“Most demonstrators and marchers did not worry over fine points of strategy; they were simply ‘against the war’” (Bricks and Phelps 141). This sentiment of undirected defiance resonated with the radicalism that emerged in the 1960s protests of the Vietnam War. Even more pertinent, the same sentiments reverberate today. When I was first writing this essay, in the fall of 2019, there had been several protests in Hong Kong throughout the entire year. The citizens of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR) were fighting for their democracy, which had been infringed upon by the Chinese government. These protests, while growing in number, appeared to be unsuccessful and had become dangerous for university students. The students had been confined to their institutions for learning—places designated for free thought — and were subjected to tear gas bombings because of their opposition. But political demonstrations proliferated not only in Hong Kong at that time.
In fact, there were several civil rights protests in the United States that had been reimagined as if it were the 1960s. There were protests resisting the reemergence of anti-abortion attitudes coupled with near-total-bans on abortion legislations in the South and Midwest in hopes of revoking Roe v. Wade. There was an outcry by the Black and Hispanic communities to end police brutality and end the inhumane conditions of ICE detention centers at the US-Mexico border. While protesting became typical in 2019, the standard became embedded into U. S.’s norm in the summer of 2020 with over a two-month period of Black Lives Matter Movement protesting police brutality sparking a global demonstration. Although these examples show that protesting has become a common way for citizens to express their frustrations with the current political regime, the process itself has become stagnant, rarely resulting in change. For example, from 2013 to 2019, three percent of police brutality cases were brought against police officers, and only one percent resulted in convictions (Vox as stated by mapping police violence).1 Despite discussions and demonstrations on civil rights injustices by impactful leaders and movements such as Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s, almost sixty years later, civil rights and bodily autonomy is still up for debate in Congress.2 In this tumultuous era of global civil wars and mass protests, should we consider an alternate means of activism?
The answer does not reside in a neat box; however Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Breaking Open” begins to unearth what it means to be an activist. We often try to condense our solution in the hopes of solving all facets of the problem, but the complexity that is found in many aspects of the issue does not allow for a simplified resolution. When the literary critic, Barry Wallenstein, refers to reading Muriel Rukeyser’s poems as “a way into conditions not reducible to the formulas of political arguments,” he is indicating that poetry does more than address a current political crisis. It is also creates a connection the audience feels when experiencing the author’s sentiments through his or her text (52).3 Rukeyser refers to this connection as “coming[s]-together,” which later becomes a motif in her poetry (“Poetry” 18).
The simply stated “coming-together” is hard to achieve in terms of political activism, though. Our failure stems from the lack of creative solutions and the narrow perspective that only validates our own opinion.4 In his article “Muriel Rukeyser and the Politics of Poetry,” Wallenstein argues that readers confuse poetry with the “social genesis,” or the socio-political problem that motivates an author to write, instead of thinking of the texts as standing alone devoid of current implications. He asserts the need for “objective intelligence,” for an unbiased perspective that allows for the sentiments of the text to hold and shake the reader’s convictions when analyzing poetry. Although protests and activism are not explicitly related to poetry, they are still comparable in the rigidity in keeping one’s own biases. Wallenstein insists that if a reader “watches for expressions that verify his own ideas, he is sidetracked to anticipate confirmation of [the] idea,” ignoring the poem itself and projecting their judgment on to the text. This approach to poetry does not enlarge the reader’s perspective, but narrows the application of the work, inhibiting change. Like poetry, traditional activism—defined by mass protesting—has led us into a confirmation bias. We believe we are making a difference without evidence of such preventing us from reflecting on new approaches that not only shake our own preconceived notions, but the perspective of the opposing party as well. Therefore, a creative solution is needed to transcend this problem.
Wallenstein’s idea of objective intelligence, which allows the relationship between the audience and the poem to prosper, is mirrored in Muriel Rukeyser’s belief in togetherness. Rukeyser posits that poetry is as natural and innate to humans as speech is to communication, an undertaking which she characterizes as a human activity. Her first Clark Lecture, “Poetry and the Unverifiable Fact” (1968), presents such human experience with a unique perspective. She compares the human experience to the repetition found in poetry. She claims the recurrences in our existence are “the parable that poetry actually is in our lives,” demonstrating how reiterations in poetry can assist us as we try to better understand ourselves (2). Rukeyser states that “the movement, the curve of emotion in a poem, is something deeply human,” thus relating the emotions induced by poetry as a part of the human experience (5). She acknowledges that the “curve of emotion” inspires a profound interrelatedness between those who have experienced the poem. The uniting force of the poem propagates the human experience, it is how we “come-together.” If we are able to replicate such an experience provided by reading a poem, then our everyday interactions will amount to a newly found form of activism.
To manifest this experience, we need to be vessels permitting the past access to the present through our interactions. Yet this is not an easy feat to complete.5 There is a sense of hopelessness that is situated in activism, which, at times, can overwhelm our senses. The emergence of angry activism suggests a passionate absorption of our ideals and our reluctance to change them. It results in a violent execution of our cause more than the goal of using our activism for what Wallenstein calls “social genesis.” The frustrations and hopelessness found in angry activism parallels Rukeyser’s idea of the “powerlessness of poetry” (“Poetry” 10). She defines the “powerlessness of poetry” as a constant; it is steady and unchanging. Similarly, the feelings experienced in angry activism produce stagnation. There is energy, but it lacks focus. Nevertheless, the curve of emotion is intrinsic, and becomes a linear relationship within the human experience.
