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.)