange of energy."

Rich’s verse has investigated capitalism’s and consumerism’s impact on the human mind, while celebrating efforts at community. In this context, Rich notes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous "Ode to the West Wind," which "aimed to rally a society-changing wind," driving as Shelley himself said, "dead thought…like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth."

We see an embracing of a romantic modernism in Rich’s work, from "Atlas of a Difficult World" (1991) through "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth" (2007). Her recent poetry explores how people who dream of "alternatives" should act in an individualistic, consumerist, and militaristic society. In "Fox" (2001), Rich chooses evasion to stay whole and returns to renewal and joy through the wellspring of love. "Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth" (2007), a long poem on European thinker Antonio Gramsci, stresses the value of integrity and the use of historical and theoretical analysis to understand the world.

A Human Eye derides commercially-saturated America: "Atomization and self-reference are promoted as ways of being—the surface American scene of lifestyles, passionless distractions, trivial choices without deep inner volition, sex without sensuality, irony as emotional distance, money as vocabulary for everything." In the essay "Permeable Membrane," Rich describes tackling the world in poetry by trying "to write subjective visions of objective conditions"—and that "[a]rt is a way of melting out through one’s own skin." For Rich writing can effect "change" not just individually, but culturally, because "the matter of art enters the bloodstream of social energy."

In her essay on "The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov," Rich notes that their exchange formed a sense of community between them, typical of writers of the 1940s-1960s. In a lecture on American gay poetry, "Candidates for My Love," Rich notes that institutionalized "queer studies" have roots in 1960s social upheavals, though they were writers who did what they did, wrote what they wrote, without institutional prestige and support.

In A Human Eye, Rich, now publishing in her sixth decade, shares again what she called in an earlier book of essays, "what is found there."


Gregg Mosson is the author of Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press) and editor of Poems Against War: A Journal of Poetry and Action (Wasteland Press).