I wonder how many have come upon Rukeyser’s work – as I did —surprised that we’d not heard very much about her.

In the early 1970s, I was a new PhD in English, reasonably acquainted with the work of despairing, self-destructive, suicidal poets (most of them men), whom critics and English courses focused on: Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke.

The writing in this canon was undeniably brilliant. But after Berryman’s suicide in 1972 by jumping off a bridge, Lowell wrote a dispirited response: “Yet really we had the same life,/the generic one/our generation offered.”

(Way) back then, two women were also recognized in this bleak pantheon: Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in an oven (with her children in the next room) and Anne Sexton, who asphyxiated herself in her garage. As I recall, Sexton and Plath, who each won a Pulitzer (Plath posthumously) and a National Book Award for their “confessional” poetry, were often mentioned in the media. Lowell, who also won a Pulitzer and a National Book award, was the dean of this confessional school of poetry.

Interestingly, the work of Rukeyser’s exact contemporary and great friend of Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, characterized by critics as “restrained,” “objective,” and having “an air of serenity,” — the antithesis of the confessional school — had also been recognized with a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

By the 1970s, Rukeyser had been publishing for decades and had won awards, but no Pulitzer or National Book Award. News of those prizes often appeared in local newspapers and conferred on a poet’s work a seal of peer approval, inviting a national if not an even wider readership. They could make Plath and Sexton, for example, almost household names, in the mystique of celebrity suicides. (In fact, the latest of several books about Plath since her death was treated in the lead review of the New York Times Book Review under the heading “Star Power.”)

In the 1970s, Muriel Rukeyser was not a household name. Nor had I ever encountered her work in an English course. She published a poem about Sylvia Plath in 1976, a pithy, ironic take on Plath’s renown and perhaps on all poets whose popularity often stems from readers’ morbid fascination with accounts of self-destruction:

            NOT TO BE PRINTED

           NOT TO BE SAID

           NOT TO BE THOUGHT

           I’d rather be Muriel

                       than be dead and be Ariel.

Of course, Ariel is Plath’s poetry collection published posthumously in 1965. It is also its title poem, in which Plath identifies with an exhilarating spirit that may be liberating from social norms but is fundamentally “suicidal,” pulling irresistibly toward self-annihilation

Muriel is nowhere so not-Ariel as in the Elegies, which resist the downward pull of despair, despite the horrors of war and the agonies of personal loss.

I’m grateful for this webinar because through the Elegies I’m rediscovering an aspect of her work, an “untamable need” (her phrase from the First Elegy) that I feel is central to an understanding of her work.  I’m struck by her naked, unabashed expression of need, of desire, (not least that of the flesh, the body) beginning in the First Elegy: “I want, I want.” Decades later, in “A Song of Another Tribe,” published in Waterlily Fire in 1962, she writes—sounding very much like William Blake:

                       Guilt   said the bony man

                       Do you feel guilt

                       At your desires?

                      No     I said     my guilt comes when

                       My desires find no way.

(Rukeyser was a large woman, so it’s telling this dialog is with a “bony man.”)

As Elisabeth Daumer points out in her description of this webinar, “I want” is Rukeyser’s unrestrained cry for the ideals she saw defeated in Spain, and against “the advance of fascism, the devastations of World War II, and the Shoah.” It is also her cry for wholeness in the face of personal losses and emotional pain.

In his poem “September 1, 1939” Auden also laments the failure of the liberal ideals of the thirties. But his stance is ironic: he sees those ideals as merely “the clever hopes . . . of a low dishonest decade.”

By contrast, in 1949, Rukeyser’s passionate cry is for the embodiment of those ideals, which she sees not as “clever hopes” but as humankind’s salvation. In the first two Elegies, she’s madwith the wanting of a better world, “the amazing desire/ that keeps me alive,” the tortured imagery straining to express that desire (“a room torn up by the roots”). Imagination must lead us, she declares in the First Elegy, while “failure of the imagination” is rampant. Yet she dares “prophesy the meeting by the water/of these desires.” “Now I begin again the private rising,/the ride to survival of that consuming bird/beating, up from dead lakes, ascents of fire.”

