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This article is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Activist Poetics in the Cold War: Grace Paley, Denise Levertov Adam Piette

In 1993, Adrienne Rich reflected on the rainbow-alliance activism of her generation - support for civil rights, the demos of the anti-nuclear peace movement, the enormous undertakings of the counterculture against the war in Vietnam, followed by feminist militancy and the burgeoning of identity politics - and saw relations between non-violent political action and the writing of poetry: ‘the connections between love and action’. Both share a common ethical purpose, the practice of ‘a way of living the future in the present, treating hostile adversaries as human beings like yourself, respecting them even as you tried to change their minds’. Poetry, like the Gandhi-inspired non-violent protest movements, is ‘a carrier of sparks, because it too comes out of silence, seeking connection with unseen others.’1 This seeking connection was deliberately staged in the nonviolent tactics, through the performance of the humanising gaze: ‘one-to-one communication, the demonstrator gone limp, being dragged by police, trying to keep eye contact, trying to hold on to the distinction between the role of the police enforcer or National Guardsmen or prison guard and the person inside the uniform’ (‘Hermit’s Scream’, p. 1159). That performing of one-to-one connection through eye contact became politically gendered once civil rights and Vietnam forms of activism were transformed into feminist militancy, most publicly in the 1980s anti-nuclear demonstrations. Rich recalls the leading feminist activist Barbara Deming, and remarks that her commitment to non-violent protest became feminised at the Seneca Peace Encampment in 1983, partly due to the misogyny meted out ...

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