The basic theme of the poem is asserted in the title: an effort at speech as opposed to clear and meaningful speech that is heard and understood. The poem expresses the need to share and communicate, and it implies the difficulty of achieving this with others or even with oneself. Critic Louise Kertesz, in The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (1980), refers to “Effort at Speech Between Two People” as a classic dialogue, but whether the poem is seen as a dialogue or a monologue, the message is the same: It is difficult to know oneself and to know others, and it is difficult to reveal oneself in a world where people move in crowds and do not speak. The world is a lonely place where strangers ache with the need for intimacy. This theme is made explicit in the rhythmic refrains “Grow to know me” and “Speak to me,” which express the human need to communicate and the difficulty of achieving true communication.
This need to know people applies to knowing oneself, as shown by the speaker’s memories of earlier eras of her life and her attempts to understand what she is now. It also refers to the basic human longing to be understood (as in the phrase “First my mind in your hand”), which, for the speaker, should precede touch and make possible the linking of the minutes of the day with each other or make “separate entities” come together like pieces of a puzzle. Further, this need to know refers to knowing other people. To know other people is to learn what humans share in common and thus reduce the sense of individual isolation. To know and learn about others is to create a sense of human community to which people can feel they belong. “Speak to me,” repeats the speaker, reassuring the other person (or another part of herself) that she will be open and receptive rather than judgmental and separate. In a larger sense, the poem speaks clearly not only to the need for a change in consciousness and openness in the individual or between two individuals but also to the imperative need for increased communication and openness among all people, groups, and nations.
“Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry” is the opening line of the first poem in Rukeyser’s first volume of verse (“Poem out of Childhood,” in Theory of Flight). Rukeyser thus announced her desire to communicate and share with others. She believed that poetry was a way “to share something of our experience by turning it into something and giving it to somebody.” Poetry itself, then, is an effort at speech between two people, between writer and receptive reader. Rukeyser wrote repeatedly on behalf of liberal political causes, speaking out for freedom and justice at all levels. All her poetry, including “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” reaches out to touch, to teach, and to communicate, always with the central theme that human beings could and must share themselves with others. That emotional intimacy has the power to transform society.