poem index

The Life of Poetry, Chapter 1

Written by

Muriel Rukeyser
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Year

2011
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In her 1949 book of essays, The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser embraces poetry as an essential agent of change. The book begins with an exploration of resistance, most notably in an essay on "The Fear of Poetry." In the Foreword, Jane Cooper writes: "Why is poetry feared? Because it demands full consciousness; it asks us to feel and it asks us to respond. Through poetry we are brought face to face with our world and we plunge deeply into ourselves, to a place where we sense, [as Rukeyser wrote] 'the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and... understand...in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.'"



The Fear of Poetry

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and began.

Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has—the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry

It seems to me that we cut ourselves off, that we impoverish ourselves, just here. I think that we are ruling out one source of power, one that is precisely what we need. Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these— the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives—the attitude of poetry.

What help is there here?
Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth?
How do we use feeling?
How do we use truth?

However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

If we use the resources we now have, we and the world itself may move in one fullness. Moment to moment, we can grow, if we can bring ourselves to meet the moment with our lives.

To do this, we need to understand our resources and ourselves. In a time of suffering, long war, and the opening of the horizon, there is no resource which we can afford to overlook or to misunderstand.

Coming to this moment, at which the great religious ideas become in a new way available to everyone, one enters a climate of possibility. And in that air, in time of struggle, and in time of the idea of the world, all people think about love. Then they turn to their own ways of sharing.

In speaking about poetry, I must say at the beginning that the subject has no acknowledged place in American life today.

No matter how deeply one is concerned with poetry, the feeling against it is likely to be an earlier one to most of us. In approaching the subject, it may have more realities to us if we look first, not at poetry itself, but at the resistances to poetry.

Each of us will recognize this resistance in his own life. The barriers that have been set up are strong; this is nothing that enters our lives, in social life as it is now organized.

Certain of our resources are good indexes to all the rest. There are relationships which include so much that we can bring to them our own wishes and hostilities, our value judgments and our moralities; they will serve to illuminate all our other relationships. Among them are such key targets for our attitudes as conflict in the individual, the atom bomb, the Negroes, the Reds, the Jews, the "place" of science, the "place" of labor, the "place" of women, and poetry. These points are crucial; our age and our nature find that questions are asked of them.

Now poetry, at this moment, stands in curious relationship to our acceptance of life and our way of living.

The resistance to poetry is an active force in American life during these wars. Poetry is not; or seems not to be. But it appears that among the great conflicts of this culture, the conflict in our attitude toward poetry stands clearly lit. There are no guards built up to hide it. We can see its expression, and we can see its effects upon us. We can see our own conflict and our own resource if we look, now, at this art, which has been made—of all the arts— the one least acceptable.

Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference which is driven toward the center. It comes through as boredom, as name-calling, as the traditional attitude of the last hundred years which has chalked in the portrait of the poet as he is known to this society, which, as Herbert Read says, "does not challenge poetry in principle—it merely treats it with ignorance, indifference and unconscious cruelty."

Poetry is foreign to us, we do not let it enter our daily lives.

Do you remember the poems of your early childhood—the far rhymes and games of the beginning to which you called the rhythms, the little songs to which you woke and went to sleep?

Yes, we remember them.

But since childhood, to many of us poetry has become a matter of distaste. The speaking of poetry is one thing: one of the qualifications listed for an announcer on a great network among "good voice" and "correct pronunciation," is the "ability to read and interpret poetry." The other side is told conclusively in a letter sent ninety years ago by the wife of the author of Moby-Dick. Mrs. Melville said to her mother—"Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around."

What is the nature of this distaste?

If you ask your friends about it, you will find that there are a few answers, repeated by everyone. One is that the friend has not the time for poetry. This is a curious choice, since poetry, of all the arts that live in time—music, theater, film, writing—is the briefest, the most compact. Or your friends may speak of their boredom with poetry. If you hear this, ask further. You will find that "boredom" is a masking answer, concealing different meanings. One person will confess that he has been frightened off forever by the dry dissection of lines in school, and that now he thinks with disappointment of a poem as simply a set of constructions. He expects much more. One will say that he returned from the scenes of war to a high-school classroom reading "Bobolink, bobolink / Spink, spank, spink." A first-rate scientist will search for the formal framework of the older poetry in despair, and finally stop. One will confess that, try as he will, he cannot understand poetry, and more particularly, modern writing. It is intellectual, confused, unmusical. One will say it is willfully obscure. One that it is inapplicable to the situation in which he finds himself. And almost any man will say that it is effeminate: it is true that poetry as an art is sexually suspect.

