THE COLLECTED POEMS OF MURIEL RUKEYSER
Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog
With Jan Heller Levi
Univ. of Pittsburgh. 670 pp. $37.50
Muriel Rukeyser belongs to a middle generation of American modernists that includes Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks and Thomas McGrath -- all born in the second decade of the 20th century. Stephen Vincent Benet chose her first book, Theory of Flight, for the Yale Younger Poets' Prize in 1935; Rukeyser was 21 years old. The two reigning poets of the time were T.S. Eliot and a considerably younger W.H. Auden, and it's fair to say that Rukeyser drew from both of them even as she rejected them. From Eliot she took a collage method of rapid juxtaposition, while rejecting his gloominess; she used Auden as a model of how to employ multiple forms in response to social and political subjects, though she rejected his facile urbanity. Thus the reader of this new edition of Collected Poems finds Rukeyser continually drawing from modernist practice even as she challenges its presumptions about how poems should sound, how they should convey meaning, and what they are for.
"Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," Rukeyser wrote. For her, the poem was not a verbal artifact to be consumed so much as the record of an imaginative and psychological process that would inspire readers to initiate their own similar processes. This sense of exchange constitutes a vision of poetic community and a belief in the power of poetry to transform lives; it was her lifelong argument against the notion of art for art's sake, of poetry's sublime uselessness, of Auden's eventual pessimism that poetry "makes nothing happen." Hers was a Romantic notion, yet it was anything but frivolous; rather, it was a sustaining commitment against an all too familiar modernist irony and spiritual exhaustion.
It's no surprise then to find in her titles allusions to renewal and movement: "Theory of Flight" (she was a student pilot), "Eccentric Motion," "Metaphor to Action," "The Gyroscope," "The Speed of Darkness." When Rukeyser describes her search, in writing a biography of the scientist Willard Gibbs, for "a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water," she reminds us of her most powerful poetry, which emphasizes movement.
These are roads to take when you think of your country
and interested bring down the maps again,
phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend,
reading the papers with morning inquiry.
Or when you sit at the wheel and your small light
chooses gas gauge and clock; and the headlights
indicate future of road, your wish pursuing
past the junction, the fork, the suburban station,
well-travelled six-lane highway planned for safety.
Past your tall central city's influence,
outside its body: traffic, penumbral crowds,
are centers removed and strong, fighting for good reason.
These roads will take you into your own country.
Select the mountains, follow rivers back,
travel the passes. . . .
This is the opening of "The Road," the first poem in Rukeyser's great "The Book of the Dead" (1938), a sequence of "documentary" poems that draws on actual legal testimony from the investigation into one of America's worst industrial tragedies -- the death of hundreds of migrant mine workers, many of them African Americans, from silicosis poisoning in the drilling of the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the early 1930s. As the first full-fledged documentary poem in America, it expresses a modernist interest in what Rukeyser called "verifiable" fact. At the same time, it takes an ethical stand while evoking the more subjective "facts" of feeling, intuition and dream that ground her shorter lyrics. The poem belongs with other works of social conscience, such as James Agee's and Walker Evans's prose and photo masterwork Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), while anticipating William Carlos Williams's long poem "Paterson" (1946), also based on historical documents, as well as Allen Ginsberg's intrepid "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (1966), transcribed from audiotapes Ginsberg made during a drive across the United States.
Given her interest in history, in community, in elaborated poetic figures and extended forms, Rukeyser appears more and more as an exemplary American modernist, the lyric poet of epic awareness. This may be why her sequences of poems -- there's at least one in each full collection she published -- seem now to stand as her more successful works. Her achievement is most impressive in these larger structures, which she needed to advance her themes to their greatest potential, and which appear to grow organically even as she hewed to formal traditions. When she hits a bad stretch, she just keeps going, drawing on the poem's established motif and patterns of phrasing until she regains poetic footing. In fact, Rukeyser was often criticized for formal sloppiness, a kind of wet impressionism, or blurring of the image, at a time when poets were countering the bloated rhetoric of late Victorian verse. For her, the fetishization of the image was a kind of death; she keeps moving in her poems between images, much as a camera shot sweeps over objects in a scene -- a tactic that no doubt grew, in part, from her training as a film editor.
As with the work of Emily Dickinson and Thelonious Monk, Rukeyser's poems are often misread as rhythmically chaotic, yet it is the sure and flexible cadence that sustains them through occasional obscure passages. Her poems proceed not by way of logical argument or detailed description, but by association or rhythmic recurrence, "like a wave, shocked to motion." It is always a musical poetry. Her ear for accent and syllable is bright and light, even as she unfurls bolts of vague diction and meandering speech; in other words, although her work is uneven, she knew exactly what she was doing as she risked aesthetic failure in her attempt to "write for the living." Yet while poets and readers committed to the struggle for social justice in the '60s and '70s locked onto her signal (her poems lend titles to two significant feminist volumes of the time, No More Masks! and The World Split Open), by the time of her death in 1980, she had fallen below the radar of most readers.
"The process is after all like music," she writes in her poem "Kathe Kollwitz," a tribute in the voice of that radical modern German artist. "Held between wars/ my lifetime/ among wars, the big hands of the world of death/ my lifetime/ listens to yours." One hears Whitman in her inclination to dissolve the boundaries between herself and others. "I am in the world/ to change the world." Such was Rukeyser's standard, and she was, in some sense, a war poet her entire life. Only one question always remained: Where is the front? She found it in the city, in rural stretches and industrial enterprise, in the civil rights movement, the gender wars, and within herself, as well as on the literal battlefield. Rukeyser belonged in the end to what the poet Thomas McGrath called "the unaffiliated far left." Unaffiliated because, like him, she was criticized by those toeing the left party line, as she was by the right, for writing in a manner perceived as both too bourgeois and too unconventional. This didn't bother her in the slightest. She understood from early on that for the imagination "flight is intolerable contradiction." She was hip to the categorical snares and evaded them without compromising her conscience or her art.
Why her work seems always to be emerging from out-of-print limbo, only to submerge again, is one of the mysteries of publishing. Her Collected Poems is a monument of the last century, a gift to the present and a hope for the future. In it one finds sestinas, rondels, sonnets, blues, epistles, elegies, odes and a variety of little songs, ballads, proverbs, suites, charms. Almost 700 pages long, it contains more than 400 poems of such variety, passion and compassion, indignant judgment, joy, humor and conviction that it is impossible to summarize, let alone parse. Those who own the previous edition, from 1978, will want this one for its inclusion of Rukeyser's translations of Octavio Paz (the first translations into English of that giant), significant and revealing juvenilia, a late fugitive poem addressed to Alice Walker, and the editors' corrections to the earlier text. Those reading the poet for the first time will find useful, unobtrusive notes. "She was never literally lost," Adrienne Rich wrote in 1993, "but we have still to reach her. How do we reach her? . . . We reach her by recognizing our need for her." *
Joshua Weiner, a recent recipient of the Prix de Rome, is the author of "The World's Room."