While Muriel Rukeyser has been linked to W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other political poets, her work more clearly evolves from that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. From Emerson and the Transcendental tradition, she developed her organic theory of poetry, from Melville, her poetry of outrage. From Whitman, however, she obtained perhaps her most distinguishing characteristics: her belief in possibility; her long, rhythmic lines; her need to embrace humanity; and her expression of the power and beauty of sexuality. Her feminist views link her with Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, while her experimentation with the poetic line and the visual appearance of the poem on the page remind one at times of May Swenson. Both the quality and quantity of her work and the integrity of her feminist and mythic vision suggest that she will come to be seen as a significant figure in modern American poetry.
Theory of Flight
“Look! Be: leap,” Rukeyser writes in the preamble to the title poem of her first collection, Theory of Flight. These imperatives identify her emphasis on vision, her insistence on primary experience, and her belief in human potential. Focusing on this dictum, Rukeyser presents to her readers “the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility” in the world. To Rukeyser, poetry is a way to learn more about oneself and one’s relations with others and to live more fully in an imperfect world.
The publication of Theory of Flight immediately marked Rukeyser as, in Stephen Vincent Benét’s words, “a Left Winger and a revolutionary,” an epithet she could never quite shake, although the Marxists never fully accepted her for not becoming a Communist and for writing poems that tried to do more than simply support their cause. Indeed, Rukeyser did much more than write Marxist poems. She was a poet of liberty, recording “the truths of outrage” she saw around her, and a poet of love, writing “the truths of possibility” in intimate human relationships. With the conviction of Akiba (a Jewish teacher and martyr who fought to include the Song of Songs in the Bible and from whom, according to family tradition, Rukeyser’s mother was descended), Rukeyser wrote with equal fervor about social and humane issues such as miners dying of silicosis, the rights of minorities, the lives of women and imprisoned poets, and about universals such as the need for love and communication among people and the sheer physical and emotional joy of loving.
Unlike many political poets, Rukeyser tried to do more than simply espouse: to protect, but also to build and to create. For Rukeyser, poetry’s purpose is to sustain and heal, and the poet’s responsibility is to recognize life as it is and encourage all people to their greatest potential through poetry.
Refusing to accept the negation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Rukeyser uses images of technology and energy extensively in her early volumes to find, in a positive way, a place for the self in modern technological society, thus identifying herself with Hart Crane and with the poets of the Dynamo school. “Theory of Flight” centers on the airplane and the gyroscope. The dam and the power plant become the predominant symbols in “The Book of the Dead” in U.S. 1, her next collection.
U.S. 1 also contains a series of shorter, more lyrical poems titled “Night-Music.” While these poems are still strongly social in content, they are more personal and are based on what Rukeyser refers to as “unverifiable fact” (as opposed to the documentary evidence in “Theory of Flight” and “The Book of the Dead”). This change foreshadows the shifting emphasis throughout her career on the sources of power about which she writes—from machinery to poetry to the self. It is this change in conception that allowed Rukeyser to grow poetically, to use fewer of the abstractions for which many critics have faulted her, and to use instead more personal and concrete images on which to anchor her message.
A Turning Wind
This movement is evident in A Turning Wind. She begins to see the power and the accompanying fear of poetry, and her poetic voice becomes increasingly personal, increasingly founded in personal experience. Poetry becomes the means, the language, and the result of looking for connections or, in Jungian terms, a kind of collective unconscious. Rukeyser notices, however, that poetry is feared precisely because of its power: “They fear it. They turn away, hand up palm out/ fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.” The fear of poetry is a fear of disclosure to oneself of what is inside, and this fear is “an indication that we are cut off from our own reality.” Therefore, Rukeyser continually urges her readers to use poetry to look within themselves for a common ground on which they can stand as human beings.
The poetic sequence “Lives” (which extends through subsequent volumes as well as A Turning Wind) identifies another of Rukeyser’s growing interests—“ways of getting past impossibilities by changing phase.” Poetry thus becomes a meeting place of different ideas and disciplines. It is a place where the self meets the self, diving to confront unchallenged emotions in the search for truth, and a place where the self can face the world with newly discovered self-knowledge. Using the resources they discover both inside and outside themselves, people can grow to understand themselves and the world better. The subjects of the “Lives” exemplify values and traditions Rukeyser believes are important to the search.
Rukeyser’s growth as a person and as a poet, then, has been a growth of the self, realizing her capabilities and her potential and, in turn, the capabilities and potential of those around her. She becomes increasingly open in her later poems, discussing her failed marriage, her illegitimate son and subsequent disinheritance, her son’s exile in Canada during the Vietnam War, and her feelings about age and death. Although these poems may seem confessional, she is not a confessional poet such as Robert Lowell or W. D. Snodgrass. The details of her life, she tells the reader, are events she must consider from various angles as she dives within herself, looking for the essence of being. “The universe of poetry is the universe of emotional truth.” Rukeyser writes in her critical work The Life of Poetry, and it is the “breaking open” of her preconceived emotions to discover emotional truth that allows her to become closer to the humanity around her. “One writes in order to feel,” she...
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