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On "Poem" (I lived in the first centruy of world wars)


Michael True

Rereading Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem"—beginning, "I lived in the first century of world wars" (RR 211 )—I inevitably wonder why anyone speaking American English wouldn't regard it as one of the most remarkable poems in contemporary American literature. Where else, in 20 lines, do we have such an accurate rendering of what it feels like to live at this moment in history? Who else provided such a precise, simple statement of our "nuclear" dilemma? Which other writer managed not only to identify the terror that dominates the landscape, but also to suggest a strategy for moving through its insanity toward a safer place?

. . . "Poem" is, among other things, a journey through discouragement, even despair, to a renewed acquaintance with the restorative powers of history and biography, represented by the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" (RR 212).

I lived in the first century of world wars.

The opening line, an assertion, places the speaker in time, in an era unlike any other, scourged by modern warfare. In the 1970s, Rukeyser, as with any person her age, rightfully felt that the world had been at war continually throughout her lifetime. "Kathe Kollwitz," written about the same time as "Poem," mentions the special bond Rukeyser feels with an artist enduring the same fate:

Held between wars
my lifetime
among wars, the big hand of the world of death (RR 214)

Although the movement against the war in Vietnam, to which Rukeyser contributed, had gathered strength by the late 1960s, it had provoked no change in policy in Washington, and the war would drag on for another five years.

The simplicity of the opening statement in "Poem" gives it a particular weight and authority. It is a pronouncement, but also a lament, whose simple language keeps it from sounding pompous or pretentious. It’s as if the speaker were beginning a casual autobiography—"I was born in Philadelphia in 1913." The mood, approaching depression, is quickly established) so that we are prepared for the ironic statements, bordering on anger, that follow. Both the depression and the anger are reasonable responses to the situation in which the speaker finds herself. That first line sets up expectations that are fulfilled and at the same time challenged by the second line:

Most mornings I would be more or less insane, (RR 211)

The word "insane" in the second line is surprising in the way that Joseph Brodsky said is characteristic of American poems (he had in mind Auden’s "September 1, 1929"): "it violates the preconceived music of the meter with its linguistic content" (Brodsky 308).

Although wars are obviously horrible and impinge on the lives of everyone, including people far from the battlefield, Rukeyser’s rather bald statement, nonetheless, draws the reader up short. Is she being funny—or serious? The following lines not only answer that question but also describe how the peculiar insanity of the Vietnam period was accomplished:

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

The war in Vietnam was a TV war fought in living rooms and barrooms across America. It was an undeclared war initiated by "careless" people who felt no responsibility to tell the truth. Communication, based upon trust, was systematically subverted by bureaucrats merely doing a job, assisted by journalists whose reports were little more than press releases from the White House. Stories of the war omitted or suppressed important details. "Careless stories" repeated lies of American foreign policy, as it was being conducted from Washington (a fact substantiated only later by the Pentagon Papers). Also),contrary to a popular impression, TV coverage of the war probably lengthened rather than shortened it. Domesticated by TV, it became mere background among advertisements in the media.

The word "devices" suggesting something devious or malign, is particularly appropriate here. Although the Pentagon did not exploit TV for propaganda purposes as fully and obviously during the Vietnam War as it did during the Gulf War, people sensed that information was being withheld. Only later did the public learn that the body counts, evidence that "we were winning," were phony.

I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

In the search for reassurance, the speaker in the poem telephones a friend, only to find that person similarly undone by a century of wars. Even after the guns are silent and the treaties are signed, the destruction goes on and on, in the suicides and the innocent victims of landmines that seldom appear among the casualty lists, as well in nightmares, evidence of scars and trauma among those who survive.

The theme of war's insanity is given further weight by the word "mad." Although this is a lyric poem, anger, even fury, over circumstances responsible for "a century of world wars" are central to the argument of the poem. ("Mad," by the way, was used with similar effect in the Auden lyric mentioned earlier: "the world offence . . . / That has driven a culture mad.")

Little by little, however, the speaker moves through the negative energy associated with this state of being toward a positive state. The transformation occurs when she offers to others a simple gift:

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

The generous impulse to make a poem is life-giving for the person offering the gift, as well as for the one receiving it. And in the act of writing, changes take place that ultimately move the speaker toward a new insight. This change is accomplished with the aid of memory, as the speaker reclaims the lives and values of those who represent positive alternatives to the present:

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
    values.

Although the speaker does not mention specific people, the list undoubtedly includes people such as Kathe Kollwitz and Pablo Neruda, who told the truth about war and, against all odds, resisted injustice, and whom Rukeyser wrote about elsewhere in The Speed of Darkness.

