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“Fear of Poetry” by Eileen Myles 

The Nation | review | April 14, 1997
I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane.     

—Muriel Rukeyser

There's a wolfish quality to a poet's character. You might bring one into your home ("It looked like a dog!"), but ultimately a wolf won't act like a dog, can't understand that she's in your home and (as wolf specialists tell us) doesn't distinguish between inside and out. Wolves challenge the safety of our world. So it's probably easier to keep one out of your house than to try to imagine what that missing thing looks like-either the wolf or the poet's inner landscape.

Like most of Muriel Rukeyser's work, The Life of Poetry has been out of print for twenty years, so its reappearance is a genuine cultural event. Mainly it's a collection of talks Rukeyser gave in the forties, in America at a time of war. Written in an expansive prose-poetic style, it's a scarily beautiful book, almost disorienting in its clarity.

John Ashbery has suggested that there was more room for experimentation back thenthat one could imagine a poet like Delmore Schwartz. Later one could not; things were different. Lowell ruled. What was missing after World War II was an attitude of adventure in writing, toward experimentation. Something got lost. It's rare that we have access to words directly from another era, to talk about literature and life. If we're lucky we have the poems, but we don't usually have the speech, the context from which the poems sprang. So The Life of Poetry is something even rarer than 1949, the year it was published. We're in the wolf's den: a book of talk.

The Life of Poetry--this entirely inappropriate document, this leftist manifesto, this Modernist tract touting poetry as a "theater of total human response"--came out during the McCarthy era (yes, she was investigated). Rukeyser was not of her time, not in the correct way. The book is in part a response to the New Critics of the forties and fifties, who rejected her socialist leanings, her need to write poems "about" crying babies and un reconstituted nature, and even the occasional remark from God. Yet because of Rukeyser' s wily, independent aesthetics, the lefties didn't accept her either. So she created a book that spoke for her. It's a record of exultation and complaint comparable to The Answer/La Respuesta of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (or Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto, Jill Johnston's Lesbian Nation or Gertrude Stein's Lectures in America). It's one of those historical documents (the last two titles are still out of print) of a woman taking space and refusing to sit down.

Muriel Rukeyser unspools one of the most passionate arguments I've ever read for the notion that art creates meeting places, that poetry creates democracy. We watch it happen in her urgent prose:

We can make autobiographies of a parade of symbols. The drum, the sidewalk, the river, the tower, the father, the car, the aunt, the chauffeur, the sister, the mother, the book, the piano, the harbor, the slum, the sand hill, the lake, the cement mixer, the sacred dome, the school door, the museum stair, the field of coarse grass, the golf green, the Bridge, the poem written in the dark, the unsolved murder, the corner whore, stain on the lab ceiling, the granite mountain under whose cliff the adolescent all night lay, waiting to climb in the morning light.

Such light and dark optimism. "Meeting place" is her mantra, and it means linking the public to a cumulative privacy of people, to living. It's a staunch reminder at a moment when global culture is evincing such a horror of the small. And poetry's so tiny it's universal: A famous painter might be invited by The New York Times to give us a tour of the Met, to show us what he knows, but for poets there's no such building, or even bookstore. It's simply the world. The Life of Poetry takes us on a whirlwind tour of Rukeyser's interests, the niches she found herself in. She liked this century, and her liking was not wholly abstract. Her frequent allusions to film, for instance, are grounded in experience, not theory: "The cutting room is a different landscape. There you sit in a bright cubicle, with a stack of shallow cans of film at your elbow, a red china-pencil in your hand, your face bent to the viewer of the Movieola, where the film is passing, enlarged to the plainness of a snapshot.

Rukeyser was an upwardly mobile New York Jew, a Vassar dropout who came into the public eye at 21 with her Yale Younger Poets Award-winning Theories of Flight (inspired by her flying lessons-yes, she also flew planes). She was a journalist and bisexual, a poet arrested in Alabama at the Scottsboro trials; she traveled to Hanoi; she was president of PEN, a single mother, a stroke victim, a science biographer, a historian and a teacher. Rukeyser was also a consummate a workshop leader, spouting her practice all over the place for more than ten years. In her academic career, she always managed to leave before tenure set in--which sounds downright wolfish to me.

Besides poetry (eighteen volumes, and good; what's available today is A Muriel Rukeyser Reader from Norton), she also wrote biographies and plays, children's books, translations, screenplays and a novel (The Orgy)--it's an oeuvre wider than most, organic and self-propelled. It would be exhausting if it weren't so pleasurable. If you pick up her work, you will read it.

Kenneth Rexroth called Rukeyser the greatest poet of her exact generation. Which made me wonder exactly which generation that was. In the "Hand of the Poet" show that ran recently at the New York Public Library, we saw her correspondences with Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. She seemed to be sitting pretty in that school, but oddly she wasn't passed down. She's barely represented in either the academic or the experimental poetic canon, Women have protected her (no small task). Though out of print, her poems nonetheless continue to be taught at Sarah Lawrence and Vassar, where she herself taught. Her students have had a hand in republishing her work; one used a line from a Rukeyser poem to name a new book, The Wild Good. All tangible evidence of how female literary networks operate. And the fact that her influence continues without inclusion in anthologies or persistent are canonization in the world of men is, well, awesome. There were a few naysayers, of course. Former Vassar classmate Elizabeth Bishop groaned wearily that Rukeyser's "life is one heroic saga of fighting for the underdog: going to jail, writing about silicosis, picketing alone in Korea, also thinking very deeply about POETRY & motherhood."

The Life of Poetry is a book about fear, about what a culture has lost through its failure to use its intimate powers. Poetry is the emotional locus of that intimacy, but Rukeyser means sex, too:

How can I look back and not speak of the stupid learning about birth? Of the stupid learning that people make love, and how it seemed the reason for all things, the intimacy of my wondering, the illumination that--to an adolescent-- was the cause for life around me, the reason why the unhappy people I knew did not kill themselves?

This is an immensely quotable book everywhere you open it, chock-full of radiant abstractions that make glorious sense as the reader begins to inhabit Rukeyser's flow of intense musical rhetoric. She is the excessive ancestor of Adrienne Rich, She takes a deep breath. The book is a podium. She begins grandly:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength. Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

It's pure American Pragmatism. The penultimate chapter, "Out of childhood," resembles a procession of film clips, and it feels like an intellectual biography with pictures. It's a long female life already. "You put your head back very far. There it was! The plane. With its double wings and a frail body. You could feel it in the back of your neck." Then a slightly older child is gasping in awe at a friend's mother loosening her hair in a car one night. The Freedom of it. So many of her "recognitions" are of the startlingly mundane, that reveal the capacity to experience, so that literature becomes the act of being alive for those who read it.

It's great to come to such an American book, a World War II book--the intimacy of understanding firsthand that Franklin Roosevelt fearlessness. "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" is pretty good poetry, Rukeyser agrees; the greater poetry is invisibly in millions of listeners' homes they're allowing the President in. So we arrive; the moment of history is a meeting place. It's like the shared sense of danger in a darkening theater: "We sit here, very different each from the other, until the passion arrives to give us our equality, to make us part of the play...the play part of us." This passion she speaks of is worthy of our fear. It's history.

 

 

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