Heather Macpherson–She Sings the Body Electric: Soundscape in Two “Songs” by Muriel Rukeyser

In “Dream Drumming,” an interview with Pearl London from February 22, 1978, Muriel Rukeyser responds to the “processes of craft,” providing a provocative and telling explanation of what she felt was the most important aspect of poetry writing:

It’s very hard to talk about the rewriting that goes into [poems] because the major rewriting is likely to be in the matter of sound, the sound that is deep in the structure, almost a crystalline structure of sound in the poem. (28-29)

Sound is both pronounced and buried in Rukeyser’s poetry, initiating multiple conversations yet begging to be revealed. When reading Rukeyser, you somehow experience sound as if she is reading aloud to you even though you are reading to yourself, or hearing your own voice accept vibrations and tones. We encounter sound in three ways: the physical sensation of sound rising from air pressure and the vocal folds; the recognition of sound by sight when observing the contextual nature of words on the page through consonance and assonance; and the auricular—what is heard by the listener. However, I find something magical in Rukeyser’s transmission of sound whether hearing or reading aloud or to the self. In this essay I attempt to examine, as a reader, the provocative soundscape in two “Songs” by Muriel Rukeyser.

What is song? We understand song as a vocal music with or without accompaniment that our senses engage or disengage; song is a structure with rhythm, melody, dynamics and other elements promoting a call to performance: we listen, move, sing along (OED). We communicate; we use song to attract or entice. Sometimes “Song” is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser that crescendos and decrescendos not only in dynamics, but in the emotional and sexual rise and fall of the self, or the other.

In Beast in View (1944), “Song” is a gorgeous, intimate short poem of two ballad quatrains (abcb). Rukeyser’s use of the ballad quatrain does not necessarily follow its distinct four-stress and three stress lines, but does suggest and allude to the classic anonymity in narrative song (“Ballad”). Rukeyser’s opening line masterfully combines voiceless fricatives, sibilants, plosives, and liquids to create a sound texture that is at once sensual and otherworldly while conveying a soft emotional rumble:

The world is full of loss; bring, wind, my love

Let us examine these sounds more closely:

|Th|e wor|l|d is |f|u|ll| o|f| |l|o|ss|; |b|ring, wind, my |l| o |v| e,

The articulation of sound in the first line, and throughout the poem, conveys the soft, light movement of a lover’s hand surfacing the back while also creating a place; a structure that calls the receiver of the hand to attention. The narrator and her lover share a smooth flowing sound structure, a horizontal place; it is both concave and convex following the serpentine features of the feminine form. Although the sound image does not repeat in line two, stanza one, the iambic pentameter creates the rise and fall of the horizontal serpentine image while adding a textured rhythm. These figures lie together, facing the same direction. The narrator seems to be thinking, sharing these sounds and words telepathically: I want you to know. And with a delicate beauty  Rukeyser imparts knowledge through physical contact; the lover’s hand is the “home… our meeting place, / And love whatever I shall touch and read / Within that face” (lines 2-4). In the third line Rukeyser employs “touch,” which ends with the digraph |ch|, a soft yet ear-catching ligature that blends with the conjunction “and” to connect our ear to the harder “read.”

The long-vowel sound, |ea| appearing at the end of the line creates a slight disruption or crescendo that quickly falls to a piano forte with “face.” This last combination of notes at the end of stanza one begins with the soft |f| followed by strong |a| and the sibilant |c|. Like any fine composer, Rukeyser orchestrates and conducts sound to distill the emotional impact of language. “Song” is a quiet yet sexually charged arrangement. Another song is of similar theme, but Rukeyser’s stanzaic structure and sound field transmits a different level of energy.

