About Rukeysers The Life of Poetry
On What Poetry Does:
A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.
This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually -- that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too -- but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling. (8)
In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all of need, our need for each other and our need for ourselves. We call up our fullness; we turn, and act. We begin to be aware of correspondences, of the acknowledgement in us of necessity, and of the lands.
And poetry, among all this -- where is there a place for poetry?
If poetry as it comes to us through action were all we had, it would be very much. For the dense and crucial moments, spoken under the stress of realization, full-bodied and compelling in their imagery, arrive with music, with our many kinds of theatre, and in the great prose. If we had these only, we would be open to the same influences, however diluted and applied. For these ways in which poetry reaches past the barriers set up by our culture, reaching toward those who refuse it in essential presence, are various, many-meaning, and certainly -- in this period -- more acceptable. They stand in the same relation to poetry as applied science to pure science.
If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger. And from that need, from the relationships within ourselves and among ourselves as we went on living, and from every other expression in mans nature, poetry would be -- I cannot here say invented or discovered -- poetry would be derived. As research science would be derived, if the energies we now begin to know reduced us to a few people, rubbing into life a little fire. (170)
The images of personal love and freedom, controlled as water is controlled, as the flight of planes is controlled. The images of relationship, in which the ancestor carried out of Jerusalem and the unborn son may meet; the music of the images of relationship.
Experiences taken into the body, breathed-in, so that reality is the completion of experience, and poetry is what is produced. And life is what is produced.
To stand against the idea of the fallen world, a powerful and destructive idea overshadowing Western poetry. In that sense, there is no lost Eden, and God is the future. The child walled-up in our life can be given his growth. In this growth is our security. (221)
Belief has its structures, and its symbols change. Its tradition changes. All the relationships within these forms are inter-dependent. We look at the symbols, we hope to read them, we hope for sharing and communication. Sometimes it is there at once, we find it before the words arrive, as in the gesture of John Brown, or the communication of a great actor-dancer, whose gesture and attitude will tell us before his speech adds meaning from another source. Sometimes it rises in us sleeping, evoked by the images of dream, recognized in the blood. The buried voices carry a ground music; they have indeed lived the life of our people. In times of perversity and stress and sundering, it may be a life inverted, the poet who leaps from the ship into the sea; on the level of open belief, it will be the life of the tribe. In subjugated peoples, the poet emerges as prophet. (96)
On How Poetry Does It:
Now there are gestures in our lives that stand in direct relationship to the image in poetry.
The meanings of poetry take their growth through the interaction of the images and the music of the poem. The music is not the rhythm, which is a representation of life, alone. The music involves the interplay of the sounds of words, the length of the sequences, the keeping and breaking of rhythms, and the repetition and variation of syllables unrhymed and rhymed. It also involves the play of ideas and images.
The statement of ideas in a poem may have to do with logic. More profoundly, it may be identified with the emotional progression of the poem, in terms of the music and images, so that the poem is alive throughout.
Another, more fundamental statement in poetry, is made through the images themselves -- those declarations, evocative, exact, and musical, which move through time and are the actions of a poem.
The poetic image is not a static thing. It lives in time, as does the poem. Unless it is the first image of the poem, it has already been prepared for by other images; and it prepares us for further images and rhythms to come. Even if it is the first image of the poem, the establishment of the rhythm prepares us -- musically -- for the music of the image. And if its first word begins the poem, it has the role of putting into motion all the course of images and music of the entire work, with nothing to refer to, except perhaps a title. (31-32)
There are ways in which poetry reaches the people who, for one reason or another, are walled off from it. Arriving in diluted forms, serving to point up an episode, to give to a climax an intensity that will carry it without adding heaviness, to travel toward the meaning of a work of graphic art, nevertheless poetry does arrive. And in the socially accepted forms, we may see the response and the fear, expressed without reserve, since they are expressed during enjoyment which has all the sanctions of society.
Close to song, poetry reaches us in the music we admit: the radio songs that flood our homes, the juke-boxes, places where we drink and eat, the songs of work for certain occupations, the stage-songs we hear as ticketed audience. (109)
selection and juxtaposition
The continuity of film, in which the writer deals with a track of images moving at a given rate of speed, and a separate sound-track which is joined arbitrarily to the image-track, is closer to the continuity of poetry than anything else in art. But the heaviness of the collective work on a commercial film, the repressive codes and sanctions, unspoken and spoken, the company-town feeling raised to its highest, richest, most obsessive-compulsive level in Hollywood, puts the process at the end of any creative spectrum farthest from the making of a poem.
At the same time, almost anything that can be said to make the difficulties of poetry dissolve for the reader, or even to make the reader want to deal with those "difficulties," can be said in terms of film. These images are like the action sequences of a well-made movie -- a good thriller will use the excitement of timing, of action let in from several approaches, of crisis prepared for emotionally and intellectually, so that you can look back and recognize the way of its arrival; or, better, feel it coming until the moment of proof arrives, meeting your memory and your recognition.
The cutting of films is a parable in the motion of any art that lives in time, as well as a parable in the ethics of communication. (I say 'ethics because of the values and obligations involved; I am for a moment discarding the general role of the movie-makers, their studied forgetting of most passion and interpretation, their rigid definition of the emotional status of their audience and the way in which, like grown-ups prescribing music mechanically for stupid children, they prescribe certain series of emotions and acts whose meanings are not to be questioned). (151)
The creation of a poem, or mathematical creation, involves so much sense of arrival, so much selection, so much of the desire that makes choice -- even though one or more of these may operate in the unconscious or partly conscious work-periods before the actual work is achieved -- that the questions raised are very pertinent. . . . The poet chooses and selects and has that sense of arrival as the poem ends; he is expressing what it feels like to arrive at his meanings. If he has expressed that well, his reader will arrive at his meanings. The degree of appropriateness of expression depends on the preparing. By preparing I mean allowing the reader to feel the interdependences, the relations, within the poem.
These inter-dependences may be proved, if you will allow the term, in one or more ways: the music by which the syllables resolve may lead to a new theme, as in a verbal music, or to a climax, a key-relationship which makes -- for the moment -- an equilibrium; the images may have established their own progression in such a way that they serve to mark the poems development; the tensions and attractions between the poems meanings may mark its growth, as they must if the poem is to achieve its form.
A poem is an imaginary work, living in time, indicatd in language. It is and it expresses; it allows us to express. (181)
from The Life of Poetry (New York: A.A. Wynn/Current Books, 1949).
Chapter One: The Fear of Poetry
In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.
If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.
Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.
It seems to me that we cut ourselves off that we impoverish ourselves, just here. I think that we are ruling out one source of power, one that is precisely what we need. Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that: is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives the attitude of poetry.
What help is there here!
Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth!
How do we use feeling?
How do we use truth!
However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.
If we use the resources we now have, we and the world itself may move in one fullness. Moment to moment, we can grow, if we can bring ourselves to meet the moment with our lives.
To do this. we need to understand our resources and ourselves. In a time of suffering, long war, and the opening of the horizon, there is no resource which we can afford to overlook or to misunderstand.
Coming to this moment, at which the great religious ideas become in a new way available to everyone, one enters a climate of possibility. And in that air, ill time of struggle, and in time of the idea of the world, all people think about love. Then they turn to their own ways of sharing.
In speaking about poetry, I must say at the beginning that the subject has no acknowledged place in American life today.
No matter how deeply one is concerned with poetry, the feeling against it is likely to be an earlier one to most of us. In approaching the subject, it may have more realities to us if we look first, not at poetry itself, but at the resistances to poetry. Each of us will recognize this resistance in his own life. The barriers that have been set up are strong; this is nothing that enters our lives, in social life as it is now organized.
Certain of our resources are good indexes to all the rest. There are relationships which include so much that we can bring to them our own wishes and hostilities, our value judgments and our moralities; they will serve to illuminate all our other relationships. Among them are such key targets for our attitudes as conflict in the individual, the atom bomb, the Negroes, the Reds, the Jews, the "place" of science, the "place" of labor, the "place" of women, and poetry. These points are crucial; our age and our nature find that questions are asked of them.
Now poetry, at this moment, stands in curious relationship to our acceptance of life and our way of living.
The resistance to poetry is all active force in American life during these wars. Poetry is not; or seems not to be. But it appears that among the great conflicts of this culture, the conflict in our attitude toward poetry stands clearly lit. There are no guards built up to hide it. We call see its expression, and we can see its effects upon us. We can see our own conflict and our own resource if we look, now, at this art, which has been made of all the arts the one least acceptable.
Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even Ignore with the indifference which is driven toward the center. It comes through as boredom, as name-calling, as the traditional attitude ofthe last hundred years which has chalked in the portrait ofthe poet as he is known to this society, which, as Herbert Read says, "does not challenge poetry in principle it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty."
Poetry is foreign to us, we do not let it enter our daily lives.
Do you remember the poems of your early childhood the far rhymes and games of the begining to which you called the rhythms, the little songs to which you woke and went to sleep?
Yes, we remember them.
But since childhood, to many of us poetry has become a matter of distaste. The speaking of poetry is one thing: one of the qualifications listed fo an announcer on a great network, among "good voice" and "correct pronunciation," is the "ability to read and interpret poetry." The other side is told conclusively in a letter sent ninety years ago by the wife of the author of Moby Dick. Mrs. Melville said to her mother "Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around."
What is the nature of this distaste?
If you ask your friends about it, you will find that there are a few answers, repeated by everyone. One is that the friend has not the time for poetry. This is a curious choice, since poetry, of all the arts that live in time music, theater, film, writing is the briefest, the most compact. Or your friends may speak of their boredom with poetry. If you hear this, ask further. You will find that "boredom" is a masking answer, concealing different mean ings. One person will confess that he has been frightened off forever by the dry dissection of lines in school, and that now he thinks with disappointment of a poem as simply a set of constructions. He expects much more. One will say that he returned from the scenes of war to a high-school classroom reading "Bobolink, bobolink / Spink, spank, spink." A first-rate scientist will search for the formal framework of the older poetry in despair, and finally stop. One will confess that, try as he will, he cannot understand poetry, and more particularly, modern writing. It is intellectual, confused, unmusical. One will say it is willfully obscure. One that it is inapplicable to the situation in which he finds himself. And almost any man will say that it is effeminate: it is true that poetry as an art is sexually suspect.
In all of these answers, we meet a slipping-away which is the clue to the responses, and which is strong enough to be called more than direct resistance.
This resistance has the quality of fear, it expresses the fear of poetry.
I have found in working with people and with poem, that this fear presents the symptoms of a psychic problem. A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.
This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.
Reviews of The Life of Poetry
Fear of Poetry
by Eileen Myles
from The Nation (April 14, 1997)
I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane. -- Muriel Rukeyser
There's a wolfish quality to a poet's character. You might bring one into your home ("It looked like a dog!"), but ultimately a wolf won't act like a dog, can't understand that she's in your home and (as wolf specialists tell us) doesn't distinguish between inside and out. Wolves challenge the safety of our world. So it's probably easier to keep one out of your house than to try to imagine what that missing thing looks like-either the wolf or the poet's inner landscape.
Like most of Muriel Rukeyser's work, The Life of Poetry has been out of print for twenty years, so its reappearance is a genuine cultural event. Mainly it's a collection of talks Rukeyser gave in the forties, in America at a time of war. Written in an expansive prose-poetic style, it's a scarily beautiful book, almost disorienting in its clarity.
John Ashbery has suggested that there was more room for experimentation back thenthat one could imagine a poet like Delmore Schwartz. Later one could not; things were different. Lowell ruled. What was missing after World War II was an attitude of adventure in writing, toward experimentation. Something got lost. It's rare that we have access to words directly from another era, to talk about literature and life. If we're lucky we have the poems, but we don't usually have the speech, the context from which the poems sprang. So The Life of Poetry is something even rarer than 1949, the year it was published. We're in the wolf's den: a book of talk.
The Life of Poetry--this entirely inappropriate document, this leftist manifesto, this Modernist tract touting poetry as a "theater of total human response"--came out during the McCarthy era (yes, she was investigated). Rukeyser was not of her time, not in the correct way. The book is in part a response to the New Critics of the forties and fifties, who rejected her socialist leanings, her need to write poems "about" crying babies and un reconstituted nature, and even the occasional remark from God. Yet because of Rukeyser' s wily, independent aesthetics, the lefties didn't accept her either. So she created a book that spoke for her. It's a record of exultation and complaint comparable to The Answer/La Respuesta of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (or Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto, Jill Johnston's Lesbian Nation or Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America). It's one of those historical documents (the last two titles are still out of print) of a woman taking space and refusing to sit down.
Muriel Rukeyser unspools one of the most passionate arguments I've ever read for the notion that art creates meeting places, that poetry creates democracy. We watch it happen in her urgent prose:
We can make autobiographies of a parade of symbols. The drum, the sidewalk, the river, the tower, the father, the car, the aunt, the chauffeur, the sister, the mother, the book, the piano, the harbor, the slum, the sand hill, the lake, the cement mixer, the sacred dome, the school door, the museum stair, the field of coarse grass, the golf green, the Bridge, the poem written in the dark, the unsolved murder, the corner whore, stain on the lab ceiling, the granite mountain under whose cliff the adolescent all night lay, waiting to climb in the morning light.
Such light and dark optimism. "Meeting place" is her mantra, and it means linking the public to a cumulative privacy of people, to living. It's a staunch reminder at a moment when global culture is evincing such a horror of the small. And poetry's so tiny it's universal: A famous painter might be invited by The New York Times to give us a tour of the Met, to show us what he knows, but for poets there's no such building, or even bookstore. It's simply the world. The Life of Poetry takes us on a whirlwind tour of Rukeyser's interests, the niches she found herself in. She liked this century, and her liking was not wholly abstract. Her frequent allusions to film, for instance, are grounded in experience, not theory: "The cutting room is a different landscape. There you sit in a bright cubicle, with a stack of shallow cans of film at your elbow, a red china-pencil in your hand, your face bent to the viewer of the Movieola, where the film is passing, enlarged to the plainness of a snapshot.
Rukeyser was an upwardly mobile New York Jew, a Vassar dropout who came into the public eye at 21 with her Yale Younger Poets Award-winning Theories of Flight (inspired by her flying lessons-yes, she also flew planes). She was a journalist and bisexual, a poet arrested in Alabama at the Scottsboro trials; she traveled to Hanoi; she was president of PEN, a single mother, a stroke victim, a science biographer, a historian and a teacher. Rukeyser was also a consummate a workshop leader, spouting her practice all over the place for more than ten years. In her academic career, she always managed to leave before tenure set in--which sounds downright wolfish to me.
Besides poetry (eighteen volumes, and good; what's available today is A Muriel Rukeyser Reader from Norton), she also wrote biographies and plays, children's books, translations, screenplays and a novel (The Orgy)--it's an oeuvre wider than most, organic and self-propelled. It would be exhausting if it weren't so pleasurable. If you pick up her work, you will read it.
Kenneth Rexroth called Rukeyser the greatest poet of her exact generation. Which made me wonder exactly which generation that was. In the "Hand of the Poet" show that ran recently at the New York Public Library, we saw her correspondences with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. She seemed to be sitting pretty in that school, but oddly she wasn't passed down. She's barely represented in either the academic or the experimental poetic canon, Women have protected her (no small task). Though out of print, her poems nonetheless continue to be taught at Sarah Lawrence and Vassar, where she herself taught. Her students have had a hand in republishing her work; one used a line from a Rukeyser poem to name a new book, The Wild Good. All tangible evidence of how female literary networks operate. And the fact that her influence continues without inclusion in anthologies or persistent are canonization in the world of men is, well, awesome. There were a few naysayers, of course. Former Vassar classmate Elizabeth Bishop groaned wearily that Rukeyser's "life is one heroic saga of fighting for the underdog: going to jail, writing about silicosis, picketing alone in Korea, also thinking very deeply about POETRY & motherhood."
The Life of Poetry is a book about fear, about what a culture has lost through its failure to use its intimate powers. Poetry is the emotional locus of that intimacy, but Rukeyser means sex, too:
How can I look back and not speak of the stupid learning about birth? Of the stupid learning that people make love, and how it seemed the reason for all things, the intimacy of my wondering, the illumination that--to an adolescent-- was the cause for life around me, the reason why the unhappy people I knew did not kill themselves?
This is an immensely quotable book everywhere you open it, chock-full of radiant abstractions that make glorious sense as the reader begins to inhabit Rukeyser's flow of intense musical rhetoric. She is the excessive ancestor of Adrienne Rich, She takes a deep breath. The book is a podium. She begins grandly:
In time of crisis, we summon up our strength. Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.
It's pure American Pragmatism. The penultimate chapter, "Out of childhood," resembles a procession of film clips, and it feels like an intellectual biography with pictures. It's a long female life already. "You put your head back very far. There it was! The plane. With its double wings and a frail body. You could feel it in the back of your neck." Then a slightly older child is gasping in awe at a friend's mother loosening her hair in a car one night. The Freedom of it. So many of her "recognitions" are of the startlingly mundane, that reveal the capacity to experience, so that literature becomes the act of being alive for those who read it.
It's great to come to such an American book, a World War II book--the intimacy of understanding firsthand that Franklin Roosevelt fearlessness. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" is pretty good poetry, Rukeyser agrees; the greater poetry is invisibly in millions of listeners' homes they're allowing the President in. So we arrive; the moment of history is a meeting place. It's like the shared sense of danger in a darkening theater: "We sit here, very different each from the other, until the passion arrives to give us our equality, to make us part of the play...the play part of us." This passion she speaks of is worthy of our fear. It's history.
Rukeyer's "Life of
Poetry" Is Still Relevant
By John R. Quinn
from The Provincetown Banner (November 7, 1996)
Assume it's true that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who really and truly believe in poetry, and those who simply don't get it. Muriel Rukeyser's "The Life of Poetry", just reissued by Paris Press almost 50 years after its first publication, is a must-read for both groups.
A restored classic that, like most of her over 15 volumes of poetry and other prose works (including two Plays and a biography of scientist William Gibbs) had fallen out of print, Rukeyser's "Life of Poetry" is a heartfelt, majestic testimonial, entirely without the shortcomings of its genre.
Rukeyser avoids the self-serving agendas that have underlain even the most thoughtful defenses of poetry. Edgar Allan Poe's famous theory explains, among other things, why his poem "The Raven" is a perfect poem, and T.S. Eliot's writings commend erudition and conscious complexity, the signature features of Eliot's own style. But Rukeyser's argument is a more wholly democratic defense of poetry. Rukeyser also avoids the tendency of many Poets to write about their field with a poetic ambiguity, which is not to say that Rukeyser's book is not "poetic." It is highly charged, emotionally, and full of beautiful, sonorous language, but its greatest virtue is that it has a bold thesis, bluntly stated: poetry can save your life.
Rukeyser's unrelenting and comprehensive support of that proposition, through a survey that takes in science, psychology, film, theater, music, and military history, is what makes the book so revolutionary, so shocking, so disruptive. You cannot read this book and return to a complacent existence.
Rukeyser's definition of poetry, though eloquent, is not new. Poetry is, she writes, "an approach to the truth of feeling." Her argument however, is that poetry "has no acknowledged place in American life today," that "nothing" of it enters "social life as it is now organized." In other words, America is killing poetry and wonders why it's unhappy.
Rukeyser proves to be a brilliant observer not just of poetry but of American culture, which she both indicts and hopes to save. "The Life of Poetry" addresses nearly every conceivable objection to poetry, from the claim that it is "willfully obscure" to the suggestions that it is effeminate. Siding with nature against culture Rukeyser believes that people have a need, a hunger, for poetry --"wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along"--but also thinks that the fear of poetry is a complicated and civilized repression of that fear and an active force in American life.
The best most Americans get, she argues, are the "commercial" or "amusement arts," as she labels American film, theater and music. They feed but don't nourish that hunger, largely because they target an artificial conglomerate known as the "audience" rather than individuals. An example, in Rukeyser's own words: "radio verse seems to sing love" but "in seeming to sing love, or in seeming to sing poverty, it sings distraction."
For all the directness of Rukeyser's basic argument, however, the book is still a challenge to read, partly because she refers to a wide range of artistic and intellectual figures. This is not just a book about poetry; it's Rukeyser's grand explanation of everything, like Freud's "Interpretation of Dreams" or Darwin's "Origin of Species" presented with an epic, authoritative (some might even say biblical) tone.
Rukeyser's work will offer today's reader an alternate, almost forgotten framework for evaluating the history and tradition of American poetry. Since William Carlos Williams labeled T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" the greatest tragedy in American letters (on the ground that it gave the poem back to the academy), there's hardly been a treatise on American poetry that doesn't posit Eliot (synonymous with erudition and academia) and Williams (a poet of the everyday, whose verses were short and accessible) as the end-points of a spectrum, and evaluate all other poets in reference to them. Rukeyser's parameter poets, however, are Walt Whitman (whom she calls the poet of possibility) and Herman Melville (her poet of outrage) a most refreshing and enlightening changing of the guard.
Poet of Outrage and Possibility
By Alicia Ostriker
from The Hungry Mind Review (Summer 1997)
We live, it seems, in a time bereft of vision. Capitalism triumphs globally. Wars break out like fiery pus-filled blisters nobody knows how to heal. Politicians are assumed to be infinitely corrupt, and the media love it when this turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idealisms of the past--the battles for integration and civil rights, the peace movement, feminism, the hope of eradicating poverty the notion (remember?) of loving your neighbor, or of expanding your consciousness--are embarrassing relies to today's young. To read the paper or watch the box is to be filled with sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs, as Keats might say. Post modernism, explains one witty commentator, is modernism without the hope.
Fifty years ago, the poet Muriel Rukeyser knew all this, and rejected despair. One of her poems begins, "I lived in the first century of world wars. / Most mornings I would be more or less insane." The poem goes on to evoke how the poet, along with similarly crazed friends, making her poems "for others unseen and unborn"
...would try to imagine them, try to
find each other
to construct peace, to make love, to
waking with sleeping, ourselves with
ourselves with ourselves....
After a stanza pause, the poem concludes simply, "I lived in the first century of those wars." Almost a self-obituary (like Yeats's "Say that my glory was I had such friends"), this is Rukeyser's way of showing that the struggle with the world and the struggle with the self are inextricably one. It is a way of saying that the struggle is to be neither concluded nor abandoned. Something similar is said in the Talmudic Ethics of the Fathers, a line I personally cherish: "It is not incumbent on you to finish the task. Neither are you free to give it up."
Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an American-Jewish poet, journalist, biographer, lifelong political activist and passionate visionary. Dismissed by the New Critics (whom she calls "old") for excessive interest in politics and sexuality, spurned by the left for excessive interest in formal experiment and an imprudent refusal to toe a correct proletarian line, Rukeyser became a fore mother of 1970s feminist poetry. Two anthologies of woman's poetry--No More Masks and The World Split Open--bear titles taken from her poems. Writers as wildly different as Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds, Alice Walker and Dorothy Allison, have expressed reverence for her work and life. Anne Sexton called her "Muriel, mother of everyone." Kenneth Rexroth was among her champions; Galway Kinnell has described his indebtedness to her honesty. Rukeyser's Complete Poetry remains out of print although two volumes of selected writings have appeared in the last five years. The reappearance of her remarkable The Life of Poetry, originally published in 1949, is an event to celebrate.
No ordinary book of criticism, The Life of Poetry is written in a prose which resembles lava overflowing, molten, incoherent, cooling into shapes whose seeming resistance to hard-edged form bespeaks the intense intellectual heat and explosiveness of their origin. The nearest comparison I can think of is Shelley's shamelessly idealistic "Defense of Poetry," which reminds me that Rukeyser's biography of Wendell Willkie, One Life, takes its title from Shelley's phrase in "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "the one life within us and abroad." A kindred manifesto would be Charles Olson's Projective Poetry, published at about the same time as The Life of Poetry. Olson and Rukeyser share an insistence on bringing together issues of form with issues of history-but Rukeyser's is the more radical, rhapsodic, and oracular work. To read it is to enter mind seething with the flow of connection between poetry and everything else.
Rukeyser's opening chapters deal with what she brilliantly calls "the fear of poetry." A society which deems itself merely indifferent or ignorant about poetry, she realizes, is actually frightened of poetry's capacity to make us feel, the way it demands the response of a whole, human, emotional, and intellectual self:
A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response. This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually--that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too--but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling....
A little later, she observes,
That experience will have meaning. It will apply to your-life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience.
This is not merely a version of Rilke's "You must change your life," for Rukeyser implacably connects personal growth or stagnation to political growth or stagnation at every moment. To experience poetry, or any art, Rukeyser claims, is to resist "the totalitarian hardening of modern life as it expresses itself in the state." And what do we have when feeling is denied?
We are cut off from large areas in ourselves, and we make the specialized skills and expressions our goals. . . . We think in terms of property, weapons, secrets. . . . Less and less do our values have obligating power; less and less do we imagine ourselves and believe ourselves. We make a criterion of adjustment, which glorifies the status quo, and denies the dynamic character of our lives, denies time, possibility, and the human spirit.
That poets themselves are damaged and their work impoverished by the atmosphere of denial surrounding them, which they cannot help but internalize, is among Rukeyser's discomforting observations. Surely anyone who has tried to teach (let alone write) poetry in this country should drink these perceptions like water in the desert.
The book's second section, on "backgrounds and sources," locates American poetry within "a culture in conflict," torn between a tendency "toward democracy at the level of hope" and "on another level ... the concept of perpetual warfare."
Rukeyser sees Melville and Whitman as our core poets of "outrage" and "possibility." She notices how crucial Whitman's struggle with ambiguous sexuality was for his poetry, and how cinematic Whitman's catalogues are; and right about here the reader begins to discover just how broadly this writer casts her net, for she goes on to invoke, as part of the suppressed heritage of American poetry the spirituality of Native American songs and chants, the traditions of work songs, folk songs, children's rhymes, slave songs, and the songs of chain gangs, the poetry of the Nisei in their concentration camps, the poetry of the labor movement, spirituals, the blues, and jazz. Laments for the silencing of Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson, "whose unappeasable thirst for fame was itself unknown until years after her death," mingle with homages to James Cates Percival (a New England poet of whom I had never heard) and Bessie Smith, and these themes in turn merge with an ironic aside on the notion of how art as private property represents another sort of loss "If . .. the Dickinson manuscripts, for example, were placed in the public domain, it has been explained to me, there would be an end of the profit of their publishing."
Nor is that all. Meditating on "the amusement arts" adjacent to poetry Rukeyser honors the energy and joy of American movies, radio, television, musical comedy, while grieving their "emptiness of language" and the fact that despite their potential for poetry they "differ from art.... The effect is calculated and the audience is calculated." Then she thinks about theater, dance, architecture, the visual arts including photography, advertising, even skywriting--what these forms give us, what they fail to give. She thinks about meter, rhythm, and breathing. She thinks about science. She speculates that Newtonian mechanics provides a model for the checks and balances of the American Constitution. She cites Poincare and Willard Gibbs (whose biography she wrote) on scientific methodology as the discovery of relationships, and claims the same of poetry. She notes that the unity and interdependence the sciences teaches not only the oneness of nature but the oneness of humankind. She speaks-she who was under FBI surveillance for forty years, who was arrested at the age of nineteen at the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, who at twenty-two was Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, who went to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and later to South Korea to Protest the imprisonment of a poet--she speaks of "witness." Toward the very close of the volume she offers under the title "Out of Childhood" an intimate address to the reader which becomes a prose-poem memoir of the poet's childhood and youth in New York City: how she moved from the protectiveness of an upwardly mobile and un intellectual family out into the "harshness and clarity" of the streets, the beauty of the skyscrapers and rivers, books, teachers, friendships, the discoveries of poetry, politics, puberty, the ripping apart of veils in the stock market crash and the Great Depression:
the moments of illumination
immeasurable setback, the Red Sea
by the Desert. And then there is the
Land. No, I do not believe in any
Eden of the
past. That garden is in the future.
The Life of Poetry is not an easy book to read. It is not logical or analytical. Often the author seems to be murmuring vastly to herself, like a woman rummaging through a basket of scraps. She fails to explain allusions and references, and since she was self-educated in numerous disciplines, the reader is often left in the dark. Sometimes the ideas repeat, sometimes they blur, sometimes there is a verge on cliche. Yet everywhere are flashes of original insight, passages of eloquence, evocations of the actual and potential meanings of poetry in America-to those who love it, to those who hate it, and to those who are scarcely aware how much they need it, how deeply they are deprived. "If we are free people," Rukeyser writes, "we are also in a sense free to choose our past, at every moment to choose the tradition we will bring to the future." That is not a proposition which will recommend itself to the avatars of postmodernism. It is currently fashionable among literary theorists to believe that none of us is free; that we are all "socially constructed," all trauma victims, all trapped inside gender, race class, all predetermined by social systems too large to fight. For Rukeyser such ideas would be symptomatic of the disease whose antidote is poetry. For her, the past is never simple but multiple, and we are crippled by it only if we choose to be. Hers is the tradition which opens to possibility, to the faith that--as she says on the last page-- "All the poems of our lives are not yet made."
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