As they progress, each of the first nine Elegies moves through states of confusion, doubt, and pain. But each resolves into a vision or a wish or the potential for wholeness, clarity, peace, love. This progress — and the phrasing of wanting, needing, wishing — can be seen in many of her poems, written at each stage of her life. From “Waking This Morning,” published in 1973:

                                          I want strong peace,

                           and delight,

                       the wild good.

                       I want to make my touch poems:

                       to find my morning, to find you entire

                       alive moving among the anti-touch people.

From a poem published in 1968, “Word of Mouth,” in which she remembers “that morning/when all things fell open and I went into Spain”:

                     I need to go into

                                               this country

            of love and

            . . .

                      I need this country

                                                of love and death

they begin to rouse.

                        They wake.

I believe this is what distinguishes Rukeyser from the poets of Lowell’s generation and their spiritual heirs. In an interview, Rukeyser once said to me, “I hope always to deal with the potential as as real as any other part of life.” She said her approach is a question of “the amount of faith and validity you allow for the potential in life.”

In “Poem,” published in 1962. She is still “mad,” “insane” with wanting. And her belief is still that the imagination must lead us.

            I lived in the first century of world wars.

            Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

            The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

            The news would pour out of various devices

            Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

            I would call my friends on other devices;

            They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

            Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

            Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

            In the day I would be reminded of those men and women

            Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

            Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

            As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

            We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.

            To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

            Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

            Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

            To reach the limit of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

            To let go the means, to wake.

            I lived in the first century of these wars.

In the Second Elegy, “Age of Magicians,” she’s clearly on the side of the prophets (remember, she actually prophesied in the First Elegy). She extols the prophets for seeing the world as it is (“the world with all its signatures visible”), lit by the imagination rather than by the vision of magicians “worshipping a darkness/with gongs and lurid guns, the colors of force.”

We are responsible for the sorry state of the world—“all this is because of you”—because “[you] never inquired into these meanings.” As a result, “armies of magicians [fill] the streets.” But “all this is avenged by you.” You, reader, with the burning light of your imagination, can resist the magicians and see the world as it can be:

            Your index light, your voice the voice,

            .  .  .

                   Now be

            Seer son of Sight, Hearer, of Ear, at last.

The poem “It Is There,” published in 1973, presents a vision of a peaceful world, “the human place.” What has enabled this world filled with music and children at their games, where the magicians of the Elegies don’t hold sway? Certainly not “a long tradition of rest.”

            Meditation, yes; but within a tension

            Of long resistance to all invasion, all seduction of hate.

            Generations of holding to resistance; and within this resistance

            Fluid change that can respond, that can show the children

            A long future of finding, of responsibility; change within

            Change and tension of sharing consciousness

            Village to city, city to village, person to person entire.

            With unchanging cockcrow and unchanging endurance

            Under the

                                    skies of war.       

This poem could have been written about our times, our polarized country. What will enable us to move toward “the human place” is a “long resistance to all invasion, all seduction of hate.” Generations have resisted and must continue to resist the magicians’ darkness, affirming responsiveness and sharing consciousness, person to person. Rukeyser’s cry of “I want” has led her and her like-minded friends to hold on to and live by their ideals, to resist.

In the Third Elegy, “The Fear of Form,” Rukeyser rejects a sentimental, a copycat, a witwork art ruled by a “tyranny of method,” unable to either truly reflect or give voice to our complex age. The artist must find “new combinations,” as opposed to the products of a “chorus of bootblacks, printers, collectors of shit.”

The title could be read as “The Fear of Seeking Your Own Form.”

In this Elegy, published in 1949, we recognize the many references throughout her poems to the importance of finding a poetic formthat is organic, growing out of her experience, her emotional life, indeed out of her body and its need. Such a form would illuminate her world, making “the world with all its signatures visible.”

 Published in 1976, “Poem  White Page  White Page  Poem” embodies her poetic method. Here is how her poems have been taking form throughout her life, pulsing from her body and lighting her understanding:

            Poem  white page   white page   poem

            something is streaming out of a body in waves

            something is beginning from the fingertips

            they are starting to declare for my whole life

            all the despair and the making music

            something like wave after wave

            that breaks on a beach

            something like bringing the entire life

            to this moment

            the small waves bringing themselves to white paper

            something like light stands up and is alive

And in “Double Ode,” also published in 1976, she writes:

            Moving toward new form I am—

            carry again

            all the old gifts and wars.

            Black parental mysteries

            groan and mingle in the night.

            Something will be born of this.

            .  .  .

            [t] here is no guardian, it is all built into me.

            Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?

By fearlessly moving toward one’s own form we can save ourselves and our country, which is afflicted with a mindless comfort, as she writes in “Body of Waking,” published in 1958.

            Ruddy we are, strong we are, and insane.

            . . .

            We eat very well. We keep the pictures on.

            . . .

            We are careful to flush the toilet. Of course we take exercise.

But we are not doomed to this sleepwalking—if we seek our genuine form, inspired by seekers who came before us:

            The force that split the spirit could found a city

            That held the split could shine the light of science.

            This rigid energy could still break and run dancing

            Over the rockies and smokies of all lives.

            . . .

           Seeking as we began to grow, and resting without distrust,

            We moved toward a requirement still unknown.

            We spoke of the heroes, the generous ones, who gave their meanings . . .

Readers of poetry in the 1950s would surely have recognized the rhythm of Rukeyser’s line, “The force that split the spirit could found a city,” as echoing lines that made Dylan Thomas famous. The notoriously self-destructive poet died in a New York hospital in 1953 at age 39 following a drinking bout. Here is Thomas:

            The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

            Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

            Is my destroyer.

            And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

            My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Hear Rukeyser again:

           The force that split the spirit could found a city

           That held the split could shine the light of science.

Thomas’s poem dwells on —even celebrates—the force that propels all life to its destruction, to death.  It’s a paean to entropy! Rukeyser’s vision, expressed in that recognizable rhythm, is instead progressive, embracing the challenges of the present and moving with hope in potential —to a future where the energy of seeking, the desire to find resolution, may in fact find a new form, “a requirement still unknown.”

But in acknowledging potential, Rukeyser does not minimize suffering. Both the Fourth Elegy, “The Refugees” and Eighth Elegy, “Children’s Elegy” sing the suffering of the thousands of refugee children of the Spanish war and of World War II.

Some of those children were also forced to fight in Spain. These children soldiers, 17-year-olds, uprooted from their families, were completely untrained for fighting. They had to bring their own clothes, even shoes, some fighting in their espadrilles. Many died of typhoid.

Hear Rukeyser:

            Cut.  Frozen and cut.  Off at the ankle.  Off at the hip.

                              Off at the knee.  Cut off.

            Crossing the mountains many died of cold.

Because for Rukeyser the political has always been personal, she identifies with the hurt children in these elegies. The refugee child is also Muriel as well as the artist seeking an authentic voice for her times.

            And the child sitting alone planning her hope:

            I want to write for my race. But what race will you speak.

            being American? I want to write for the living.

(Again, it’s her “I want. I want.”)

But the artist seeking that authentic voice is not welcome: “Many are cast out, become artists at rejection.”

            . . . in the countries of the mind, Cut off at the knee. Cut off at the

                        armpit. Cut off at the throat.

Muriel is the rejected child, the refugee, the artist, cut off from her parents and family, from her fellow revolutionaries in Spain and from the dominant literary scene in the US, where her poem “Wake Island” was derided in a 1943 review titled “Grandeur and Misery of a Poster Girl.”

It is her refugee status that binds her to the refugee children of wars—the culture wars and the wars on battlefields.

“Desdichada,” published in 1973, affirms her personal connection to all child refugees, to rejected children and rejected artists, and her consequent turn to acknowledging every human being:

            For that you never acknowledged me, I acknowledge

            the spring’s yellow detail, the every drop of rain. . .

            . . .

            Disinherited, annulled, finally disacknowledged

            and all of my own asking.  I keep that wild dimension

            of life and making and the spasm

            upon my mouth as I say this word of acknowledge

            to you forever.  Ewig.

            . . .

                                                   Then I do take you,

            but far under consciousness, knowing                                             

            that under under flows a river wanting

            the other

            . . .

            to let this child find, to let men and women find,

            knowing the seeds in us all.  They do say Find.

“More Clues,” also published in 1973, traces her sense of abandonment to her childhood:

            Mother, because you never spoke to me

            I go my life, do I, searching in women’s faces

            the lost word, a word in the shape of a breast?

            Father, because both of you never touched me

            do I search for men building space on space?

            There was no touch, both my hands bandaged close.

            I come from that, but I come far, to touch to word. 