In all of these answers, we meet a slipping-away which is the clue to the responses, and which is strong enough to be called more than direct resistance.

This resistance has the quality of fear, it expresses the fear of poetry.

I have found in working with people and with poems, that this fear presents the symptoms of a psychic problem. A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.

This response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.



Process and Relationship

The angry things that have been said about our poetry have also been said about our time. They are both "confused," "chaotic," "violent," "obscure."

There is a clue here, and it is more than a reflection. It is not that an art "reflects," as the schoolbooks say, an age. But in the relationship may be a possible answer, a possible direction.

The illumination will lie in the relationship itself.

One way to look at scientific material, or the data of human life, is fact by fact, deriving the connections.

Another way, more fruitful I believe, is to look at the relationship themselves, learning the facts as they feed or destroy each other. When we see that, we will see whether they tend toward an equilibrium, or strain spent on war away, or be poised at the rare moment of balance.

I think of the work of Willard Gibbs in science.

Or of Karen Horney in psychoanalysis, here: defining action in terms of relationship, so that the individual is seen not only as an individual, but as a person moving toward other persons, or a person moving away from other persons, or a person moving against other person.

And I think of a scene at the Rockefeller Institute I saw: the rabbit, its great thrust and kick of muscular pride, as it was carried under the fluorescent lights, where against the colored unbroken skin glowed the induced cancers, fluorescing violet. A research doctor had come up from Johns Hopkins to talk to a biophysicist working in ways resembling his own. And in the basement labs, with its tubes, it beakers, its electrophoresis setup, he told how the work he was doing in cancer had changed in its nature, in its meaning. His colleagues and himself were no longer looking at cancer as a fact, an isolated fact.

They were taking another approach: they were dealing with cancer and the body on which it fed as one thing—an equilibrium which had been set up, in which the cancer fed on the host. One could not exist in this state without the other in that state. It was the relationship which was the illness. And he felt that these terms led to the right questions.

When we talk about relationships in art, we can see at once how all kinds of activity have taken this direction. The work of Freud and Picasso and Einstein are familiar to us as the masterwork in relative values, in the search for individual maturity, in visual imagination, in physical science; Joyce we recognize as working in the relationships of language, Marx in social relationship from which the fact could be derived—and these are the key names alone, in a few fields.

In our own time, we have become used to an idea of history in which process and relationship are stressed. The science of ecology is only one example of an elaboration of the idea, so that the life of land may be seen in terms of its tides of growth, the feeding of one group on another, the equilibrium reached, broken, and the drive toward another balance and renewal.

We think of the weather now as a dance of airs, predictable in relationship, with its parades of clouds, the appetites of pressure areas, and aftermath of foreseen storms.

But in the areas dealing with emotion and belief, there is hesitation. The terms have not been invented; and although that does not impede expressive writing—a poem, a novel, or a play act emotions out in terms of words, they do not describe—the lack does impede analytical work. We have no terms, for example, for "emotional meaning" or "emotional information." We have not even the English for Claude Bernard's "milieu intérieur," that internal condition of a body, the invironment where live the inner relationships.

That obstacle is nothing.

We are poets; we can make the words.

The emotional obstacle is the real one.

For the question is asked in a thousand ways each day: Is poetry alive? Is there a place for poetry? What is the place?



Not To Be Used

In our schools, we are told that our education is pragmatic, that the body of knowledge is divided into various "subjects," that all of these subjects on which we pour our youth are valuable and useful to us in later life. We are told that our civilization depends on further and new uses for everything it has, the development and exploitation of these. We may go ahead and specialize in any of these usable fields.

Except for one.

There is one kind of knowledge that will be given to us all through school and high school, which we are told is precious, it defies time, it strikes deep into memory, it must go on being taught. No matter what cities fall, what languages are mis-heard and "corrupted" and reborn. This is here, to be passed on. But not to be used. Among all this pragmatic training, never to come into the real and active life.

That is what we learn about poetry.



The King-Killers

I remember a psychologist with whom I talked in New Haven. That is a good town to produce an image of the split life: it is a split town, part fierce industrial city, part college, very little reconciled—and in the center of the town, on the Green, is a symbol which is as good as any for this meaning. On the New Haven Green, itself a hub of tradition, there is a church which is old, respected, well-proportioned and serene. Down to its cornerstones: but these stones, these stones are set up as monuments to two of the English regicides who escaped to America after the Restoration. Two of the men who killed King Charles. A church founded on the stones of king-killers, men who broke the most extreme of taboos! But that is the gesture, the violent axiom-breaking gesture of the imagination that takes its side, chooses its tradition and sets to work.

