Whatever can come to a city can come to this city. . .
Whatever can come to a woman can come to me. . .
Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me. . .
Muriel Rukeyser, from "Waterlily Fire" (1962)
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was one of the most engaged and engaging modern American poets. "Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," she wrote in her first book, Theory of Flight (1935), and it was a method that she followed for the rest of her life. We haven't had many American poets with such a deep moral compass, such a keen historical sensibility and such a committed social consciousness. She wrote as a woman and identified strongly with the suffering of others. As the critic Louise Kertesz puts it in The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, "No woman poet made the successful fusion of personal and social themes in a modern prosody before Rukeyser."
Rukeyser's way of blending the personal and the political looks backward to Walt Whitman and forward to Grace Paley, Jane Cooper and Adrienne Rich, who has now edited a first-rate version of Rukeyser's Selected Poems for the American Poets Project at the Library of America. Rukeyser's commitments were adamant and clear. She was determined to be politically aware without any sacrifice of poetic craftsmanship. "To live as a poet, woman, American, and Jew -- this chalks in my position," she wrote in 1944. "If the four come together in one person, each strengthens the other."
I have always loved the clear-eyed and stubborn ethic expressed in part VII of "Letter to the Front," which first appeared in her book Beast in View (1944):
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.
Rukeyser had a large social vision of poetry that we still desperately need. She firmly believed that American poetry -- "the outcast art" -- had an important place in American culture. I agree with her that poetry has been an essential resource that we have often wasted in our country. "American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict," she declared in her prose book The Life of Poetry, which seems to me as valuable and important today as when she first wrote it in 1949. (It was reprinted by Paris Press in 1996.) She goes on to define two essential features of American life: "We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories. . . . But around and under and above it is another reality. . . . This history is the history of possibility."
Rukeyser understood all too well the way that warfare has been interwoven into our history, and she was determined to oppose it with a notion of democratic possibility. Keeping that possibility alive was for her part of the hard work of poetry itself. It was a kind of prophetic imperative. Hence her tiny parable of the sixth night of creation.
The Sixth Night: Waking
That first green night of their dreaming, asleep beneath the Tree,
God said, "Let meanings move," and there was poetry.
(All quotations are from Muriel Rukeyser, "Selected Poems," ed. by Adrienne Rich. Library of America. Copyright © 1935, 1938, 1939, 1944, 1948, 1958, 1962, 1968, 1973, 1976, 1978 by Muriel Rukeyser.)