I did some thirty years of living before encountering the work of Muriel Rukeyser. I don’t remember the exact day when I came upon this subversive Jewish-American poet, but my affinity to her is so strong that I think of her as “Muriel,” as opposed to the more formal “Rukeyser.” She was a pioneering poet, as well as a key influence on such writers as Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Erica Jong, Sharon Olds, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Marge Piercy, and Alicia Ostriker. Yet, owing to her gender (female), her political engagement (she was an outspoken socialist), her innovations in diction, subject matter, form, and even punctuation (on a manuscript, presumably for a publisher, she stamped in red: “Please
believe the punctuation”), recognition in poetry circles and beyond has not equaled her literary contribution. The 1978 edition of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser went out of print for years and was finally reissued in 2005.
I discovered Muriel while doing research for my dissertation, which explored how Jewish-American poets throughout the 20th century adopted Walt Whitman as an influence. In a few of the sources I studied, her poetry was called “Whitmanesque” and, as a dutiful doctoral student, I’d have tracked down any poet—Jewish or otherwise—whose poems were described this way. A search for Muriel revealed that, indeed, Whitman was probably her most fundamental influence, though her response to him remained uninvestigated. I ended up devoting a full chapter of the dissertation to Muriel’s work, arguing that she drew upon Whitman’s pluralistic, secular, and spiritual poetics to shape her own egalitarian vision for America in general and Jewish America in particular. I spent many hours at my desk combing her writings, gathering evidence for my claims. Muriel’s oeuvre—which I found complex, exciting, and beautiful—made this arduous pursuit worthwhile.
In the midst of this labor, early in the morning or late at night, I
began to hear Muriel’s voice rising from the pages. One of her signature poetic moves is a direct address to her readers, often with an intimacy that is both emotional and corporeal, as in her poem “Then”:
When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
She is her reader’s confidante and protector, speaking and “listening” without judgment. It was as if Muriel knew that I’d come to my research not only to study poems but to learn how to make them. What she spoke about had little to do with my dissertation and everything to do with becoming a poet: not just a woman poet, or a Jewish one, although these identities were as strong for her as they are for me, but a human being who is a poet. Muriel’s tone proved the truth of Anne Sexton’s well-known reference
to her as “the mother of everyone.”
Muriel’s voice rose up, and she had much to teach me. Her first lesson: engage. Poetry necessitates a turn into life. In the opening line of her debut collection, Theory of Flight (1935), Muriel writes: “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” The place for disinterest and detachment in a poet’s life is minimal. A poet must symbolically inhale what happens in her sphere of existence. In the title poem of the collection, “Theory of Flight,” a series of imperative verbs reinforces the significance of this awareness: “Look! Be : leap.” Observe with purpose, Muriel seems to say. Move. Never be static and closed. Later in the poem, she instructs us to turn our bodies literally into the world: “…shout green as the day breaks / put up your face to the wind / FLY.” As poets, we must allow for profound joy. Poetry requires it.
But not just joy. This turn or “leap” into life also requires a poet
to know pain. For Muriel, a poet’s imperative is to witness suffering and convey this suffering to society at large. Despising prejudice and committed to political activism, Muriel had her eyes trained steadily on the pain of others. In a series of poems entitled “The Book of the Dead,” she wrote about miners employed by the Union Carbide Company in the 1930s who were afflicted by silicosis. She incorporated legal, medical, and other records into her poems to document this tragedy:
That is what happens, isn’t it?
A choking-off in the air cells?
There is difficulty in breathing.
Does silicosis cause death?
Muriel did not look away; her poetry was a personal form of political activism. By presenting suffering to the reader without obfuscation, she created at least the potential for acknowledgment and healing.
Furthermore, poetry necessitates that we, at least at times, turn in towards ourselves, our own suffering. If a poet cannot access her own pain, she cannot communicate it to others. In Muriel’s poem “Song,” from A Turning Wind, she writes of the losses that puncture our lives:
The world is full of loss; bring, wind, my love,
my home is where we make our meeting-place,
and love whatever I shall touch and read
within that face.
For all of Muriel’s resistance to writing accessible, linear poetry, in “Song” she presents the hardest truth in the simplest language: “The world is full of loss.” What follows from this claim is not so straightforward. For instance, consider the syntax in the line “bring, wind, my love.” What is the speaker requesting in this line? For her “love” to bring her wind? To be brought, by someone or something, her wind and her love? In my reading of this line, the speaker addresses the wind itself, imploring it to bring her
love. The stanza celebrates the love that persists despite great loss in her “home,” the “meeting-place”—poetry itself.
