Crisis, hope, and the life of poetry

I’m delighted to be blogging for this website for several reasons. Foremost among them is the great pleasure I have in being part of a growing community of scholars, students, readers, writers, artists, musicians, performers, filmmakers, activists and more who share a deep, inclusive appreciation for the life and legacy of Muriel Rukeyser. My first exposure to Rukeyser’s work was not to her poetry, but to her poetic philosophy. In a Master’s class at King’s College London, I had been assigned to read The Life of Poetry by someone who had once known her and considered her a friend: Professor Clive Bush. I remember our discussion extended far beyond its allotted time, transferring to the Lyceum Tavern across the Strand when the seminar room had to be vacated and, after time was called at the pub, infusing several conversations and classes until the end of term. In many ways, though, I’m still having that discussion. And the exciting thing about it is that it is always evolving and involving, always connecting me to new ideas, perspectives, experiences and people. This is, of course, the essence that we all extract from Rukeyser’s writing: a connective human exchange, an ethical responsibility to witness and respond to the lives of others, and a conviction in the vitality and life-giving power of poetry.

In this spirit of connection, I’d like to pay homage to another poet. Here in Northern Ireland, from where I write, the sadness felt at the death of Seamus Heaney (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013) seeped into every crevice of waking life; the loss, for several days, was both palpable and inexpressible. Perhaps this is because, as Harry Eyres recently wrote for the Financial Times, ‘something strange happens when a poet dies. [It] is felt profoundly, at deep levels close to the centre of our being, or of being itself.’ The key to this profundity of feeling lies, I think, in what Rukeyser was so keen to communicate: that poetry is itself a vital force – democratic, courageous, indispensable. When we lose someone whose gift to life is poetry, we are afraid to lose an essential element of life itself. Of course, the poems of Heaney and of Rukeyser diverge in many ways. Yet they also speak to each other across divides of time and geography. Both poets taught through their writing that fear could be confronted and assuaged by poetry; both believed, in Rukeyser’s words, in ‘a poetry of meeting places, where the false barriers go down’. And both poets lived through times of immense national and international crisis, where barriers, however ‘false’, at times seemed insurmountable.

The barriers that Heaney saw were the ideological and physical ones erected during the Troubles – a bloody era of civil war that is so recent in history as to colour many people’s perceptions of life today in Northern Ireland. Heaney was born and worked in the North, but in 1972, the year of the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry and the Bloody Friday bombings in Belfast, he moved from the capital to Co. Wicklow in the South.  In an interview, Heaney spoke of how the disadvantaged homes and impoverished conditions exacerbated by the civil unrest were ‘a barrier to growth and self-realisation’ for the youth caught up in the fighting. ‘The sectarian realities, the unemployment, the eventual presences of the British army, the IRA recruiting machine, the peer pressure – hard to see teenagers who were simply returned from the school to the street corner being able to transcend all that’.[i] Yet Heaney’s poetry continues to speak with a voice that aims not to transcend social and personal realities, but to bore into the core of them, cutting through barriers, ‘vowels ploughed into other: opened ground’ (‘Glenmore Sonnets’). His poetry is taught and loved in schools, translates to street corners, digs into the earth[ii] and runs a rare thread between flights of imagination and memory, and grounded, nourishing actuality.

When Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, he spoke of how language had reached him as a small child, in its codes and cadences, through his family’s wireless set. Transmitting news of war, the radio’s static stuttering of the ‘solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”’ prepared him not only for news broadcasts relating to the sectarian conflict, but for ‘a journey into the wilderness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or in one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.’ Rukeyser’s similar understanding of life as a series of stories, of points of contact, likewise connects poetry’s communicative force with what Heaney calls ‘a truth to life’: Heaney and Rukeyser shared a deep conviction in ‘poetry’s ability – and responsibility – to say what happens.’[iii]

This commitment to bearing witness – to saying what happens – is the driving force behind Rukeyser’s entire poetics. For Rukeyser, the term ‘witness’ replaced that of ‘audience’, ‘listener’, or even ‘reader’ in the relationship between poet, poem and receiver, invoking as it does ‘an overtone of responsibility […] announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self’ (The Life of Poetry, 175).  Through such truth-saying witness, the barriers to ‘growth and self-realisation’ that Heaney noted are dismantled, slowly, piece by piece. The ‘false barriers’ to which Rukeyser referred throughout her life, and which she repeatedly advocated the removal of, are constructed by those who mistakenly believe that segregation – of cultures, disciplines, genres, religions, races, people – represents the cornerstone to a functional way of life. Such barriers are particularly resistant in times of crisis, during which, as Rukeyser states in the opening lines of The Life of Poetry, ‘we summon up our strength’. I find it interesting that in describing the existential pain at the loss of a poet, Eyres draws parallels between Heaney, as the voice and conscience of the Troubles, and Federico Garcia Lorca, the execution of whom by Nationalist forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 ‘represented the death of a liberal, open-minded Spain, tolerant of sexual and racial differences that would not revive again until after the death of Franco.’ Returning to the beginning of The Life of Poetry, we find Rukeyser returning to the beginning of her own speaking out. Rukeyser recalls her evacuation from Barcelona via boat, as civil war erupts across Spain. Having been sent in 1936 by Life and Letters Today to document the People’s Olympiad (a politically conscious alternative to Hitler’s Berlin Games), Rukeyser instead witnessed the start of open warfare:

On the deck that night, people talked quietly about what they had just seen and what it might mean to the world. The acute scenes were still on our eyes, immediate and clear in their passion; and there were moments, too, in which we were outsiders and could draw away[…] Everything we had heard, some of all we loved and feared, had begun to be acted out. Our realisation was fresh and young, we had seen the parts of our lives in a new arrangement. There were long pauses between those broken images of life, spoken in language after language.

