Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427
Part 1 of “Poem out of Childhood” opens with Rukeyser’s famous declaration “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry” and continues with images of high-school students being affected by the outside world: a girl whose father and brother have just died, for example, and the image of the “mouldered face” of a “syphilitic woman” that intrudes upon a school orchestra’s playing. The poet is hit with image after image that, like bandages, wrap her head: “when I put my hand up I hardly feel the wounds.”
The poet continues, protesting against those “who manipulated and misused our youth,/ smearing those centuries upon our hands,” by focusing the students’ attention on the past and ignoring present-day horrors. Part 1 ends with the proclamation, “Rebellion pioneered among our lives,/ viewing from far-off many-branching deltas,/ innumerable seas.”
During part 2 of “Poem out of Childhood,” Rukeyser is still thinking about world events: “Prinzip’s year bore us : see us turning at breast/ quietly while the air throbs over Sarajevo/ after the mechanic laugh of that bullet.” The reference is to Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian student whose assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, triggered World War I. The aftermath of the assassination is the throbbing pain accompanying the birth of Rukeyser’s modern world, and the children born into that world are shown as innocent and ineffective. The early days of the modern world are viewed through a kaleidoscope of Rukeyser’s memories, including an abandoned factory at which “the kids throw stones.” The empty factory seems to represent the old social structures, abandoned during the war.
Part 3 begins with the poet’s decision to
Organize the full results of that rich pastopen the windows : potent catalyst,harsh theory of knowledge, running down the aislescrying out in the classrooms, March ravening on the plain,inexorable sun and wind and natural thought.
As critic Louise Kertesz has explained, this is how Rukeyser will deal with her memories of suffering and conflict, by creating “an organizing vision which is intensely personal and hard-won.” The youth now will not throw stones at the abandoned factory but will knock at its walls, questioning its meaning and determining its place in her life. Here is Rukeyser’s reconciliation of the opposites of her innocent, sheltered youth and her memories of the awful events that took place during that youth. Part 3 of “Poem out of Childhood” ends with the positive image of young people trying on different roles and exploring their significance by “summoning fact from abandoned machines of trade,” ready “for the affirmative clap of truth.”
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