Monday, January 01, 2007


All the shimmering names

The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (edited by Janet F. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005) once again brings into the world the full body and range of poetry by one of the essential poets of the 20th century. Muriel Rukeyser's life and work cover many universes. She lived from 1913 to 1980. She published a dozen or more books of poems during her lifetime; also The Orgy (a novel); Houdini: A Musical; a biography of the scientist J. Willard Gibbs; translations of poets Octavio Paz, Gunnar Ekelof, and others; The Life of Poetry, a book-length exploration of the social and psychological sources and functions of poetry; among other writing.

During the 1930's she wrote journalism for various left-leaning and generally progressive publications; she worked organizing support for the anti-Fascist resistance in the Spanish Civil War. She raised her son as a single mother. During the 1940's she taught at the California Labor School; in the 1950's she taught at Sarah Lawrence College, inviting janitors to join her classes and study alongside the students. She faced harassment by the U.S. government for her politics (her F.B.I. file runs to more than a hundred pages). In 1972 she traveled with Denise Levertov and Jane Hart to Hanoi, North Viet Nam, to protest U.S. bombing. (Denise Levertov's poems coming out of that trip are in her book The Freeing of the Dust, published sometime in the early 1970's by New Directions.) Rukeyser also took part in many other antiwar and civil rights protests in the United States during those years. This brief list gives only a bare sketch of the scope of her activities during her life.

Consider, in the context of the current war in Iraq and the economic policies of the Bush administration, these lines from Rukeyser's poem "Palos Verdes Cliffs," included in a book of her poems originally published in 1939:
And if the seascape could produce the illusion.
Cannot without whole scene: city and oilfield
in metal forests to the hills' mirage,
Hollywood and the high bare brilliant mountains.
Illusion of calm over a minute plain
in steepness opened, an overheated landscape,
familiar in movies and recurrent dreams.

O prism of summer and produced illusion:
absolute calm. Past newsreel, print, and view,
vicarious true images, do you see, over the
high-flying plain below you, over the harbor,
over the city, over this precipice,
do you see hot grass, mile-off countries, fire-surfaced sea,
obsessions of sight cliff-hung, as movie, as peace?
(The above lines, and all passages from poems here, are quoted from Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, the 2005 University of Pittsburgh Press edition noted above.)

One of the books included in the Collected Poems is U.S. 1, which deals in part with the deaths from silicosis of more than two thousand mostly African-American migrant workers, resulting from unsafe working conditions when they worked building a tunnel in West Virginia. Rukeyser visited the location of the tunnel and also wrote journalism reporting about it. The book U.S. 1 became a documentary poem depicting living and working conditions in the same region, the industrial ravaging of human lives and the land, and the cynical indifference of corporate directors and Congressional investigators. From the poem "Dam":
Diverted water, the fern and fuming white
ascend in mist of continuous diffusion.
Rivers are turning inside their mountains,
steams line the stone, rest at the overflow
lake and in lanes of pliant color lie.
Blessing of this innumerable silver,
printed in silver, images of stone walk
on a screen of falling water

in film-silver in continual change
recurring colored, plunging with the wave.

Constellations of light, abundance of many rivers.
The sheeted inland-cities, the white surf filling west,
the hope, faster water spilled where still pools fed.
Great power flying deep: between the rock and the sunset,
the caretaker's house and the steep abutment,
hypnotic water fallen and the tunnels under
the moist and fragile galleries of stone,
mile-long, under the wave. Whether snow fall,
the quick light fall, years of white cities fall,
flood that this valley built falls slipping down
the green turn in the river's green.
Steep gorge, the wedge of crystal in the sky.
Some of the poems include passages drawn (or slightly reworked) from testimony at Congressional hearings into industrial health and safety; stock market ticker reports; some poems speak in the voices of working people describing their lives and injuries and aspirations.

In their elevated language and lyricism, I hear something in Rukeyser's poems that reminds me of the poems of Hart Crane. However, where Crane often seems pulled in conflicting directions, partly repelled by the destructive power of modern industry, and partly entranced by the glittering beauty of it, Rukeyser's poems exhibit no ambiguity or hesitation. Hers are poems made with a fully formed voice and a precise intellect, shunning compromise, insisting on what she means to say.
Half-memories absorb us, and our ritual world
carries its history in familiar eyes,
planted in flesh it signifies its music

in minds which turn to sleep and memory,
in music knowing all the shimmering names,
the spear, the castle, and the rose.

But planted in our flesh these valleys stand,
everywhere we begin to know the illness,
are forced up, and our times confirm us all.

In the museum life, centuries of ambition
yielded at last a fertilizing image:
the Carthaginian stone meaning a tall woman

carries in her two hands the book and cradled dove,
on her two thighs, wings folded from the waist
cross to her feet, a pointed human crown.
(From the poem "The Book of the Dead.")

When I was a college student in the 1970's, all of the poets I knew personally were reading, or had read, Muriel Rukeyser's prose book The Life of Poetry, originally published in the late 1940's and available at that time in a recent new edition. It was published in a third edition in the 1990's. No conversation could come up that in any way addressed the questions of the role and responsibility of artists in society, without mentioning or referring in some way to Rukeyser's book.

In The Life of Poetry, Rukseyser says at one point --and I'm slightly paraphrasing here -- that the essential difference between art and entertainment is that art tries to get us to concentrate on what it's bringing to us, and entertainment (she uses the phrase "arts of amusement") tries to distract us from what it's not bringing to us. Again and again over the years, immersed in reading poems, listening to "news" on CNN, watching Bush grin at the cameras while streets explode in fire and blood in cities around the world, Rukeyser's words have come to me again. The question of the relevance of poetry is a question that answers itself.

In the space here it is impossible to do justice to the work of a poet of the magnitude of Muriel Rukeyser. For many years her work was mostly out of print. At present, fortunately, in addition to her Collected Poems, other smaller selections of her work are available from various publishers; go searching and you'll find what's out there.

In the following lines (which I've picked almost at random), Rukeyser's voice carries echoes of the great Prophecy poems of William Blake, carrying a vision terrible and beautiful toward the turning of the new world; Muriel Rukeyser should have the last word here.
Hot out of the dried blood of the separate churches,
The nations, separate wards in the same hospital.
Revenge which spikes the cross and splits the star
Withers the crescent. The world circles among
The solitude of Spain, the solitude of Stalingrad,
Solitude in the hills of loess and the caves of Africa,
And now your solitude, New York, who raised yourself above.
Now the buried questions flicker on all faces.
Does the flat belly know its heart is broken?
Do you drag yourself through the wilderness saying
Never mind how we got here: that will come later?
Much later, after you speak of the weapon birds
And the spies in your milk and the little split children
Bleeding models of cars; you sold their fortunes
According to a harvest of slot-machines;
According to the obscene patterns of bombers.
Much later, after you glare for eight days, silent,
After you howl for a century and a half,
You look at the clock and see it has not moved.
What do you do then? Weep for the generations?
You change your life. No. You begin again
Going on from the moment in which you stand today.
Will there be suffering? Perhaps not as much as now.
But there will be suffering in the healing? Yes.
Only with a difference. You will know it then.
Walking down Basin Street, you will be aware.
And that, my darling, my dear dear, is what Mother prays for,
Beside the cradle, lighting the candles of the days,
In retreat, in the kitchen, watching by living bodies,
And waiting endlessly by the unmoving face
While the door is still not, not really, not yet, opened.
My darling, my baby, my people, my own self.
(From the poem "Body of Waking," included in a book of the same title originally published in 1958.)

I love Rukeyser's work. Did you know Sharon Olds was her student?

I have "The Life of Poetry" -- great book of essays. My opinion, though, about her definition of 'art' and 'entertainment' is that she's being a bit elitist. That's just me though.

My favorite poem of hers is:

The Poem As Mask


When I wrote of the women in their dances and
wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

I also like "The Disease" and "This Place in the Ways"
Hi, Jenni -- I actually agree with what Rukeyser says about art and entertainment. I don't think it's elitist. That doesn't mean that "art" is automatically good or that "entertainment" is automaticaly bad -- like anyone else, sometimes I enjoy doing things just for fun.

For me, the important thing is the distinction between creative work that encourages invites concentration and creative work that invites distraction. Something that works primarily to distract is less likely to really engage me and draw me in than something that works to concentrate my attention. For me, that heightened concentration involvement is one of the essential qualities of work I usually think of as art.

I also like Rukeyser's poem "Orpheus," which you've included in your comment post. It was from this poem that Florence Howe and Ellen Bass took the title of their landmark anthology of 20th century American women poets, "No More Masks," originally published in the early 1970's. (A new updated expanded edition was published sometime in the past ten or fifteen years.)

Thanks much for your comment.
You always remind me I should read more poetry Lyle. Great poet. Her writing seems timeless to me.
I came across this today while searching for what folks have said about her poem "Palos Verdes Cliffs." Thanks!
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