Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry
In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser declares, “I wish to say that we will not be saved by poetry. But poetry is the type of creation in which we may live and which will save us.”
Published in 1949, that book is a compilation of Rukeyser’s observations and beliefs. Today, when Rukeyser is known, she is recognized as a poet. She was also an extraordinary prose writer. In The Life of Poetry, she describes her belief in feeling deeply in order to live fully. Everything in the commercial world of the forties and fifties, and everything today — the thrum beneath popular culture — runs against that. We live in an amusement park of momentary sensory stimuli. And so, Rukeyser’s words have acquired more importance as the years have passed.
Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry and her prose broke the rules, and often they still break the rules: of what women at the time were allowed to write about and how they were allowed to write.
She wrote about the body, the subject that first drew me to her poems. She wrote about motherhood and birth. She wrote about racism, from her first book, in “The Lynching of Jesus,” to her last, in “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” At the age of twenty-two, she wrote about the natural world and the destruction of it — of the silica dust that rose up in the mines of West Virginia and into the lungs of West Virginians at Gauley Bridge — in US 1, her most famous volume, published just over 50 years ago. She incorporated transcripts in her poems, passages taken directly from interviews and court transcripts.
Rukeyser’s work addresses and reflects her identity — as a woman, a Jew, an anti-Fascist, an environmentalist, a humanist, a mother, a lesbian. A woman with an expansive mind, seemingly fearless, she was daring stylistically as well as in the subject matter of her poetry and prose, breaking boundaries, always.
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life…”
In Houdini, which Rukeyser wrote over a thirty-year period, Houdini’s wife Bess says:
What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?
The world would split open.
Later, in The Speed of Darkness, she gives those words to Kathe Kollwitz.
Throughout her work, Rukeyser reflects on history, mythology, cultures around the world; suffering, cruelty, hatred, love, and erotic desire. Her poetry and prose require that her readers feel fully and, through feeling, she invites us to live fully, she wants us to want to live.
Today for the sake of all the dead Burst into flower
Which circles back to The Life of Poetry, to life, which can be experienced richly if we live with poetry in our daily lives, if we live with painting, dance, film, literature, theater. With an understanding, she asserts, that all fields and disciplines are connected: architecture, physics, religion, clapping songs, jump-rope games, mathematics. In her poem “Islands” she says:
O for God’s sake
they are connected
To live fully is to feel, says Rukeyser. Poetry, the arts, require feeling — on the part of the reader and observer, as well as the writer. Poetry is participatory, it requires, after feeling, response; and after response it demands movement, action.
Rukeyser lived her life in a way that would be viewed, even today, as unconventional. As a young woman, she took flying lessons. At the age of 19 she attended and was arrested at the “Scottsboro Boys” trial; she went to Hanoi to protest the Vietnam War; she was president of PEN, and traveled to South Korea to protest the imprisonment of the poet Kim Chi Ha.
Muriel Rukeyser had a son. She was disowned by her family and raised her son as a single mother. Her financial stability was uncertain. To cheer up their apartment and spirits when the electricity was occasionally shut off, she lit candles and pretended that she and her child were camping. In her ground-breaking poems, she was outspoken about passion, about loss, about the just and the unjust. Her work should be known as we know the work of Whitman. She writes of and out of the human condition.
Muriel Rukeyser transformed action into poetry and poetry into action.
Twelve years after her death, Muriel Rukeyser completely changed my life. The Life of Poetry was the most inspiring and affirming book I’d ever read. I felt the book, out of print since 1974, needed to be read by everyone who — very simply — knew how to read. It would enhance our lives.
An extraordinary quality of Rukeyser’s work – and her life – was her ability to care for and write about the elements of daily life, and also respond to and write about the consequences of hatred, of anti-Semitism, fascism, homophobia. Her prose and poetry insisted upon the importance of civil rights, feminism, the environment — not because these were movements that focused her passions, but because they were movements that enlarged her passion for, and her engagement with, the world
Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.
So many of us find it challenging to move from one day to the next, from year to year. And then there are those who are driven, who push the edges, all the edges, who believe that boundaries are false, that we are connected like islands, beneath the water. In her poem “Then,” she wrote:
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will still be making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.
We are here, Muriel Rukeyser, thirty years after your death, listening to you, following you, introducing you to new readers, new generations.
Everyone silent, moving. . . . Take my hand. Speak to me.
This reminiscence was written in honor of Muriel Rukeyser's death, on February 12, 1980.
Jan Freeman is a poet and the Director of Paris Press, which was founded in 1995 to bring The Life of Poetry back into print. Paris Press also published Rukeyser’s The Orgy, and Houdini, A Musical, in addition to other ground-breaking works by women in all genres that have been overlooked by the commercial and independent publishing world (www.parispress.org). Her own books of poetry include Simon Says, Hyena, Autumn Sequence, and the recently completed Blue Structure.