Rukeyser uses the analogy of an infant crying to explain the complications that arise with the “powerlessness of poetry” and essentially our helplessness in times of crisis. In comparing ourselves to babies, we can begin to comprehend how our activism is powerless only when it lacks communication. Our all-encompassing emotions limit our expression of distress. Although a baby is weak, it is able to survive due to the power it has to evoke action in others (11). Rukeyser’s argument proposes that there is potential strength in such hopelessness. In using our ability to elicit passionate responses from others, we can transform traditional protest into activism that ensures change.
In the late 1960s, when Muriel Rukeyser was writing the poems in her book Breaking Open (1973), America’s political Left tried to revise its outlook on activism by encouraging inclusion and creating a diverse environment for change. In Radicals in America, Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps note how the Vietnam War (1955-1975) became a catalyst for transforming the New Left, thus spurring many radicalized movements, including women’s liberation, Black nationalism, and gay liberation (122). Rukeyser, who always considered herself a radical, a leftist, and an activist, was inspired by the diversification of the New Left while writing the title poem of her volume. “Breaking Open” speaks to the confusion and violence during the Vietnam War and the hopelessness of the continued disregard of the situation by the American people. In her poem, Rukeyser asserts that “the personal ‘unconscious’ is the personal history,” thus suggesting our thoughts and experiences in the past hold information that can be used to combat issues in the present (522). If we believe each person is a part of the history that we bring to the present with us, then the consciousness we share through the connectedness of history can allow for a new form of activism that transcends helplessness.
Before we can proceed to activism, what Wallenstein calls “social genesis” needs to be recognized. The beginning of “Breaking Open” establishes Rukeyser’s incentive for writing: the feeling of despair and helplessness generated by the Vietnam War, as well as a lack of empathy in the world that encourages disconnection. She recalls herself:
Walking in the elevator at Westbeth
Yelling in the empty stainless-steel
Room like the room of this tormented year.
Like the year
The metal nor absorbs nor reflects
My pulled face looks at me
From the steel walls. (“Breaking Open” 522)
Rukeyser’s helplessness is pervasive in this excerpt. The staccato-like rhythm of each line provides a languid reading that conveys her powerlessness as she walks into the elevator. There is no sense of urgency or purpose. Yet the frustrated yelling that comes soon after displaces the reader. The shift to an ecstatic state is disarming for her audience because Rukeyser physically expresses her vulnerability, which has only been implied thus far in the text. She juxtaposes the “empty stainless-steel” elevator to that of the “tormented year” to denote the lack of support for the Vietnam War and the impersonal responses of the U.S citizens to it. Nevertheless, the yelling is cathartic. The repetition of yelling in her poem offers a human experience, which enables Rukeyser to work out her thoughts and find her voice; she states, “my yelling.” It is a moment of vulnerability, but it also evokes agency demonstrated by her “pulled face” looking back at her in the elevator. The reflection of her “pulled face” signifies determination and action, which are shown more fully in the following stanza about her trip to Washington, D.C.
Readers are on an emotional journey with Rukeyser in the elevator. The “curve of emotion,” as she calls it in “Poetry and the Unverifiable Fact,” is strong, creating a bond between the author and her audience. This bond permits a dialogue whereby the reader is included in Rukeyser’s narration:
Naked among the silence of my own time
and Zig Zag Zag that last letter
of a secret or forgotten alphabet
shaped like our own last letter but it means
Something in our experience you do not know. (“Breaking Open” 521)
In the passage above, Rukeyser is being open about the helplessness that she feels and about the disregard Americans have for the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Rukeyser indicates that she is “naked among the silence,” suggesting her vulnerable side caused by the injustices displayed all over the world. Being bare is one of the most fragile human experiences, and Rukeyser candidly compares her emotions and her frail state of mind to “naked[ness].” She further conveys her weakness at that moment by stating that she is uncovered “among the silence,” which is indicative of the transparency of her fragility in the inaction of the world. The American people are “silent,” and Rukeyser considers their (and her) passivity a form of culpability.
By comparing the Vietnamese alphabet to that of English letters, Rukeyser establishes a connection between the two cultures to encourage empathy on the part of Americans. The “Zig Zag Zag that last letter of a secret or forgotten alphabet” simulates the action of writing the letter “Z” in the English alphabet. The Vietnamese alphabet is similar to that of the English alphabet, a fact Rukeyser uses to show Americans their commonality with the Vietnamese and thus provoke interest in the cause of peace. This move begins the stages of empathy. However, the “last letter,” “Z,” is a “secret” because it is one of the four letters in the English alphabet not found in the Vietnamese alphabet.6 The “forgotten alphabet” denotes our stoppage, the termination of the recurrences that enable us to have a shared experience with each other.7 Rukeyser condemns Americans for the disruption in our connected consciousness with Vietnamese people through her statement, “Something in our experience you do not know.” In using the pronoun “you,” the statement becomes pointed and accusatory of the reader, but it also evokes action from them.