Muriel survives, as do the refugee children and poets who trust in the word, in potential.

From the Fourth Elegy:

            A line of shadowy children issues, surf issues it,

            sickness boiled in their flesh, but they are whole,

            insular strength surrounds them, hunger feeds them strong,

           the ripened sun finds them, they are the first of the world,

           free of the ferryman Nostalgia, who stares at the backward shore.

           Growing free of the old in their slow growth of death. . . .

The Eighth Elegy, “Children’s Elegy,” while continuing to detail the agonies of refugees, is also hopeful. The child recognizes that “the darkness. . .comes out of the person.” The child fights this darkness:

            The shadow in us sings, “Stand out of the light!”

            But I live, I live, I travel in the sun.

The sense of abandonment of the children in this Elegy is harrowing, as is the poet’s identification with the suffering children:

            War means to me, sings a small skeleton,

            only the separation

            mother no good and gone,

            taken away in lines of fire and foam.

           . . .                                                                                                                    

            “I search to learn the way out of childhood;

            I need to fight.  I wish, I wish for home.”

(Again, her need, her wish, her desire.)

The children “were broken off from love:/However long we were loved, it was not long enough.” It is not only the children of these wartimes. It is also the poet.

            I see it pass before me in parade,

            my entire life as a procession of images

            . . .

And she claims her life: “I begin to have what happened to me.” She claims it with love.

            I wanted to die. The masked and the alone

            seemed the whole world, and all the gods at war,

            and all the people dead and depraved. Today

            the constellation and the music!  Love.

She finally urges herself and her readers to find themselves in creative openness to the world and its meanings:

            You who seeking yourself arrive at these lines,

            look once, and you see the world,

            look twice and you see yourself,

            And all the children moving in their change,

            To have what has happened, the pattern and the shock;

            and all of them walk out of their childhood,

            give to you one blue look.

This is the meaning of the lines in the Fourth Elegy: “It is the children’s voyage must be done/before the refugees come home again.” In Rukeyser’s vision, to reach personal and artistic maturity one must reclaim the child’s urgent, instinctive desire for growth.

It is in the Fifth Elegy, “A Turning Wind,” that the child and the poet voyage, roaming the country in search of that America she wants to give voice to. Remember the Fourth Elegy:

           I want to write for my race. But what race will you speak,

           being American? I want to write for the living.  

Now, from the Fifth Elegy she is

           knowing the shape of the country. Knowing the midway travels

           of migrant fanatics, living that life, up with the dawn and

           moving as long as the light lasts, and when the sun is falling

                       to wait, still standing;

           and when the black has come, at last lie down, too tired to

           turn to each other, feeling only the land’s demand under them.

The poet sings the unique shape of America, “torn off from sympathy with the past and planted,/a primitive streak prefiguring the west, an ideal/which had to be modified for stability, to make it work.”

Following the form of the country, she is also describing her own journey, where apparently she once prayed to be relieved of her strong desire:

            years of nightwalking in stranger cities, relost and unnamed,

            recurrent familiar rooms, furnished only with nightmare,

            recurrent loves, the glass eye of unreal ambition

            . . .

            churches where you betray yourself, pray ended desire,

            white wooden houses of village squares. Always one gesture:

                        rejecting of backdrops.

She is on a plane, a seeker of the meanings in the scenes she gazes down upon:

            The tilted cities of America, fields of metal,

            The seamless wheatfields, the current of cities running

                        below our wings

            promise that knowledge of systems which may bless.

            May permit knowledge of self. . .

            this hope of travel, to find the place again,

            rest in the triumph of the reconceived,

            lie down again together face to face.

In “Searching/Not Searching,” published more than forty years later, in 1973, she avows she has been a lifelong seeker:

           What kind of woman goes searching and searching?

           Among the furrows of dark April, along the sea-beach,

           in the faces of children, in what they could not tell;

           in the pages of centuries—

           for what man? for what magic?

           In corridors under the earth, in castles of the North,

           among the blackened miners, among the old

           I have gone searching

           . . .

           finding and finding in glimpses

What she wants, in searching, is

            to discover, to live at the edge of things,

           to fall out of routine into invention

           and recognize at the other edge of ocean

           a new kind of man    a new kind of woman

           walking toward me into the little surf.

