Skip to main content

RICH: Well, that line—"there where you have landed, stripped as you are"—is multi-layered. Even as I was writing "Dedications," I wanted the poem to speak to people as individuals, but also as individuals multiplied over and over and over and over: the mother or father, as the case may be, warming milk by the stove with the infant over the shoulder; someone reading a book because she or he, too, is thirsty late at night; the office worker still in the office after rush hour. As pan of a collectivity.

And then, in this last line, I thought first of all of someone dying of AIDS. I thought of any person in an isolate situation for whom there was perhaps nothing but a book of poems to put her or him into a sense of relation with the world of other human beings, or perhaps someone in prison. But finally I was thinking of our society, stripped of so much of what was hoped for and promised and given nothing in exchange but material commodities, or the hope of obtaining material commodities. And for me, that is being truly stripped.

MOYERS: Then you go on to say, "I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language/guessing at some words while others keep you reading. .." Something like this happens to me when I read a poem: One minute I'm puzzling over some word or image, but the next line carries me forward beyond my misunderstanding into another realm of discovery.

RICH : Yes, and I had in mind an even more literal case as well--someone reading a poem in American English the way I would read a poem in Spanish or French or some other language that I know slightly, or used to know better, but of which I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary, guessing at some words, yet struggling, and carried on by something in that poem. But what is that? And why do I want to know what it is? I want to know because whatever it is in my poem that keeps you reading is some kind of bond or filament between us, something that I've been able to put there that speaks even to this other person, whose language this is not.

MOYERS : How important is your audience when you are actually writing the poem? Do you picture the audience?

RICH : I write for whoever might read. I recently saw a very interesting distinction made by the African Canadian writer Marlene Nourbese Philip. She speaks of the difference between community, audience, and market. I believe that I write for a community. Obviously, I write for a community of other poets, people whom I know, people with whom I have already connected in some way, but I also write for whoever will constitute a new and expanded community audience.

MOYERS : What inspired "Dedications"? For whom were you writing it?

RICH : "Dedications" is the final section of a long poem, "An Atlas of the Difficult World," which reflects on the condition of my country, which I wrote very consciously as a citizen poet, looking at the geography, the history, the peoples of my country. I started writing "An Atlas of the Difficult World" just before the Gulf War, so I was writing it during and after the Gulf War, and "Dedications" came to me as a way of creating a personal dialogue with many different kinds of readers who might have read this whole poem and connected with it here or there. But I wanted "Dedications" to be there at the end, waiting for the reader.

MOYERS: So you did have the audience in mind, even though you couldn't picture the particular reader or listener.

RICH : I made up some readers and listeners, but I also remembered and recognized actual people, as a fiction writer might, in that section and throughout the poem. The poem is full of voices: they're not all my voice, they're not all women's voices, some of them are men's voices, but, yes, I certainly had an audience in mind. The distinction between community, audience, and market is a really important distinction for an artist of any kind. There is a community of those whose work and whose lives you respect and love and cherish, a community that gives you the strength to create, to push boundaries, to take risks, a community that perhaps challenges you to do all that.

There is an audience of those unknown to you but whom your words are going to reach. You can't know them in advance, but you can hope for them, desire them. Market, on the other hand, is all about packaging and buying and selling, and the corresponding group would be the consumer. I don't want my poetry to be consumed in that sense. I do want it to be used.

I was very moved by Robert Bly's just now reading Neruda's "Ode to My Socks," which ends with the poet's saying that something beautiful is twice beautiful, something good is doubly good, when it is a pair of socks--warm socks in winter. It's an ode to a very beautiful pair of socks that someone had made for Neruda. I think that what is beautiful is doubly beautiful and what is good is doubly good when it can be truly used, not consumed, but used in lives, and probably used in ways that, as an artist, you could never fully know or anticipate.