Friday, February 20, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

The Life of Poetry
By Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

I love this evocation of the impact of poetry, seeing it as something dangerous and life-changing.

I remember, way back when I first became a public poet and started mixing with other poets, there was a feeling among some that it wasn't good to write poems about writing poetry — it was considered too inward-looking by those who thought our tasks were to reach a wide audience and address social issues. I think there's a place for both, and many more things besides. To write constantly about writing would surely be boring, but I like such wonderful examples of ars poetica as this. As we are a community of poets, I believe it will speak to us all.

I first came across the name Muriel Rukeyser when I read The Writer on her Work, ed. Janet Sternburg. She told the story of how, when she was a schoolgirl, as part of some game or pact, her best friend demanded that she promise not to write any more poetry. She promised reluctantly, and tried very hard for weeks and weeks to keep her promise, but it was agonising and eventually she broke it. Next day at school, she confessed to her friend,

'I broke the promise.'

'What promise?" asked her friend.

The fact that Rukeyser went on to become a highly respected poet makes the story all the more devastating. To me it had and still has an impact like that she describes for poetry itself in her poem above. Of course I related absolutely, and made a promise of my own, to myself, that I would stay true to myself and my vocation. I vowed never to compromise it for anyone.

In fact Rukeyser was not unduly inward-looking; she was also well-known as a political activist, and many of her poems did indeed deal with societal issues. Wikipedia says she was

... best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. Kenneth Rexroth said that she was the greatest poet of her "exact generation".
One of her most powerful pieces was a group of poems entitled The Book of the Dead (1938), documenting the details of the Hawk's Nest incident, an industrial disaster in which hundreds of miners died of silicosis.

She was also a novelist and playwright, as well as writing memoir, books for children, and works of critcism. She won several awards. Her poetry has frequently been set to music. It has been quoted in a novel by Jeanette Winterson and in the television show 'The Supernatural'. There's not a lot of it on YouTube, not read by herself anyway, but there is this one, The Poem As Mask, the text of which I contemplated using instead of the poem I chose — but this way you can have both! It's a very strong reading, which clearly seeks to make the kind of impact she describes above.

Her famous but out-of-print essays on The Life of Poetry can be downloaded here.

You can read of her very active literary and political life at Wikipedia (link on her name, above) and in even more detail at The Poetry Foundation, which begins with the wonderful observation:

Although poet Muriel Rukeyser often provoked a varying critical response to her work, there was never any doubt during her five-decade literary career that a resounding passion was on display.

Remember the schoolgirl Muriel, poets, and never compromise your resounding passion!


  1. I will take that moment of proof with Muriel and you. She sometimes borders on the mystical and has such courage of expression.

  2. Thanks for this article Rosemary. I appreciate learning about poets like Muriel. I must read more of her work.

  3. Oh Rosemary, bless you for posting this. I had not come across her work and this poem is stunning. STUNNING. So many wonderful images.........sigh. The poem as the moment of proof. Wow. Reading this makes me want to attempt a really serious, depthful poem, to work harder at it than I usually do - to say something even a teensy bit as real. I will be back to follow the links, going out to help my daughter pack and move..........thank you so much for this. It gives me pause, and makes me want to soar, at one and the same time. A poem can do no better.

  4. What a wonderful article, Rosemary! I like the note you ended on...never compromising one's passion. And I did like her poem about writing. She wrote the subject well, and it is definitely worth a read and reread. I think I want to read more of Muriel Rukeyser!


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