Remembering their legacy, the speaker moves through the day toward evening. her mind filled with precise memories of what they achieved and how they went about it:

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.

It is the concluding lines of "Poem," it seems to me, that dramatize the speaker's authority and authenticity in speaking about her subject. Historically, poems on the subject of peacemaking are often predictable, even shallow in content, and anthologies about "peace" are inordinately dull. The sentiments may be admirable, but the images, sounds, and arguments are either predictable or slack. Conventional verses on the topic tell the reader what peace looks like, but not about how it is made. In poetry, as well as in public policy, peace is too often understood as merely the absence of war. An obvious exception to this rule is "Making Peace" by Denise Levertov (with whom Rukeyser traveled to Vietnam about the time "Poem" was written).

In the concluding lines of "Poem," Rukeyser gives us not only a vision of peace, but also specific guidelines for the resolution of conflict and the transformation of power associated with it. Peace is not a happening, but a construct. It is built through the systematic arrangement of ideas and concepts, including love and reconciliation; it is a design that meets specific requirements, a shelter assembled according to plan:

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

The requirements for peace involve transforming ourselves as well as the world around us. They include integrating our conscious and unconscious "selves," our dreams and our actions, in the long struggle to "wake up." Accomplishing peace "within" and "without" resembles a Buddhist enlightenment, which enables us to become less egocentric and to be fully present to others. Perhaps we may even begin to trust the rhythm of experience that Rukeyser refers to in a number of her major poems.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

The final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order.

from "The Authentic Voice: On Rukeyser's 'Poem'" in "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Anne E. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.


Jeff Sychterz

Although I agree with most of Michael True’s reading of Rukeyser’s "Poem" I find his analysis hampered by a too narrow reading of the poem’s historical moment. What he regards as "a journey through discouragement, even despair" in the midst of the Vietnam War, I find to be a necessary lesson of survival in a much broader historical context haunted by World War II and anticipating an uncertain and troubled future.

Part of my disagreement with True stems from his cursory treatment of the poem’s final line. He says only that "the final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order." True seems to read the poem as ending on a triumphant note of realized resolution. The final line, even with the alteration of "world wars" to "these wars," does not suggest resolution to any conflict, internal or external. The verb "lived" does suggest a triumphant survival in the face of death and violence, but the rest of the line, "in the first century of these wars" deflates that triumphant note. To say that she has lived through the "first century of these wars" suggests that a second and maybe even a third century of unimaginable violence will follow before the peace described can come to fruition. I do not mean to say that the poem ends in despair, because although the era of "world wars" has not ended, the poem does look to a point—possibly in the distant future—when this era will pass.

A second effect of repeating the first line at the end of the poem is to enclose all of the poem’s activity inside a historical cycle of violence and war. All of the attempts to construct peace—networking, writing poems, and personal reconstruction—are circumscribed by war. Despite the hope that lines fourteen through nineteen engender, the poem does not achieve a peaceful resolution. Instead of offering an escape from carnage the poem offers us an example of everyday survival and resistance that operates under the shadow of war. In this way the poem casts the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" as partisans struggling behind the lines rather than as reformers safe on the home front. Rukeyser also invokes this partisan trope through a repetition of the word "unseen;" in the poem people remain unseen by both the capitalist machine and by the poet herself. Because of the inherent danger of partisan warfare, Partisans must remain unseen both to the enemy and to each other. They must operate in isolated cells so that the capture or infiltration of one cell will not compromise the entire partisan effort.

Two actions described by the poem particularly resemble the activity of partisans: the networking of friends, and the writing of poems. Both activities involve the opening of alternate lines of communication to disseminate counter-hegemonic discourses. Propaganda—as these discourses would be named in wartime—is a crucial weapon against occupying forces. Propaganda in the form of underground newspapers, leaflets, graffiti and broadsides not only help an oppressed populace maintain hope, they help that populace redefine themselves as a source of resistance and as necessary combatants against oppression. Without communication there can be no resistance. Rukeyser indicates that construction of alternative networks opposed to the newspaper and authorized media "devices" involves a certain level of risk; otherwise the men and women would not be "brave." Even the poet situates herself as not merely a recorder of everyday life, but as a fighter in this underground war. She writes poems to battle insanity and for the "unseen and unborn," not merely to remind them of what was endured, but to instruct them in how to fight, why to fight and what to fight for.

