When Emerson, in the 1840s, imagined an ideal American poet, he confessed his difficulties even with the models of Milton and Homer; the one he found "too literary" and the other "too literal and historical" (Whicher 239). As with other of his pronouncements, Emerson leaves this one suggestively unexplained. I take him to mean that his ideal poet will be equally faithful both to what we call art and to what we call history, and that even in great poets, these fidelities are not easily reconciled. Czeslaw Milosz also drew attention to the poet's divided loyalties in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1981-82. Milosz defined poetry as a "passionate pursuit of the Real"(56), and then acknowledged, indeed insisted, that the poet's motives are necessarily mixed.(1) In the act of writing, Milosz said, "every poet is making a choice between the dictates of poetic language and his fidelity to the real" (71). But, he quickly adds, "those two operations cannot be neatly separated, they are interlocked" (71).
Adapting Emerson's terms, I want to explore the way both the literary and the literal make themselves felt in the work of three contemporary poets: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove. Each of these women is a member of a different American minority, and the work of each exhibits the pressures of particular, historical reality, and of the poet's need to witness what is. All three of these writers experience what Milosz calls the way "events burdening a whole community are perceived by the poet as touching him in a most personal manner" (94-95).
Yet the work of these poets is shaped not only by their cultures but also by a passion for language's possibilities, for the creative and experimental energy of poetry itself. At times this passion can seem to separate them from the very communities of which they are a part; the sensuous appeal of poetry may seem irrelevant to those who live amidst more pressing and immediate concerns. The poet's formal, literary education and her fluency with written language may also separate her from her cultural community. And while beyond the scope of this essay, the important issue of a poet's fluency in English, when her experience is multicultural and bilingual, further complicates this matter.(2)
What, then, would faithfulness both to the power of the literary (with its creative use of language, its love of design, its connectedness to other writing) and to the power of the literal (with its material reality, its resistance to design, its relation to history) mean for poets like Cervantes, Song and Dove? This question must be grappled with in the immediacy of particular poems, where the imaginative transformations of language meet the resistance to transformation that Emerson calls the literal, or history, and that Milosz calls "the real."
It was never in the planning,
in the life we thought
we'd live together, two fast
women living cheek to cheek,
still tasting the dog's
breath of boys in our testy
We were never the way
they had it planned.
Their wordless tongues we stole
and tasted the power
that comes of that.
We were never what they wanted
but we were bold. (16)
These lines are the opening of "For Virginia Chavez," from Lorna Dee Cervantes's powerful and accomplished first book, Emplumada (1981). In making this poem my starting poInt, I choose a work explicit about the poet's double loyalty. "For Virginia Chavez" negotiates the connection and the difference between the poet-speaker, whose access to literature and whose power with words separates her, to some degree, from the Chicana world she grew up in, and the girlhood friend to whom the poem is addressed. As she explores her relation to Virginia Chavez, Cervantes also thinks through the relations between poetic language and direct experience, between the activities of poetry and of ordinary life. She begins "For Virginia Chavez" with the pronoun "we," asserting the girls' mutual rebellion against their cultures' expectations for them. …