Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
The poem “Searching/Not Searching” carries an epigraph attributed to the poet Robert Duncan: “Responsibility is to use the power to respond.” This might almost be taken as Rukeyser’s motto, as her entire adult life and most of her poems responded sharply to the world events that she witnessed.
The first of the fourteen sections of “Searching/Not Searching” asks, “What kind of woman goes searching and searching?/ . . . or what man? for what magic?” The answer is that Rukeyser’s kind does. Throughout the world, she “searched for that Elizabethan man,/ the lost discoverer, the servant of time.” This reference is to the latter part of the sixteenth century, when classical humanism (providing a noble vision of the dignity of humanity) and the medieval tragic sense of life (providing an awareness of death) were united into a heroic picture of humanity that was circumscribed by the sense of human mortality. This unification parallels Rukeyser’s unification of the personal and the political; in the light of her unflagging optimism and her sense of reality, Rukeyser might almost be called Elizabethan.
Rukeyser’s commitment to speaking out (or bearing witness) is renewed in the poem’s second section, “Miriam : The Red Sea.” The section’s title refers to a prophet of the Old Testament, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron who led the celebration of the Hebrew women after the crossing of the Red Sea. Rukeyser, as Miriam, says “I along stand here/ ankle-deep/ and I sing, I sing,/ until the lands/ sing to each other.”
As critic Louise Kertesz explains, each section of “Searching/Not Searching” is “another witness to wholeness and unity, despite the discouragement of silence and unresponsiveness.” Further, each section provides a particular image, either of inspiration or of outrage, which gives the poet strength to continue her quest. For example, in the third section, “For Dolci,” in Kertesz’s words, “the direct vision and speech of children will help the poet in her search to speak the truth.” In section 4, “Concrete,” Rukeyser’s poems are poured down as concrete is poured, both forming the foundation for the future, helping to alleviate the poet’s sense of futility.
Inspiration also comes from a Vietnamese epic heroine who sells herself to save her father, from the Sistine Chapel, and from Rukeyser’s dying friend Hallie Flanagan (the director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project), who taught Rukeyser the most important element of a theatrical production: “The audience the response.” Outrage is felt in the tenth section, “The President and the Laser Bomb,” in which a politician’s proclamation of peace is juxtaposed with an image of destructive technology.
The poem, however, closes with a declaration of hope in the power of communication. What the poet has found in her quest for truth is that communication between people “was the truth.” Through their words and deeds, everyone is “trying to make, to let our closeness be made,/ not torn apart tonight by our dead skills.”
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