I find Rukeyser’s juxtaposition of her own poetry with that of official media sources suggestive given the journalistic techniques that she uses in her long poem sequence, The Book of the Dead. In that poem sequence Rukeyser energizes the disinterested, "objective" and "careless stories" in the official newspapers by juxtaposing them with first hand accounts, company documents, stock quotes and allusions to Egyptian mythology. The Book of the Dead does more than inform; it shocks, it condemns, it angers, and it wakes up the rest of us careless and disinterested individuals who blindly follow an oppressive capitalist system. In a way The Book of the Dead can be read as a work of propaganda that attempts to enlist our aid in a partisan war.

But I don’t mean to overplay the partisan trope for although a tone of vigorous and stubborn resistance does exist in "Poem" I find it tempered by a certain level of exhaustion. By casting the poem as a description of one day, which moves from "most mornings" through the day and into "the night," Rukeyser’s poem resembles stories told by survivors of the Battle of Britain, or of any number of German cities bombed by the allies. These stories, which describe a typical day and how one survived through it, often start "I lived through the Battle of Britain" or "I lived through World War II." For the "survivors" in this poem night brings with it a certain level of safety. They emerge at night after a day of bombing to find one another and try to rebuild what was destroyed during the day. The repetition of the word "try" is important, because it suggests a certain level of futility to the actions described. Any attempts at constructing peace are hampered by the violence of war. Tomorrow whatever has been constructed might be destroyed again. Therefore, both the external and internal rebuilding and restructuring are not complete by the poem’s close. The rebuilding has just begun but cannot be completed until we bring an end to the era of destruction and violence.

By situating the poem only in its immediate historical moment—the Vietnam War—Michael True misses the connections Rukeyser makes between that war and World War II, and subsequently reads the poem too optimistically. By bringing the concept of Total War to play in the poem, Rukeyser draws us, her readers, into the conflict; we can no longer pretend to be disinterested observers on the home front. The poem reconstructs us as part of her network and as combatants in a war that extends beyond the battlefield to encompass even the history of western society. We stand in the middle of an era of war, violence and oppression that directly targets us all. Her solution is more than a call for peace, but a wake-up call to the reality of war and an urging for us to fight as well. Only by fighting together—waging peace both internally and externally—can we hope to bring this era "of world wars" to an end.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz


Friederike Kaufel

In “Poem,” Muriel Rukeyser deals with the lack of humanity, the growing anonymity, and the loss of human innocence brought upon by “the first century of world wars” (1), but also with a certain sense of helplessness felt by those always to far away to make a real difference. Rukeyser herself was deeply influenced – and mutilated – by these wars fought by her country, yet never on her soil.

The first line, which is similar to the last line, sets the tone for the poem and provides a framing.  Rukeyser was not an active part of the worldwide events; she was neither victim not perpetrator, merely a witness whose life was never threatened. This is not to say that her and her American contemporaries (those who did not happen to be soldiers) did not try to make a difference; however, there is a tone of disillusioned, desperate helplessness in the poem.  Therefore, the verb used in the first and last line is rather weak and passive: she merely “lived” in this century, rather than survived it or fought in it, etc.  The line also indicates the change in humanity, and a sense of lost innocence: this was the first – yet certainly not the last – century of worldwide destruction.

At the point when “Poem” was written, Rukeyser’s despair already had a history. WWI brought upon nerve gas, a horror that shortly after fell into insignificance when, after WWII, the precise attempts of the Germans to eliminate an entire people –aimed at the highest efficiency possible – came to light. The accurate organization of mass-destruction then was contrasted with the chaotic and instant death brought upon tens of thousands in a nuclear blast in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1968, when Rukeyser wrote “Poem,” the Vietnam War was going on with full force, a war that Rukeyser not only opposed, but that was also covered extensively by the media, hence bringing the reality of modern war into American living rooms for the first time. Rukeyser turns “more or less insane” (2) when hearing the news of war cruelties.  Yet her strong reaction is contrasted by the fact that the gruesome news are carelessly delivered by “various devices” (4), which interrupt their stories of massacres and death camps with consumerist advertisements.  This indicates both the increasing anonymity, but also a growing lack of human compassion and care; in fact, of humanity itself: not only has the world turned into a place where one people tries to eliminate another with industrial precision and children are burned with napalm; moreover, these events seems to be downplayed by the fact that the world and its inhabitants do not stop to hold their breath whenever these news are made public.  Rather, they go on with their material ways of selling and buying.

The uninterested, capitalist media is contrasted with the true heroes of this war: journalists in Vietnam, who are “brave, setting up signals across vast distances” (11). There values are “almost unimagined” (13); they do not share the apathy of the mass media, yet the morality of war reporters is left unconsidered. Rukeyser contemplates their way of living; witnessing – and the publication of what is witnessed – seems to be the last, yet not the least resort for Rukeyser to make a difference (which ties in with “The Book of the Dead,” a poem of witness she wrote in 1938). Nevertheless, the heroes who risk their lives daily while finding the news for the cold devices of mass media are not commemorated; they remain “unnamed” (13), creating a strong sense of anonymity.

