Adrienne Rich — who spent a lifetime contemplating the relationship between art and capitalism and became the first and so far only person to refuse the National Medal of Arts in a political act of protest against the foibles of that relationship — considers poetry’s singular promise amid a culture increasingly preoccupied with the unfeeling superficialities of rampant capitalism:
Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.
I have never believed that poetry is an escape from history, and I do not think it is more, or less, necessary than food, shelter, health, education, decent working conditions. It is as necessary.
Where every public decision has to be justified in the scales of corporate profits, poetry unsettles these apparently self-evident propositions — not through ideology, but by its very presence and ways of being, its embodiment of states of longing and desire.
With an eye to the commodification of feelings in contemporary culture, she considers the tragic resignation of despair — a notion the great humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm had examined half a century earlier in his timeless treatise on human destructiveness, and one which Rebecca Solnit would echo a decade later in her sobering clarion call for resisting the defeatism of easy despair. Rich writes:
We see despair when social arrogance and indifference exist in the same person with the willingness to live at devastating levels of superficiality and self-trivialization… Despair, when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination.
One of Rich’s most potent points examines the role of poetry in the immigrant experience and in the flight from oppression. She considers poetry as a counterpoint to the problematic metaphor of the “melting pot”and writes: