The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

“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.

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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 sad story about a pink rabbit who died, burned her finger on the flame of a birthday candle, and was told to be happy. She recalls, at nine years old, crying at the sad beauty of Frédéric Chopin’s music, which her widowed aunt played on a piano. At the age of fourteen, she says, she had thoughts of suicide and was saved only by the beauty of a sunset.

Another problematic issue emerges as she reviews who she is now. She lost someone she loved, and, thinking about their past together, she concludes, “I think he never loved me.” The object of her love is unspecified. It could be a friend, a lover, or her father. He liked to sail, and the thought of waves and seagulls reminds her of him and his love for the sea. Though he told her blithely that he loved her, he is no longer there (he is presumably dead, for she speculates on “what a tragedy his life was, really”). The true tragedy, however, seems to be that he was unable to be emotionally close to her. Throughout the poem, the speaker calls out to be known. It could be a cry to other people to take the time and to have the openness to share themselves with her, or, just as relevant, it could be herself whom she addresses and whom she wants to know. Without self-understanding and acceptance, she cannot be open enough to give herself to knowing another. However, even if she is open enough, the chances of finding another person equally self-aware and willing to share personal truths are not high. It takes effort and trust, and those qualities seem limited in an alienated society where, even in a crowded street, people do not speak to each another.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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 concepts repeated. Some of these are state-of-being adjectives (“open,” “happy,” and “close”), while others are action verbs (“speak,” “tell,” “link,” “love,” “take my hand,” and “grow to know”). These all function as possibilities of action and conditions of existence. They also function as metaphors for the giving of life, for ideals of what human beings could be and what changes there would be in social interaction if individuals could learn to break through to genuine communication with themselves and others. The juxtaposition of these phrases and images is vital in creating the tone and meaning of the poem. The speaker not only thinks of her aunt playing the piano but also remembers that her aunt is a widow; the music thus stirs the speaker both to sadness and to a rather pleasing melancholy and self-awareness (“I was fruitily sentimental,/ fluid”). The sea that carries haunting memories of a lost love also brings the beautiful image of “little lips of foam/ that ride small waves.” Even in the crowded street where no one speaks to each other, “the morning shone.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

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.

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