Effort at Speech Between Two People Analysis

Muriel Rukeyser

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Effort at Speech Between Two People” appeared in Muriel Rukeyser’s first book of poetry, Theory of Flight, which was awarded the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize when Rukeyser was twenty-one years old. The poem is a lyric meditation on the difficulty of communication. Its thirty-six lines are divided into seven unrhymed stanzas; four stanzas of six lines each alternate with three stanzas of four lines each. The colons that appear at the beginning of each stanza give an illusion of alternating speakers, but the content of the stanzas does not seem to follow this interpretation. The fact that the poet does not make it clear that more than one person is speaking suggests instead an internal monologue with one person sorrowfully considering the impossibility of truly knowing someone else and of being known in return. The opening words show that the speaker is eager, even desperate, to learn and to know: “Speak to me.” That taut, imperative sentence is repeated twice in the poem. The speaker also repeats the promise “I will be open,” implying a willingness to tell the deepest truths and to listen to others and truly hear what they have to say.

The gender of the speaker is not given, but the lyric poem traditionally reflects the voice of the author. The illustrative memories of childhood also suggest a female speaker. She reveals chronological stages of her life in tiny vignettes: She remembers her third birthday when she was read a...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Rukeyser uses several rhetorical devices to slow the pace of the poem and to suggest pauses, as though the speaker is thinking carefully about what is being said. These devices include colons that are combined with spaces within a line, spaces between sentences, and ellipses in two lines of the final stanza. These spaces and punctuation marks provide visual breaks that slow the reading and imply that speaking openly to another person about one’s feelings is difficult and that the words of self-revelation do not flow easily or casually.

The poem is written in free verse without rhyme or a definite metrical pattern. It relies instead on imagery, the repetition of key words and phrases, and the juxtaposition of those images and phrases. The speaker states that she is “not happy,” and she reinforces that sentiment throughout the poem with the words “unhappy,” “lonely,” and a second use of “not happy.” There are many images of sadness in her life—being read the story of a rabbit that died, burning her finger, weeping, thinking of leaping out a window, and being deserted by someone she loved. However, she also has memories of moments of sheer joy and beauty—the “white sails against a sky like music,” the piano music composed by Chopin, and the sunset with light that “melted clouds and plains to beauty.”

Just as short sentences and phrases are repeated, though in no predictable pattern, so too are specific words and...

(The entire section is 423 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ciardi, John. Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.

Herzog, Anne F., and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Moss, Howard. The Poet’s Story. New York: Macmillan, 1973.