           This is the next me   and the next child

           daybreak in continual creation.

           . . .

           And in us our need, the traces of the future,

           the egg and its becoming.

The Sixth Elegy, River Elegy, dated Summer 1940, presents images in which we recognize the  totalitarian forces building momentum in Europe.It is “Hell’s entropy at work and torment general.” But the poet fights the entropy of chaos and despair. It’s the imagination, again, that can light the way. It’s our screaming and broken crying against the waste of human cruelty. It’s the heart’s strong desire which, paradoxically in defeat, is “sure” and “magnificent.”

            Terror, war, terror, black blood and wasted love.

            The most terrible country, in the heads of men.

            This is the war imagination made;

            It must be strong enough to make a peace.

            . . .

            There is no solution. There is no happiness.

            Only the range must be taken, a way be found to use

            The inmost frenzy and the outer doom.

            . . .

                                        Century screaming for

            The flowing, the life, the intellectual leap

            of waters over a world grown old and wild,

            a broken crying for seasonal change until

            O God my love the waste become

            the sure magnificent music of the defeated heart.

In the Seventh Elegy, Dream-Singing Elegy, she can imagine the world achieving transformation through the strong desire and common dream of humankind. “I want” is here imagined as “We want,” as the poem embodies indigenous rituals of dance and singing.

            In the summer, dreaming was common to all of us,

            the drumbeat hope, the bursting heart of wish,

            music to bind us as the visions streamed

            and midnight brightened to belief.

            In the morning we told our dreams.

            They all were the same dream.

The images reach a crescendo of hope – “Brothers in dream. . .beaten and beaten and rising from defeat. . .love and child and brother/living, resisting, and the world one world/dreaming together.”

But before the Hallelujah of the last Elegy — in Joy  — Rukeyser writes the Ninth, The Antagonists, where she is conflicted in herself, “a gallery of lives/fighting within me, and all unreconciled,” mirroring the conflicts in the country: “our ancestors, all antagonists:/ Slave and Conquistador,” “our America of contradictions.” But it is the path we must travel as a nation: “form developing/American out of conflict.”

There is an urge to unity among all our oppositions:

            We are bound by the deepest feuds to unity.

            To make the connections and be born again,

            Create the creative, that will love the world.

            . . .

           Love must imagine the world.

                                               The wish of love

           moving upon the body of love describes

           closing of conflict, repeats the sacred ways

           in which the spirit dances and survives.

           .  .  .

           Today we are bound, for freedom binds us—we

           live out the conflict of our time, until

            Love, finding all the antagonists in the dance,

            moved by its moods and given to its grace,

            resolves the doom

                        And the deliverance.

In “Despisals,” published more than 20 years later, in 1973, Rukeyser again voices her desire for unity, recalling “the gallery of lives/fighting within me” of the Ninth Elegy, but in language much more common and startling:

            In the human cities, never again to

            despise the backside of the city, the ghetto

            . . .

            You are the city

She enumerates the targets of our usual antagonisms, oppositions, and despisals: Jews (“that is, ourselves”), blacks, homosexuals, the clitoris, the useful shit, the asshole. (Where in poetry can be found lines of such plain, raw speech as these?)

“You are this,” she writes.

            Never to despise in myself what I have been taught

            to despise.   Not to despise the other.

            Not to despise the it.     To make this relation

            with the it  :  to know that I am it.

Finally, in the Tenth Elegy, Elegy in Joy, she exults in the vision of reconciliation and peace that she has earned by facing and imagining beyond the horrors she and the world have lived through.

“Now, green now burning, I make a way for peace.” The poet is the maker of this vision. 

Repeating phrases from earlier Elegies, “in the triumph of the reconceived” we can “lie down at last together face to face.”

“Many wishes flaming together” have brought us to this place. But the work is just beginning.

The word of nourishment passes through the women.

            .  .  .

            Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.

            Not all things are blest, but the

           seeds of all things are blest.

           The blessing is in the seed.

In 1973, in the simple poem “Wherever,” from Breaking Open, she reprises her themes from the Tenth Elegy: the poet, with faith in potential, is maker and seeder of a future of justice and peace.


            we walk

            we will make


            we protest

            we will go planting

            Make poems

            seed grass

            feed a child growing

            Whatever we stand against

            We will stand feeding and seeding


            I walk

            I will make