Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poems: Muriel Rukeyser

I have been thinking about poetry, politics, political poetry and the politics of poetry quite a bit of late, and one poet from the middle years of the 20th century whose work was insistently political, often successfully so and not to its aesthetic detriment, pressing on in her attempt to address the social, political and inequalities in and through her verse was Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). Whether it was covering the Scottsboro Boys Case or writing about the effects of silicosis, whether it was speaking as a feminist or talking about her identity, as Jewish woman, her sexuality in all its complexity, whether it was being before the letter before the letter was dreamt off, composed and mailed off to poetry's many precincts, Rukeyser was there. Her first collection, Theory of Flight (1935), was selected by judge Steven Vincent Benét for the Yale Younger Poets Series, and she went on to publish numerous books, of poetry, critical essays, memoir and autobiography, anthologies, drama, and her rich store of correspondence. The two poems below are among my favorites by her; both are political, fairly straightforward on the surface, and yet contain powerful currents below. First, the more lyrical of the two, then what could be read as an ars poetica, the title rippling out, despite its simplicity, into multiple meanings, which is to say: a poem.



When I wrote of the women in their dances and
      wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
      down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

From Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems by Muriel Rukeyser. Published by Library of America (American Poets Project). Copyright © 2004 by William Rukeyser. All rights reserved.


I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
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.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
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.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
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.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Muriel Rukeyser, “Poem” from The Speed of Darkness. New York, Vintage Books, 1968. Copyright © 1968 by Muriel Rukeyser. All rights reserved.


  1. Amazing timing, John. I was just reading The Book of the Dead yesterday and thinking what a shame it is that Rukeyser is so neglected in 20th-c poetry criticism and teaching.

  2. Thanks, JAC. She really is neglected. Her range never fails to surprise me. Her politics, I think, are what have led to her being taught far less than many of her contemporaries, but often it seems that the most overtly political 20th century poets on the left share this problem. Rexroth, Reznikoff, Oppen (perhaps less than the others), Levertov...unless they are championed within into a particular area, as is the case with Hughes, for example, or Cha, or Lorde, or Santiago Baca...