The theme of anonymity even enters Rukeyser’s private life: though she shares her grief with friends similarly “mad” (7), they talk to each other over “devices” rather than vis-à-vis.  Then, Rukeyser proceeds to make poems for people “unseen and unborn;” humanity seems to loose its face. In a world that seems impossible to understand anymore, Rukeyser even looses touch with herself: she long for herself, her friends and the world at large not only to reconcile “ourselves with each other” (16), but also “ourselves with ourselves” (17). The impression that Rukeyser is loosing touch with herself and reality is also indicated by a certain fuzziness in the tone of the poem: “most mornings” (2) she will grow “more or less insane” (2), there are “various devices” (4) and “other devices” (6), but nothing is definite, and, like the war journalists, most remains unnamed. This lack of definitions is caused by the constant contrast and changes of the political world in the 20th century: heroes become incorporated by the capitalist, careless mass-media, the country that was known for its humanities turns to genocide, and the saviors of WWII suddenly become perpetrators in Vietnam. Even in the description of feelings is ambiguity: while Rukeyser states that she is “more or less insane,” her friends are “more or less mad for similar reasons” (7), leaving it open if mad refers to anger, insanity, or insanity caused by too much helpless anger. The only reality Rukeyser can still hold on to is what frames the poem: the fact that she lived in the first century of world wars.

In this world of growing anonymity and lack of human values, simply being human suddenly becomes a hard task.  When Rukeyser says that “slowly I get my pen and paper” (8), it seems that even writing poetry suddenly becomes unbearable work requiring physical strength. Likewise, connecting to fellow humans becomes an almost impossible task: people try to find each other to break through the numbness of their times, to wake up and re-create humanity on an individual level; they try to “construct peace, to make love, to reconcile.”  It is a quest for humanity in the individual; yet in these new times, the normal degree of mere humanness seems insufficient; therefore, people try to reach their limits and go beyond them.  In the first century of world wars, one needs to become superhuman in order to merely regain any kind of humanity.

Copyright © 2004 by Friederike Kaufel


Bart Brinkman

Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem" ("I lived in the first century of world wars") recounts the experience of war as mediated by the culture industry. The speaker grows more or less insane as she is exposed to newspapers and radios; she communicates with others through the telephone, establishing a network of madness. These instruments of mass culture are periodically interrupted by attempts to sell products, affirming Adorno and Horkheimer's assertion in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" that "the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest."

The culture industry becomes not only a way of relating war, but a means of constructing the meaning of war, "the ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics" ("Culture Industry" 123). Soldiers mimic consumers in that they are "setting up signals across vast distances." And these signals, too, are rooted in an economy of "almost unimagined values." The totality of the culture industry threatens a totalizing, fascistic politics.

As she does in so many of her poems, Rukeyser tries to find in such oppression a place for poetry: "Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/ Make my poems for others unseen and unborn." In one sense, any attempt to make poetry declares allegiance to the culture industry-Rukeyser's poems are intended for those unseen, just as products are sold to the unseen. But Rukeyser does not make products. Her making of poems must be read in the sense of "to make love, to reconcile." What is important is not the poem, itself, but the act of making poems. And in this way, Rukeyser hopes to rupture the domination of the culture industry and war that draws on such domination. So, Rukeyser says, while "we would try by any means," by any technological mediation, "to reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves," such reaching is a failed project. Ultimately, what one must do is "to let go the means, to wake." One must recognize cultural and political systems as a means of domination if one hopes to escape such domination.

Rukeyser concludes her poem with a refrain of the opening line, "I lived in the first century of these wars." The line is suggestive of two things. First, the line suggests that this is the first century of world wars. There will be others. The dominance of the culture industry and technological mediation will have lasting and devastating effects. Second, while the poem was written not much more than half-way through the 20th century, Rukeyser exclaims, I lived through these wars. Rather than using the present tense, which would be suggestive of the fact that the possibility of world war is not exhausted, and that another one could happen in her century, Rukeyser emphasizes the past. In doing so, however, she is making a distinction between living and surviving. While others may have simply survived the war, reduced to automatons and emptied of authentic experience, so that they never knew their times and now can't remember them, Rukeyser was still able to live. She can remember those times and is still able, after 20 years, to return to them in a poem.

Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman


 

 

 

 

 

 

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