In such a town, I spoke to a psychologist, a man who has made his work and his theme the study of fear, and the talk went well enough until poetry was mentioned. Then, with extreme violence, a violence out of any keeping with what had gone before, the psychologist began to raise his voice and cut the air with his hand flat. He said, his voice shaking, that he had cut poetry out of his life, that that was something he had not time for, that was something out of his concern.

I have thought of him often.

His attitude is the attitude of the schools. It is widespread now; but the symbol of the church is, I think, closer to our people. I choose it and I speak for it.



The People Who Rule Out Poetry

I speak against the fear that rules out poetry. It seems to me that this fear of poetry is against all imagination and the work that is closest to imagination: experiment in human relation, religious exploration, political novelty, "abstract" art, abstract science. The people who feel that work in these fields is dangerous, a threat, give evidence of what has broken down.

They are also the people who say that in Europe they see nothing but confusion, in China they see nothing but confusion; and there is nothing but confusion at home.

They are our next reactionaries, who will admit only confusion wherever there are new forces trying to express their direction. But that is another matter, one of which I will speak later.

If the difficulty that they indicate is truly there—if communication has broken down, then it is time to tap the roots of communication.

Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.

And it is deep at these levels that the questions lie.

They come up again and again during these years, when under all the surface shouting, there is silence about those things we need to hear.



What Should I Be Feeling

The fear that cuts off poetry is profound: it plunges us deep, far back to the edge of childhood. Beyond that it does not go.

Little children do not have this fear, they trust their emotions. But on the threshold of adolescence the walls are built.

Against the assault of puberty, and in those silvery delicate seasons when all feeling casts about for confirmation. Then, for the first time, you wonder "What should I be feeling?" instead of the true "What do you feel?" "What do I feel?" Now the easily talented and the easily skillful are loved in classrooms and the field.

It takes a great pressure behind and adolescent wish to make it persist through all the change of growth.

The first stoppage of expression becomes final here, a malignant process may now begin. If you visit these rooms, you will see it happen, the wonder dried out of a passage read and re-read aloud for emphasis; the stories undercut by parsings and explanations, often for language alone, the shell of language, seldom for meaning.

Grammar and criticism need not destroy; but they will, if words are raised above language, if criticism is projected by the critic's lack, if a dry perfectionism is substituted for the creative life.

You will remember the times: were you the high-school junior in the streetcar who shook his head—No—when you were asked, half in contempt, half in the hope of another answer—"Do you read poetry?"

In adults, you know those who put poetry far behind them; not naturally, like children outgrowing toys who forget them (or beat them to pieces) but with a painful shocked awareness that here was something outside their reach. It would be all right, because society likes that attitude; however, neurotically, they call attention to it still. More than one editor, introducing his anthology, will confess that poetry is something he "knows nothing about"; there are reviewers who will go glibly on about any kind of novel or first biography, but who write uneasily, in language as clumsy as the first page of a diary, whenever they face a book of poems.



Waste, and the Emotional Life

If we have a resource that we are not using...

If this were a crop, about which these things were said, there would be a research project.

If it were a metal, the Un-American Activities Committee, and several other committees, would concern themselves. Our scientists would claim their right of experiment and inquiry.

There are many causes for waste in life. We are very sure of ourselves in some powers and wildly insecure in others: the imbalance leads to random action, waste, hostilities out of reason. Margaret Mead describes us as a "third generation" society. She does not mean, of course, that we are all the grandchildren of pioneers and immigrants; but she does mean that our parents shared the attitudes of the children of foreigners, who because of their strange families, with their old-country ways, their effusive gestures, the flavor of their speech, leaned over backward to rule out any foreignness, any color at all.

We suffer from that background, with its hunger for uniformity, the shared norm of ambition and habit and living standard. The repressive codes are everywhere. Our movies are censored before they are plotted; our radio comedy is forbidden its list of themes; have you noticed how our bestselling books are written in reaction to the dominating woman?

This code strikes deep at our emotional life.

Its action means that our emotions are supposed to be uniform. Since that is impossible, our weaknesses send us to meet any divergence from the expected with dread or conflict.

This leads on the one hand to the immense incidence of "mental" disease which we find in America now; and, on the other, I believe we may say that it leads to a fear of poetry.

Our education is one of specialization. We become experts in some narrow "field." That expertness allows us to deal with the limited problems presented to us; it allows us to face emotional reality, symbolic reality, very little. That can be seen very clearly in our movies, which now will use clever methods to imitate reality—in one battle film, the cameraman shook his camera at the moment of explosion, so that an entire scene would shake—Hollywood movies have absorbed documentary methods, and have then stopped just short of reality, or of creating an arrangement by which a movie can give us a sense of reality. A first-rate scientist, or a fine prose writer, is able to say "How can I know a good poem? I can tell an honest piece of work in my own field from a phony piece of work, but how can I tell a fine poem from a phony poem?" And what has to be said to such a question is that these are people who cannot trust their emotional reactions, their total reactions.

