Muriel Rukeyser Essay - Critical Essays

Muriel Rukeyser American Literature Analysis

While writing The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser was able to look back at her childhood and pinpoint moments that opened her eyes to the world. Once she began really to see the world, she wrote, she never stopped paying attention to and writing about what she saw.

“Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” So begins “Poem out of Childhood,” the first poem in Rukeyser’s first book, Theory of Flight. The phrase expresses her fundamental belief that poetry is based on experience: Life, feelings, and reactions are the source of poetry. Further, for Rukeyser, the personal, the political, and the poetical are inextricably woven together. As she frequently acted on this belief, some critics have called her the poet of the downtrodden.

Her poetry, however, contains more than social commentary, slogans, or expressions of outrage over injustice. Rukeyser’s poems embody optimism, a belief in the noble aspirations of humanity, and a sense of wonder at the beauty of the world, all expressed in a powerfully lyrical voice. Rukeyser used her lyrical writing to express her social and political awareness and to encourage (even, at times, to exhort) the reader to action or, at least, to awareness. For example, in “Poem out of Childhood,” she expresses astonishment at being taught about the ancient Greeks in high school while being taught nothing about current events: “Not Sappho, Sacco,” she complains.

Rukeyser’s poem “Theory of Flight” is representative of her early work. It is written as a cluster of short verses under seven subheadings; the first section, “Preamble,” begins with an appeal to the opposites of the earth and the sky: “Earth, bind us close, and time ; nor, sky, deride/ how violate we experiment again.” Near the section’s end, the poet writes that the sky is the “meeting of sky and no-sky” and that “flight, thus, is meeting of flight and non-flight.” These images present one of Rukeyser’s themes, the reconciliation of opposites. As critic David Barber has noted, Rukeyser’s goal was to resolve the conflicts in herself; her means was “to deal completely with the self,” and her specific tool was poetry. One aspect of this reconciliation is found in her later work, which included poems exploring her relations with her parents, making peace with her dead mother, and dealing with her failing health. Another aspect of the reconciliation Rukeyser desired was the resolution of conflict between the upper, middle, and lower classes.

Rukeyser’s concern with themes of class oppression, death, and justice in America is most clearly visible in “The Trial,” a part of “Theory of Flight” that discusses the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. This section could have been written with bitterness and anger, but although it describes lynchings and other terrible injustices, the passage ends with a powerful affirmation of life and human striving as represented by an airplane. The last phrase of the section is the shout “FLY,” expressing precisely the sort of optimism in the midst of horrors that led critics to view Rukeyser’s work in the same light as Whitman’s. This aspect of her work, however, has often been ignored by scholars more interested in her frequently strident social commentary and philosophizing.

While Rukeyser was primarily known for being outspoken and courageous, her language changed over the course of her early career. She moved from an oratorical, prophetic tone to a meditative, spiritual one based more directly on her immediate experience; she also moved away from forming most of her poems out of clusters of verses and toward a more compact style. These changes in form did not, however, affect her passion or lyricism. To the end of her career, Rukeyser remained bardic, romantic, and compassionate.

“Poem out of Childhood”

First published: 1935 (collected in Theory of Flight, 1935)

Type of work: Poem

This work presents contrasting images of the poet’s sheltered youth and societal injustices, which she eventually resolves.

Part 1 of “Poem out of Childhood” opens with Rukeyser’s famous declaration “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry” and continues with images of high-school students being affected by the outside world: a girl whose father and brother have just died, for example, and the image of the “mouldered face” of a “syphilitic woman” that intrudes upon a school orchestra’s playing. The poet is hit with image after image that, like bandages, wrap her head: “when I put my hand up I hardly feel the wounds.”

The poet continues, protesting against those “who manipulated and misused our youth,/ smearing those centuries upon our hands,” by focusing the students’ attention on the past and ignoring present-day horrors. Part 1 ends with the proclamation, “Rebellion pioneered among our lives,/ viewing from far-off many-branching deltas,/ innumerable seas.”

During part 2 of “Poem out of Childhood,” Rukeyser is still thinking about world events: “Prinzip’s year bore us : see us turning at breast/ quietly while the air throbs over Sarajevo/ after the mechanic laugh of that bullet.” The reference is to Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian student whose assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo...

(The entire section is 2201 words.)