This second Rukeyser song is also a short, performative composition written twenty-two years later in her collection The Speed of Darkness (1968). “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor” is a single fifteen-line stanza with extensions of  interstitial end-space that supports the suggestively erratic nature of sound:

in whose rich honor
I stand looking from my window
over the starved trees of a dry September
deep and so far forbidden (lines 1-6)

If we look carefully at the first six lines, we see “Love” refrained and each note followed by a vast space or silence, forcing the reader and listener to pause or breathe at length, sustaining the plosive and fricative tones. The breath moves slowly to the second line which encapsulates a dedication to attention: “in whose rich honor / I stand.” Here, Rukeyser’s terms and force of “I” bring us to a vertical reach as the narrator’s eyes search from the “window / over the starved trees of a dry September.” If the narrator can see over the trees, she is standing above them, looking out from a high floor, perhaps lamenting the change of season—a season of the natural world and the sexual. The trees are “starved” because the leaves have fallen, there is no sun; the trees cannot produce glucose through the process of photosynthesis therefore sweetness has come to an end. Instead, love is “deep and so far forbidden.” Although line 6 suggests lamentation, Rukeyser moves away from the soft vowels of the first five lines to a strong long “ee” and much like in “Song” from Beast in View, she employs the conjunction “and” to connect the “ee” sound to the sibilant |s| and long |o|. The alliterative fricative softens and the line ends in pianissimo. The line, of course, does not end there. She begins line 7 with “is,” returning to sibilance “bringing me / a gift.” This song also acts, or brings, and instead of love refrained once more, the “gift”  refrains as  love is the gift “longed for so long.” The liquids in |l| onged and |l| ong with sibilant |s| in between is a deeply felt sexual arousal denoted by both sound and meaning. Longing is not just the heart and love, but a sexual yearning that is “forbidden” or perceived to be inaccessible. Rukeyser’s poem is deceivingly inaccessible as she carries out her composition with awkward and potentially intense rhythms and breaks. However, the upward and downward tiering of lines provokes like a musical scale and forces the instrumentalist to move from low to high and back again.

Rukeyser’s musical phrasing varies in length, but instead of the short lines pushing onto the next, the end-space gives the reader and speaker time to breath, accept, enjoy as the sexual energy emitted becomes animalistic: “a gift / to claw at my skin / to break open my eyes / the gift longed for so long.” Rukeyser moves away from a physical stirring to the onset of needing pleasure which translates into a “desperate ecstasy at last / death and madness.” The final two lines, I think, even more provocative than the narrator’s need for physical touch, are at once the highest point of the arrangement. The sibilance in “desperate ecstasy at last” is a hissing cry which quickly plummets to “death and madness.” The last line is the final orgasmic thrust–Rukeyser very quickly shifts from |s| to the plosive |d| to fricative |th| to the final hiss. In brevity, like a short instrumental movement, the poem ends with a final chord.

In my return to Pearl London’s 1978 interview with Rukeyser, the poet states,

I have, in my greed, … wanted modulation of sound changing, climbing as I think of it. On the page it’s going down the page, but somehow as one hears the poem, it’s climbing up and up until one reaches a kind of tonic sound, which is the last word in the poem for me. (29)

In Rukeyser’s “Song” and “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor,” we see and hear the rich soundscape, the musical lines, and experience the fall and return of emotional and sexual longing. In Rukeyser’s words, “we take the imaginative experience through the eyes with a shadow of sound; if we hear it, we take it through the ears with a shadow of sight” (Life of Poetry, 29). Her use of sound–sibilance, consonance, assonance in both image and texture–in these two short compositions provocate with an honest, frank abandon leaving the reader and listener with a longing of her own; a last word for poet, reader, listener.

Works Cited

“Ballad.” Glossary of Poetic Terms. Poetry Foundation. Web.<https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ballad> Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

London, Pearl. “Dream Drumming.” Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, ed. By Alexander Neubauer. New York: Knopf, 2011.

Rukeyser, Muriel. “Song.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, p. 215.

—–. “Song: Love in whose rich honor.” The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, p. 422.

—–. The Life of Poetry. 1949. Paris Press, 1996.

“song, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/184578. Accessed 14 November 2017.


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