Suddenly, throwing his question into talk not at all leading up to it – not seeming to – a man – a printer, several times a refugee – asked, “And poetry – among all this – where is there a place for poetry?”

Then I began to say what I believe. (The Life of Poetry, 3)

Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s timely bringing to light of Rukeyser’s previously unpublished genre-hybrid novel, Savage Coast, along with other numerous references in Rukeyser’s writings to her brief time in Spain indicates how important this episode was to Rukeyser, personally, politically and poetically. She believed strongly in the truthful communication of poetry, as both a vehicle for social responsibility and an expression of profound, connective humanity. In the same way, Heaney considered poetry’s power to reside in its ability to ‘satisfy the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust’ (Nobel speech).  At base, then, poetry opens a way to hope. Heaney’s lines from ‘The Cure at Troy’ have been quoted countless times by world leaders, activists for peace, and educators alike:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

 

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

 

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

 

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Like Heaney after her, Rukeyser could see hope in the savage coast of a land fraught with bloody political crisis. The last small section of The Life of Poetry is entitled ‘Poetry and Peace.’  ‘As we live our truths, we will communicate across all barriers, speaking for the sources of peace,’ it begins.  More than anything, the book (which ought to be read by everyone) is an extended paean for poetry, and for the very human hope for peace.

Rukeyser, Heaney and Ireland are connected, inevitably, in further ways. In 1958, Rukeyser travelled alone to County Kerry, Ireland, to document the pagan festival of drink and sex, Puck Fair – the result was the book, The Orgy. Thirteen years later, her son William Rukeyser was to travel to Northern Ireland for an entirely different experience. The internationally scrutinised Belfast and Derry were a world away from the remote rural gathering in Kerry, and William was there in the capacity of a radio reporter and freelance journalist covering the Troubles. In periods between 1971 and 1972, William lived in a flat on Fitzroy Avenue, which is, coincidentally, the same street on which Heaney lived while studying and subsequently lecturing at Queen’s University Belfast in the School of English (incidentally, my first flat in Belfast was the next street to Fitzroy, convenient for Queen’s, which is where I now lecture). William Rukeyser’s evocative and distressing documentary photographs and sound recordings of the now infamous Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry can be found here: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/rukeyser/. In an email to me, Bill Rukeyser notes:

In terms of my mother and me, the striking similarities are these: She went to Barcelona and I went to Derry expecting to report on news events. We both ended up participating in tragedies. The events stayed with and affected us our entire lives.

We each carry with us and are shaped by the high and low moments of our own lived experience – what Rukeyser termed ‘moments of proof’ – in which imagination and memory work in conjunction. Rukeyser and her son’s separate encounters with the tragedies wrought by war fused personal and public life in a way that would result in both of them turning the documented fact into a communicated response – an appeal for truth, transparency and justice. In the poem ‘Searching/Not Searching’, (Breaking Open, 1973) Rukeyser returns to the theme, and explores further the connections between her own encounters with tragedy, those of her son, and the wider implications of bearing witness to the truth in times of crisis. Her take on ‘the artist as social critic’ is similar to Heaney’s, who maintained, like Rukeyser, that the value in poetry was not in any didacticism or mirroring of the world, but in its status as both testimony and creation: ‘not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself’ (Nobel speech).

From:  ‘Searching/Not Searching’

 

9 THE ARTIST AS SOCIAL CRITIC
They have asked me to speak in public
and set me a subject.

 

I hate anything that begins   :   the artist as . . .
and as for “social critic”
at the last quarter of the twentieth century
I know what that is:

 

late at night, among radio music
the voice of my son speaking half-world away
coming clear on the radio into my room
out of blazing Belfast.

 

Long enough for me to walk around
in that strong voice.

It is ‘that strong voice’ that is so vital to the power and proof of poetry in times of political upheaval. The voice of the poet, Rukeyser realised, needs to be strong enough to be heard across the false barriers, strong enough to create a meeting place in which those barriers come down, strong enough to level a field of action (as William Carlos Williams called the poem) in which one may walk within that voice, at once guided by it and in active exchange with it. As Bill Rukeyser noted to me, his mother’s hope was not unfounded. ‘She lived to see the death of Franco and the flickering rebirth of democracy in Spain. I have lived to see the Good Friday Agreement and the English government admit its guilt in Bloody Sunday.’

And so this post is in celebration and in hope; hope for peace, responsibility and communication in a time of new civil wars and political and financial crisis, and celebration of the lives of the poets to which it is dedicated, in the year of Heaney’s death and the centenary of Rukeyser’s birth. Finally, of course, it is in celebration of the life of poetry – a type of creation that cannot die, for as Rukeyser reminds us, ‘all the poems of our lives are not yet made’ (The Life of Poetry, 214). I continue to assign The Life of Poetry in my classes. I’m hopeful about what a new generation of Northern Irish youth will make of it.


[i] Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London, Faber and Faber, 2009), 71

[ii] The closing line of one of Heaney’s most famous poems is his decision to choose as his vocational tool a pen, over his father’s spade: ‘I’ll dig with it’ (‘Digging’).

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