The Moral Imagination

The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser
Edited by Janet E Kaufman & Anne F Herzog, with Jan Heller Levi

Originally published in The Women's Review of Books, July/August 2006

“Prinzip’s year bore us,” Muriel Rukeyser wrote in the first poem of her first book, referring to the Serbian--nationalist? terrorist?--who killed an archduke and ignited the First World War, the year she was born. When she died in 1980 it was the year of Reagan-- nationalist? terrorist?--that bore her away, after a lifetime of dialogue with wars and their makers, with the human particulars war desecrates and attempts to erase--and with war’s origins, among them the fact of, as she put it once, “the terrible, murderous differences between the ways people live.” As Adrienne Rich has written, “she was one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair.” Attention to the world’s need for repair--along with attention to reality that is not only individual but also social, historically and in the present--has not been especially noted or prized as an aesthetic virtue among poets of the United States; the idea that words have the power to change consciousness, and by that route to change human reality, has not been high on that list either. So it’s not surprising that Rukeyser’s work--plays, children’s books, biographies and other unconventional prose, and enough poetry to make what Rukeyser called in 1978 “that big book that holds back a big door”--should have dodged in and out of fashion and print over the past century, and in and out of the contentious conversation that is sometimes called American literature.

Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog, and Jan Heller Levi, have once again done readers a great service in insisting Rukeyser’s work into that conversation, this time in the form of a new Collected Poems. In addition to the material from the out-of-print 1978 version, the editors have included useful and comprehensive notes; Rukeyser’s translations, including those of Octavio Paz; a section of juvenilia; and the long sequence “Wake Island,” which earned Rukeyser the wrath of The Partisan Review in its praise of the US war effort, which Rukeyser saw as anti-Fascist, in 1942: “proof of America to lift the soul--/fighting to prove us whole.” This is a poet who wears the proud honor of excoriation from many different points of view; while the House Un-American Activities Committee chastised Sarah Lawrence College for employing her, the anonymous Partisan Review reviewer said her lines “often seemed to resemble a bathrobe,” and called “Wake Island” “a poster-poem in which she wrapped herself in Old Glory, sang the Star Spangled Banner, and chased the Marines in lines that resembled not a bathrobe but a blimp.” This book restores to the shelf of American literature Rukeyser’s poetry in its entirety, and gives a reader the opportunity to make her or his own decisions about what the quality of that poetry may be.

Contrary to some belief, there is no impartial meter that measures literary quality, by whose judgment some poems measure up and some don’t, deciding whose work makes its way into a reader’s hands and whose does not. Instead of the meter we have a fabric of complex decisions, made by fallible humans like the one writing this review and the one reading it, biased by gender and race and class and culture and numberless other unmeasurable factors. Fortunately, the making of the fabric is a subject of constant quarrel; we are all the beneficiaries of a long struggle to admit to it, for one example, women--so that a woman writer needn’t make the way out of no way Muriel Rukeyser had to make, with so few women poets published before her, and a woman reader needn’t feel like some basic facts of her existence are considered outside the purview of literature. Fortunately and bewilderingly, we live in a time when even these phrases--what is ‘a woman’s experience’? Muriel Rukeyser’s? Condoleezza Rice’s?--are every day called into question. Rukeyser’s way of seeing probably has more in common with Pablo Neruda’s than with Elizabeth Bishop’s, more with Whitman’s than with Dickinson’s; so maybe the way to see her work on its own terms is connected to gender but not limited to it, and requires a set of criteria still in the making.

The first poem in this Collected’s section of juvenilia is called “Antigone,” one of the first faces this poet may have seen when looking in the mirror, rebellious and faithful; here’s another, which appears shortly after the reference to Prinzip, as the poet watches her father shave:

“Oh, and you,” he said, scraping his jaw, “what will you be?”
 “Maybe : something : like : Joan : of : Arc....”

(“Poem Out Of Childhood”)

Antigone and Joan of Arc are this poet’s comrades in their inability to make peace with this world as it is, in the way in which their thirst for justice is not mild or passing but an axis around which to form a life. It may also be an axis around which to give up a life--but here Rukeyser parts company with her comrades, and makes a new archetype: she who sees this world’s bitterness clearly and stays as long as she can, to work here. It’s a lifetime’s spiritual and artistic labor she makes light of in this late poem:


I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.