Unafraid to look at pain, Muriel does so with compassion. And scrutinizing the pain of the past is especially crucial, because to be able to turn in towards ourselves, we must be able to turn towards what is behind us, or what is behind us that lives on in the present. Poetry demands respect for memory. We must breathe in what was with as much force as what is. In “Double Ode,” from The Gates, Muriel urges us never to bury our history or allow it to be buried:
Black parental mysteries
groan and mingle in the night.
Something will be born of this.
Pay attention to what they tell you to forget
pay attention to what they tell you to forget
pay attention to what they tell you to forget
These “black parental mysteries,” which are not explained in the poem, can be understood as a symbol of the past. “Something” is “born” or created from these mysteries, by which I believe Muriel means not only children but poems. What feeds poetry is the poet’s insistence on delving into the past: “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget.” We must pay attention, despite the fact that “they”—parents, priests, or politicians–tell us not to. At the end of the poem, the speaker asks: “Do I move toward form, / do I use all my fears?” It is a question Muriel asks herself and wants all poets to ask themselves. Am I making the best use in my poems of the history that has been bequeathed to me?
Why did it matter so much what Muriel seemed to be saying to me? It mattered in part because she and Whitman and the other poets
I was studying in my dissertation—Charles Reznikoff, Karl Shapiro,
Gerald Stern, Alicia Ostriker, Marge Piercy, and C.K. Williams—
became and remain my teachers. But Muriel granted me something unique: the authority to inhabit my writing self. I could be a woman poet, a Jewish poet, an unapologetic poet, a fearless poet, a weak or strong poet, a feeling poet. Be joyful! Muriel insisted. And grieve. Grieve what needs to be grieved. Shine light on the cracks in the ground that you’ve been tripping on for years. These cracks are where your poems are hidden.
I don’t know how, but Muriel seemed to know that what I really needed to do was mourn my father. His absence from my life, his devastating illness and death, were the cracks in my ground—and these cracks were near “breaking open” (to use her own words). The grief stored up from my father’s death was wrecking the relationships I was trying to have with the living, including myself. As Muriel writes in “Wedding Presents” from Theory of Flight: “Griefs / marking indelibly our later loves.” My griefs were threatening, indelibly, my later loves. I needed to write poems about my father, many poems—maybe a book of poems. I felt that Muriel, with her own staring down of the past, was sanctioning me to write about anything I wanted, especially what I had been trying hardest to turn away from.
By sanctioning me to write about my father, she sanctioned me to become a poet. There were halting starts, but I found myself better equipped to take ownership of narratives that I had inherited, the very ones “they” advised me to forget. I could examine and reframe my own story, as Muriel conveys in “Notes for a Poem” (again, from Theory of Flight), where a father’s fields are viewed afresh by his son: “there will be new ways of seeing these ancestral lands.” I was revisiting my own “ancestral lands” but as a daughter. And the grief, when it came, was as wicked as I’d always feared it would be: unbearable, until it became unbearably bearable. In Muriel’s poem “Two Years,” from Breaking Open, she writes, “Two years of my sister’s bitter illness; / the wind whips the river of her last spring. / I have burned the beans again.” I discovered that I could mourn my father deeply and still manage to do the mundane things of life, if in a somewhat distracted state. Two poems that I wrote about my father during this period of grief, “The Sound of Bullfrogs” and “Practical Things,” found a home in Poet Lore. I’m quite close, now, to having written that book.
In the simplest, most powerful terms, my response to Muriel’s teachings about how to be poet (and a person) is: I will try. At the risk of sentimentalizing, I might say that I didn’t find Muriel, she found me. Or more accurately, Muriel helped me find myself. But I believe she has relevance for every reader. Anyone who listens will hear a different Muriel. It is up to each of us to elicit from her what we can, to interpret her messages, whether or not we like what she has to say or how she says it. According to Muriel, apathy is far more dangerous than anger, frustration, or even hatred. In “This Place in the Ways” from The Green Wave, Muriel writes of the hope that can only spring from rage:
Rage for the world as it is
but for what it may be
more love now than last year
and always less self-pity
since I know in a clearer light
the strength of the mystery.
© Dara Barnat
We thank Poet Lore for permission to publish this essay, which will appear in the journal’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.