Seattle-based Writer, Author, Poet, Writing Teacher

By Priscilla Long

This review of The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser appeared in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol 14, No. 5 (February 1997).

The life of poetry, which Muriel Rukeyser first published in 1949, is a profoundly important book, and not only because Rukeyser was, as Jane Cooper puts it in her fine introduction, “One of the great, necessary poets of our country and century.” These essays speak about what poetry requires of poet and reader alike: a fully engaged imagination, the deepest possible connection to feeling, a willingness to attend to meanings, to engage with symbol and myth. “A poem does invite, it does require,” Rukeyser writes. “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.”

Apart from some slight revisions, the book appears as originally published, with untitled chapters. This leads the reader to expect a coherent analysis that builds from chapter to chapter, when in fact the “chapters” originated as lectures and short pieces. This becomes apparent in a certain repetitiveness. For instance, Rukeyser explores analogies between poems and films in various places rather than consolidating her thoughts into one essay, as I wish she had done. Like a shifting conversation, individual pieces move from dance to childhood, from theater to war. The range is enormous: Rukeyser is equally at home discussing the relationship between poetry and science and that between punctuation and silence. But her luminous insights, startling challenges and lyrical flights stimulate and suggest rather than proceed at analytic length.

Rukeyser wrote The Life of Poetry during the heyday of the New Critics, who insisted that poems be read apart from their contexts and authors. She takes the opposite view, that poetry is inextricably bound up with emotional and cultural life: to her, poetry opposes shallowness, what she calls the impoverishment of the imagination.

She begins by exploring the roots of the widespread resistance to poetry in American culture. Poetry, she argues, has been made the least acceptable of the arts: “Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal…with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference.” Her words still ring true despite the healthy resurgence of interest in poetry in recent years. Is there a poet who hasn’t heard expressions of hostility or boredom or indifference to poetry?

“The universe of poetry,” Rukeyser writes, “is the universe of emotional truth. Our material is in the way we feel and the way we remember.” Resistance to poetry comes from being cut off from ourselves, from living externally, from giving lip-service. It comes from fear of intense or “unacceptable” feelings, of disclosure and exposure. What poetry requires is something else: sustained attention to inner life.

Rukeyser speaks often of “truth,” but for her “truth” does not emerge out of flat statement. Content, she asserts, “is only form-deep, in any expression.” The imaginative truth of a poem “is its form and its content, its music and its meaning are the same.” She admonishes poets to reach for symbol, myth, imagery, not to settle for mere honesty, because “[m]uch more is needed before imagination can make its gifts.”

Rhythm, imagery, dead versus living lines – these matters of form concern Rukeyser to the utmost. A poem’s images, she insists, are neither static nor arbitrary: the first images and sounds prepare for all that follow. To demonstrate, she takes us through the dense rhythms of Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower”:

The first image dispatches, not only the “me” of the poem, but the poem itself:

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn

Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell

Of a spent day –

and the ringing irregular sway of the poem, its “steps from hell,” the hiving of the stars and the broken world, follow until the tower becomes flesh and word; until the lake and tower of the ending take on their full meaning after many reverberations, sound after sound and image after image hunting back – not only to the beginning, but to each successive image and each successive sequence of sound. (p.34)

A poem, says Rukeyser, requires work from both poet and “witness,” or audience, and in light of this she returns several times to the charge that poetry is obscure. A poem’s “Obscurity,” she grants, may be a problem of the poet. Perhaps the poet has not prepared the reader for the images in any of the musical or verbal ways available to poetry. But perhaps the problem lies with the audience. The reader may shun novelty, or the experience of a different culture, or emotions that threaten her or his equilibrium. “Is the challenger prepared to receive the poem?” Rukeyser asks. “Or is this merely another way of disowning the imaginative experience?”

Rukeyser immersed herself in political causes in the 1930s (when she was close to the Communist Party), and again in the 1960s and 1970s when principles of nonviolence guided her politics. Consistent with her social and political concerns, her poetic vision embraces an epic sense of American life. Whitman’s sensibility comes immediately to mind, and he stands as one of Rukeyser’s essential sources. In his poems, she writes, “his discovery of himself is a discovery of America; he is able to give it to anyone who reaches his lines.” Rukeyser believed that Whitman could not be imitated, except badly, yet “what is always possible is to go deeper into one’s own sources, the body and the ancient religious poetry, and go on with the work that he began.”

Whitman’s breath line, that long tumbling line that runs out when the poet runs out of breath and begins again on the inhale, the line that the Beats took up, and that Rukeyser frequently employs in her own poetry, has enough reach, enough capacity to embrace an epic view of a people or a nation. Listen first to the Whitman lines Rukeyser gives us: “With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,/ And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,/ And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.” Now listen to their influence in Rukeyser’s prose claim to America as a source of poetry:

The continent in its voices is full of song; it is not to be heard easily, it must be listened for, among its shapes and weathers, the country is singing, among the lives of its people, its industries, its wild flamboyant ventures, its waste, its buried search. The passion is sung, beneath the flatness and the wild sexual fevers, contorted gothic of the Middle West; the passion is sung, under the regret and violence and fiery flowers of the South; the passion is sung, under the size and range and golden bareness of the Western Coast, and the split acute seasons of the cities standing east. (p.90)

Rukeyser’s visionary poetics are capacious enough to include the American landscape and the American people, the body politic and the undenied, loved body.

One suggestive and beautiful essay (“Chapter Nine”) explores connections among words and visual images. Here Rukeyser invokes Imagist poets, like Pound, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who say “We are not a school of painters…but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly.” She speaks rather obliquely of paintings and the words most closely attached to them – their titles:

The connections between writing and painting have been spoken about with the same split and duality that has afflicted our approach to every human act. It has been left to a deprecation of certain paintings for being “literary”; for dealing, if they are representational, with juxtapositions like those at the climax of a dramatic work – or, if they are not, for having pompous and inflated titles that direct the audience to a sentimental associative position. (p.134)

Rukeyser’s context is the 1940s burgeoning of abstract expressionism, with its insistence that painting is its own language, not a translation of “reality,” not about story or narrative, not to be accessed through its title – at least, this is my guess, though there are no notes to fill in the cultural background of these essays. But even readers with no prior interest in those debates will come upon gems here. Memorable paintings, Rukeyser writes (and she could be speaking of poems), “make a sense of arrival in us…[their] balance reminds us of the rhythms of our dreams as well as those of waking reality.”

Rukeyser worked as a film editor for a time, and she is especially good at thinking about the succession of images and words that makes up both poems and films. In film, image and sound run on separate tracks which can be mixed and condensed in flexible ways. In a Hitchcock movie, the horror on the landlady’s face as she turns from the knife-stuck corpse is expressed in the scream of the train whistle as the hero speeds away. People tend to accept such density and juxtaposition in film, Rukeyser argues, but to resist it in poetry. If anything, I think, this is even more true today. Everyone gets the fast cut in film, but it is not unusual to hear complaints about “obscure” poetry (meaning poems with dense imagery and juxtapositions that .work like fast cuts), along with praise for accessible but prosy poems.

When Rukeyser died in 1980 at the age of 66 we lost an essential voice, the more so because, one by one, her 26 books have gone out of print. With recent new editions of her poetry, and now with this edition of The Life of Poetry, she is being returned to us. Rukeyser’s frequent use of terms like “truth” and “meaning” gives these essays a pre-postmodern tone. Yet they remain remarkably relevant, perhaps because she does not define the content of truth or the meaning of meaning. It is the questions she raises, the “storms of associations” she sets off, and most of all, the poetry that bums in her prose that make this a book no lover of poetry should think of doing without.