Foreword to Line Break by Adrienne Rich
Poetry is neither an end in itself, nor a means to some external end. It's a human activity enmeshed with human existence; as James Scully names it, a social practice. Written where, when, how, by, for and to whomever, poetry dwells in a web of other social practices historically weighted with enormous imbalances of social power. To say this is not—as these essays vividly demonstrate—to deny the necessity for poetry as an art whose tangible medium is language.
It's a commonplace to say that in a society fraught with official lying, hyperbolic urgings to consume, contrived obsolescence of words (along with things and the people who produce them) poets must "recover" or "subvert" or "re-invent" language. Poetic language may thus get implicitly defined as autonomous terrain apart from the ripped-off or colonized languages of daily life.
It's an even older commonplace to claim "the imagination" as a kind of sacred turf. The appeal to a free-floating imagination permeates discussions of poetry and is traced to many honored sources from Coleridge to André Breton to Wallace Stevens to Barbara Guest. It can assume a degraded public world to which is opposed the poet's art as an activity-in-itself, distinct from other kinds of activity, work, production, save perhaps as metaphor.
Yet the imagination—the capacity to feel, see, what we aren't supposed to feel and see, find expressive forms where we're supposed to shut up—has meant survival and resistance, for poets and numberless others: incarcerated, under military or colonial occupation, in concentration camps, at grinding labor, suffering bleak and traumatic circumstances of many kinds. We may view the imagination as a kind of gated, landscaped neighborhood—or as a river, sometimes clogged and polluted, carrying many kinds of traffic including pollen and contraband, but in movement: the always-regenerating impulse toward an always-beginning future. Scully addresses the difference in his essay, "The Dream of an Apolitical Poetry," through the work of artists such as Gauguin, Woolf, Andrew Marvell, Mahmoud Darwish and Tadeusz Rózewicz.
Most critical writing on poetry in the United States (I can't speak of elsewhere) has reached a pretty low point: degenerated into biographical juicy bits extracted from or imposed on poems, or "postmodern" self-referential jargon. Any poet whose work is both artistically searching and ideologically dissenting knows how shallow, therefore ultimately dismissive even favorable critical response, can be, isolating poems from their historical and social fields of energy—save perhaps as the poetry can be related to a recognized aesthetic movement. (But aesthetic movements, too, belong to historical and social processes and need critiquing in that light.)
This is a serious loss to poets (who might benefit from more informed and penetrating criticism); to readers (who might welcome discussion that could bring their reading of poetry into focus with a world which they know all too well to exist, could help them become the great readers Whitman declared a great poetry would need); and to the trajectory of all whose desire for social justice is inseparable from the need for beauty.
The imagination of an unrealized, humane social order is as passionate and ineluctable~as the artist's search for unrealized expression. Scully puts the lie to the idea that one must preclude the other.
I found Line Break by chance on the Internet in 2002, searching for Scully's poetry. First published in 1988 by a small press in Seattle, it was out of print and already becoming unavailable. (Meanwhile, bookstores were stocked with manuals on poetry-writing as healing, as self-realization, as spiritual enlightenment—the commoditizing of some vague resource known as poetry, along with facile solutions to an unnamed general malaise.)
James Scully's essays, like his poems, refuse to soothe or simplify, to shortchange either poetry or the imperative for social revolution. They are continuously interesting because they take on poetry from so many angles, are written from a generous frame of reference and in a human voice. In the title essay Scully addresses the work that line-breaks actually do. Here questions of meter, free verse, punctuation and line interact with a discussion of liberalism and voice. In "Demagogy in the Musée" he unravels the assertions in Auden's celebrated "Musée des Beaux Arts," in terms of what is unmentioned in the poem. Elsewhere he lays open terms like "ideology," "protest poetry," "dissident poetry," and "poetic freedom." His fiercely demystifying intelligence is grounded in hope and realism for poetry in itself along with other forms of dissident engagement. It propels us into fertile argument with ourselves and others—Scully included.
Curbstone Press has long made possible books like this. It will be good news to many that Line Break is back in print. For new readers, in an apparently disconsolate time, it could be a window flung open, letting in necessary air and light.