Similar to the vulnerability of an infant’s cry, Rukeyser is able to use her fragility to evoke action within her community. This creates a sense of positivism, which she shares with those around her:
Looking out at the river
the city-flow seen as river
the flow seen as a flow of possibility
and I too to that sea. (“Breaking Open” 521)
Common to much of Rukeyser’s poetry, the motif of rivers arises to represent the fluidity in human interactions. Here, Rukeyser juxtaposes the natural exuberance of a river to the mechanical dynamics of city life when she states, “Looking out at the river / the city-flow seen as river.” In comparing these unlikely features of life, Rukeyser is bringing awareness to how the human experience mirrors nature, no matter how far removed we might be. It suggests that human life is governed by a sense of connection and implores the United States to adhere to this union. This belief motivates Rukeyser’s optimism, and now she is able to act against the Vietnam War. The lines “the flow seen as a flow of possibility / and I too to that sea” express her belief in shared human experiences. It gives her confidence that the American people will do what is necessary to address the injustices that surround them.
For Rukeyser, the idea of the “unverifiable fact” is essential for her activism; it is the process that creates a shared experience. She defines it as the act of coming into the present, “to the moment in our own experience, unknown to each other, partly known” (“Poetry” 4). Rukeyser comprehends the knowledge each individual has obtained from the past. She understands how that information is carried with us to the current moment: It is presented through our interactions, thus transferring from one person to the next. In this transference is “the signs of the recognition in recurrence … in what is recognizable across the world, across race and life story, and the nature of beliefs” (4). This process of the unverifiable fact is in essence similar to “the cloud” in modern-day parlance, a shared experience of humans stored in the “same state of being” (5).
One subsection of Rukeyser’s poem begins “Written on the plane,” recorded in a note-like fashion (“Breaking Open” 522). This section narrates her thoughts about shared consciousness:
The conviction that what is meant by the unconscious is the same as what is meant by
history. The collective unconscious is the living history brought to the present in
consciousness, waking or sleeping. The personal “unconscious” is the personal history.
This is an identity. (“Breaking Open” 522)
History is not as grounded in facts for Muriel Rukeyser as many assume it is; instead, it is created from the collective subjectivity of each individual’s experience. In the first line, Rukeyser equates the “unconscious” with “what is meant by history,” a radical point of view that suggests the continuation of history and its effects as current. Rukeyser suggests there is no upper or lower bounds to history by comparing the past to a person’s unconscious. This rejects traditional thinking about history as a definite point that ends before the present begins. Hints of the unverifiable fact echo through her statement that the “collective unconscious is the living history brought to the present in consciousness.” This statement creates a new definition for history grounded in the collective “personal history,” thus suggesting an exchange can be made in the present to help build a better foundation for our future.
One of Rukeyser’s many characteristics is her fondness of combining innovative thoughts with her activist work. Previously in her life, with the long poem The Book of the Dead (1938), she had used the form of documentary poetry to raise awareness about the many workers who contracted and died from silicosis. “Breaking Open” is no different, since it also uses thoughts on philosophy to reimagine the way we see activism. By approaching activism as a way of forming a shared consciousness, there is an individual responsibility placed on the readers of her poem. It does not suggest grand gestures, yet it still maintains the same urgency as a poem that serves as a direct call to action would. Wallenstein’s argument about the creation of the relationship between the poem and the audience’s open mind while experiencing a text lays the foundation for my understanding of Rukeyser’s unverifiable fact. For the transference to commence in the unverifiable fact there needs to be receptivity, a “naked[ness]” of all individuals. The opening scene of “Breaking Open” demonstrates that a lack of receptivity results in the continuing suffering of others. We cannot be passive in our activism, nor do we need to be angry. Rukeyser hopes for a balance between the two, where we as individuals can practice openness and vulnerability while fostering our own agency.
Brick, Howard and Christopher Phelps. “The Revolution Will Be Live, 1965-1973.” Radicals inAmerica: The U.S Left Since the Second World War. Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 121-72.
Bult, Laura. “A Timeline of 1,944 Black Americans Killed by Police.” Vox, Vox, 30 June 2020, www.vox.com/2020/6/30/21306843/black-police-killings.
Nash, Elizabeth, et al. “State Policy Trends at Mid-Year 2019: States Race to Ban or Protect Abortion.” Guttmacher Institute, 11 Nov. 2019, www.guttmacher.org/article/2019/07/state-policy-trends-mid-year-2019-states-race-ban-or-protect-abortion.
Truong, Donny. “Vietnamese Typography.” Alphabet Vietnamese Typography, 2018,vietnamesetypography.com/alphabet/.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Breaking Open.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005, pp. 521-29.
—. “Poetry and the Unverifiable Fact.” The Clark Lectures. Scripps College, 1968, pp. 1-21.
Wallenstein, Barry. “Muriel Rukeyser and the Politics of Poetry.” Margins, nos. 24-26, 1975, pp. 52+. Independent Voices.