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 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.

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.

Adrienne Rich, originally published in XCP 15/16 (2005)