They are people who are insecure enough not to trust themselves when images are related to images and emotions to emotions.

One characteristic of modern poetry is that arrangement of parts which strikes many people as being violent or obscure. It is a method which is familiar enough on the screen; when you see the picture of a nightclub, and then see the heroine's face thrown back as she sings, you make the unity without any effort, without even being conscious of your process.

There is no confusion for you, partly because the eye is selective in just these ways; that is the arrangement according to which you see the room you were in yesterday and this book against the wall or floor, with a practiced change of focus, with much skill at putting together the "information" your eyes provide you. It is the way you look at the scene before you, and it is also the sequence in which you very likely "see" your dreams.

Now films and visual sequences may be put together smoothly with all the links filled in, or according to other rhythms, in which one sequence will approach a main meaning, to be cut off by another sequence—about different people, in different circumstances, say—so that the third sequence will be reinforced, made to change and grow because of what has gone before.

Much of modern poetry moves in terms of quick, rhythmic juxtapositions. Our contemporary journalism still uses more even linkage. Each method prepares you for the climaxes of the poem. If you can be flexible of mind, remembering movies you have liked, and being aware of their richness and suspense and the dense texture of their realities, you are approaching what may have seemed to you the most broken of modern poetry.

Using these ways of bringing-together, these arrangements, we find more often that our poems are not lyrics or one-emotion poems. The lyric, like

Cherry-ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia's lips do smile;...

may be illustrated by the diagram of a point moving from A to B, to C, to D, to E.

The poems which depend on several emotions, each carrying its images, move like a cluster traveling from one set of positions to another: the group ABCDE, say, moving to A'B'C'D'E'; a constellation.

This gathering-together of elements so that they move together according to a newly visible system is becoming evident in all our sciences, and it is natural that it should be present in our writing. Wherever it exists, it gives us a clue as to a possible kind of imagination with which to meet the world. It gives us a clue that may lead to a way to deal with any unity which depends on many elements, all inter-dependent.



The Meanings of Poetry

I have invoked the meanings of poetry as they help to clear us and make whole the spirit. We can make the connections, and loose the combing force. There are great gashes in our world that we love with so much pain. Deep gashes we all receive,; the ones who foresee them, and the ones who live through them once, when they arrive. Gashes are inflicted on our awareness very early, and we recognize them when we see children dancing or making their songs, when we find primitive peoples in their religion, their poetry, their ability to dance their shared foreboding.

Much of that has been taken away from us; but now we need to look for the relating forces. The forces, that is, that love to make a perceive relationships and cause them to grow; they may be most complex.

As poetry is complex.

For poetry, in the sense in which I am using the word, is very like the love of which Diotima told Socrates. She, speaking of love, told how it was of its nature neither good nor beautiful, for its desire was the beautiful, its desire was the good.

I speak, then, of a poetry which tends where form tends, where meanings tend.

This will be a poetry which is concerned with the crises of our spirit, with the music and the images of these meanings. It will also be a poetry of meeting-places, where the false barriers go down. For they are false.



The Invitation

During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. You cannot put these things off.

One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment. That is one reason for the high concentration of music, in poetry.

The putting-off of meaning has already been reflected in the fashionable writing of the last years. Our most popular novels and poems have been works of easy mysticism or easy wit, with very little between. One entire range is represented, for us, in the literature of aversion. There has been much silence.

The silence of fear. Of the impoverished imagination, which avoids, and makes a twittering, and is still.

Communication comes, to make this place fertile, to make it possible to meet the world with all the resources we have, the fund of faith, the generous instruments of imagination and knowledge.

Poetry may be seen as one sum of such equipment, as an image of the kind of fullness that can best meet the evening, the hostile imagination—which restricts, denies, and proclaims death—and the inner clouds which mask our fears.

Now we turn to memory, we search all the days we had forgotten for a tradition that can support our arms in such a moment. If we are free people, we are also in a sense free to choose our past, at every moment to choose the tradition we will bring to the future. We invoke a rigorous positive, that will enable us to imagine our choices, and to make them.

Is it possible that the "chaos" of our time and the "obscurity" that labels our poetry have a common base—that there are clusters of events and emotions which require new ways of making them more human, and that modern art and modern science have a clue to provide?

Is there a common denominator here? What possible "exercise" can the emotions find, what possible freeing of emotion is there, that can train us to face the immediate future?

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