The Poetry of Commitment

By Gareth Evans


Two new essays in different media speak with optimism and honour to the need for continued, lyric engagement

Here’s something. In these weeks and weeks of English rain, when the brightness has bled from the sky or is only guessed at in Zen opposition to the gunmetal tenements of cloud climbing the day, the always surprising currents of the world deliver, like wreck-salvaged crates of fruit onto the barren shore, two documents that open wide the season, their windows giving us a blazing vista of possibility, renewal electric again in the air as much as building storms.

They teach of the rightness of resistance, they speak with love of the great field of history (history both planting and harvest at once) and they speak in the language of art about the most pressing demands of the personal, the social, the street and the state. They are, for this recipient, as welcome as the solar is to leaves. They should be taken in as deeply as that light. That they both originate out of North American soil is testament to the great humanity, internationalist and open as a palm (regardless of how often this is obscured by the actions of its Administrations) of that country and its people.

Adrienne Rich, lifelong poet of an activism in heightened word and deed, gave a paper at a 2006 conference on poetry and politics in Stirling, Scotland. It’s now a volume, definitively slim, the size of a postcard and four dozen pages long, which contains multitudes. In it, she draws on a parallel trajectory in modern poetry, not the avant-garde of ‘false problems’ but the involved expression of ageless creativity in the face of constant pressures. Putting poetry at the heart of the world’s flashpoint scenarios, especially where it seems most luxurious to do so (as in the Middle East and Guantanamo) she makes the case for poetry’s ability to sow difference and fresh direction. Telling a remarkable story about an evangelical Israeli Defence Force Commander, David Zonsheine, who came across poems by Yitzhak Laor that revealed the absolute permeation of the Occupation into all parts of life, she notes Zonsheine’s observation that ‘this is… a poetry that does not seek parental approval or any other approval, a poetry that liberates from the limitations of criticism of the discourse, and a poetry that… finds the independent place that revolts and refuses.’ Zonsheine now organizes the anti-Occupation movement, Courage to Refuse, within the IDF.


She speaks of the Camp X Ray detainees who wrote and translated poetry as a dam against insanity. Who would then dare to claim that poetry does not ‘work’? How lines on the page can change things. It becomes a vision of another possible world. As always and ever it will be. As Rich says, towards the end of this briefest but most stirring of texts, ‘poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded… on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the ‘free’ market. This ongoing future, written off over and over, is still within view.’

This future, and the looking forwards (each gaze helps to realise it) lie at the unspoken centre of the extraordinary, timely (and timeless because always current) new essay film by John Gianvito. Known variously as a fine curator, film-maker (his Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein was a pioneering and radical response in hybrid form to the 1991 Gulf War as felt in New Mexico) and editor (an essential volume of interviews with the late Andrei Tarkovsky), he brings in a sense all those skills to this supremely calm, and calmly defiant, pilgrimage of witness to the cemetery graves, overlooked public monuments (plaque and statue) and varied historical indicators of an oppositional, egalitarian, radicalised national lineage. From the Wobblies to Malcolm X, Chicago to Chavez, Gianvito’s camera visits the traffic islands, malls, roadsides and overlooked martyr sites of those who variously stood and were cut down for the crime of speaking truth to the violence of state and corporate power on behalf of their communities and comrades.

His camera is still, locked off in the spirit of James Benning, as he looks, testifying with the lens to the so little remembered sacrifices and struggles across the centuries. The steadiness of the gaze, and the silence of the acknowledgment, in the shadow of industrial parks, shopping centres and busy highways, only increases the sense of the lived and vocal histories being noted. When we are with the dead, we are quiet for a reason. We are with them to listen, to hear their voices raised, their feet on public asphalt, they who were not quiet, who did not sink beneath the waves without their song. And the fixity of the camera, against the fleeting business nearby, again acknowledges the endurance of their example.


That Gianvito deliberately places his witness within the trees and meadows and blown light of the great American landscape makes another connection. The wind that scores his passage speaks of the flux and hope of things, of the distance (in time and place) come close, and this link between land and struggle anchors our awareness, bypassing official structures, of a lasting and genuine quality of the nation, of people working in awareness of each other, locally, for a common good. It hymns another America, and places the spirit of place with the people against power.

This is not the sentimental wish fulfilment of an unthinking nostalgia (Gianvito charts the Native American story). Rather it is simply an acknowledgement of what countless people have done, and continue to do, not seeking fame or fortune, daily in the world. The fact that these markers exist at all is in itself testament. Remembering this is to re-member, to assemble again the body of work, the body that refuses to submit.

Ending on a broadly populated demonstration – the dreamed future nascent – and challenging the passivity of apartment onlookers, Gianvito confirms the purpose of his approach, far closer to Tarkovsky than agit-prop rhetorical. The present is history being born, and if one cannot celebrate the fact of being alive in the difficult now, then how can one build a fully dimensioned society to come. Here he fulfils Adrienne Rich’s belief in an aesthetic that is not ‘a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering but... news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalising systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.’

And like Rich, like those he and she avow, he moves beyond protest into dissidence. Here is James Scully (as quoted by Rich): ‘dissident poetry does not respect boundaries between public and private, self and other. In breaking boundaries it breaks silences, speaking for, or at best, with the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life...’

Let us meet there, at the centre of being, even if at the margins of the heard. From there, the wind will carry us.

Poetry and Commitment by Adrienne Rich is published by WW Norton.

It is hoped that Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind will be shown in London in the near future. Watch the Vertigo website for details. In the meantime, please also check out a superb review of the film by Michael Sicinski, whose writings can be found at