She felt a kinship with Pablo Neruda, whom Juan Ramón Jiménez called “a great bad poet”--and a quarrelsome kinship with Whitman, who according to his New York Times obituary “could not be called a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art.” (What is art? Who decides?) Her last book, The Gates, published three years after the coup in Chile, includes a poem in which Neruda marks her forehead with spilled wine, and she becomes “a woman signed by you.” “He died in a moment of general dying,” she reports; but before that he spoke of Spain, that first struggle between Fascism and its opponents, where Rukeyser and Neruda each learned the terms of the struggle they would never abandon: “that core of all our lives,/The long defeat that brings us what we know.” The beginning of her pivotal poem “Käthe Kollwitz” lays out the terms of this defeat and this struggle with clarity and tenderness:

Held between wars
my lifetime
                                                                          among wars, the big hands of the world of death
my lifetime listens to yours.

“How shall we tell each other of the poet?” Rukeyser asked near the end of her life, in a line that titles another important book gathered by these editors, a collection of perspectives on Rukeyser and her work; maybe it’s useful to say that we do not tell each other of the poet by tearing him or her from the cultural contexts that make the poetry make sense, nor by applying to the work a set of aesthetic criteria that pretend to validity beyond time and place. If a canon is a rule, a rod, a law, maybe it’s more useful to have a circle of chairs, in which might sit not only scholars and critics but many kinds of readers, beside the presences, living or dead, of many kinds of writers, including the lawbreakers. I would weep with my head in my hands if the keepers of official literary knowledge and reputation were suddenly to change and the work of Elizabeth Bishop fell out of print as limited in social perspective, without sufficient historical sense; bless Kaufman and Herzog and Levi for ending the parallel weeping the missing Rukeyser Collected has provoked under the current regime, making possible a new chapter of the discussion of what Rukeyser’s work is, what it means to those who read it today.

Historian William Appleman Williams has written, “A changing reality creates the need for a new social consciousness, and even impels men and women toward that new image of the world.” (Read this book even haphazardly and you will see and hear this brave, adept, determined woman making her way toward this new image, without trying to protect herself as she goes.) “But the new vision does not come automatically,” he points out. “It emerges slowly and painfully from the moral and intellectual imagination of specific men and women. If it does not come...then the old social consciousness is forced to be sufficient unto the need.” (Read the daily evidence of what we as a a nation are perpetrating in this world in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the portrait of the old social consciousness is clear.) “Force and the provocation of force,” Williams writes, “are fundamentally alike in being the product of the failure of moral and intellectual imagination.” (Is this what an epic imagination looks like in our time: not one that chronicles war, but attempts to exert its moral and intellectual powers to engage it in order to bring it to an end?)

All art emerges from struggle; but maybe art that emerges from a struggle of this magnitude--to engage not only the intractable materials of art, but the intractable materials of the world--needs new criteria by which it might be fairly evaluated. Fair evaluation might sound something like what William Carlos Williams wrote about Rukeyser’s second book, US1 : “There are moments in the book that are pretty dull, but that’s bound to be the character of all good things if they are serious enough: when a devoted and determined person sets out to do a thing he [sic] isn’t thinking first of being brilliant, he wants to get there even if he has to crawl--on his face. When he is able to--whenever he is able to--he gets up and runs.” It might correspond to what Neruda called “An Impure Poetry”: “eroded as if by acid by the work of the hand, penetrated by sweat and smoke, smelling of urine and lily, stained by the diverse professions practiced inside and outside the law...a poetry that enters the depth of things as an act of blind love.” Fair evaluation might begin to explain why Rukeyser’s indispensable “The Book of the Dead,” about the unnatural disaster of the deaths of the men who drilled the Gauley Bridge tunnel, was not part of the public discussion of the recent unnatural disaster of the deaths of the Sago miners--and why knowledge of Rukeyser’s life and work is not considered a mark of knowledge of American poetry, among many writers or scholars of literature. For now we have this book to be thankful for, the long wait for it ended. May scholars and writers and readers of all tastes and dispositions look into it deeply on its own terms--and may the poems within it, in all their questioning powers, continue to look steadily back.