“My one reader, you reading this book, who are you?” Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) asks with the large forthright eyes of her words in one of the most beautiful and penetrating books ever written on any subject. “What is your face like, your hands holding the pages, the child forsaken in you, who now looks through your eyes at mine?”
It is the summer of 1949. Her life is still only thirty-six years long but thirty thousand years wise. She has lived through two World Wars, has shared a small ship with fivefold the number of refugee bodies the vessel can hold, has been arrested for placing her own solid and unapologetic body on the right side of what is yet to be celebrated and capitalized as Civil Rights, has stood amid the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and traveled home to tell their story, has staggered the world with her debut poetry collection at only twenty-two and followed it with a thoroughly unexpected sidewise triumph of vision in her staggering more-than-biography of one of the most influential and misunderstood scientists who ever lived.
But it is this book, The Life of Poetry (public library), that is and would remain her elemental statement of belief — a humanistic document for the epochs, a reliquary of rapture, a blueprint for resistance to the thousand desultory derogations by which living can desecrate life.
Rukeyser writes in the introduction:
In times of crisis, we summon up our strength.
Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.
In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.
However slow or subtle the turning, the fulcrum by which we turn is love. “In time of struggle,” Rukeyser tells us, “all people think about love” — never more so than amid uncertainty, when the familiar terrain grows foreign and uneven, when the very ground beneath our feet fails to hold steady:
In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.
If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.
We have struggled to find this untapped potential, Rukeyser argues, because our standard modes of intellectual probing sidestep the life of feeling, which poetry — “this other kind of knowledge and love” — alone can access and allay:
Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember [poetry], which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.
A generation before Audre Lorde placed at the heart of poetry the courage to feel, from which all power and all change spring, Rukeyser distills the essence of poetry as “an approach to the truth of feeling,” insisting upon its clarifying and cohesionary power:
However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.
As we wade from the chaos without to the cohesion within, this is what we move through and move toward:
The images of personal love and freedom, controlled as water is controlled, as the flight of planes is controlled. The images of relationship… the music of the images of relationship.
Experience taken into the body, breathed in, so that reality is the completion of experience, and poetry is what is produced. And life is what is produced.
In the final pages of the book, Rukeyser returns to what is left as the bedrock of our strength when all falls apart and away:
As we live our truths, we will communicate across all barriers, speaking for the sources of peace. Peace that is not lack of war, but fierce and positive.
All the poems of our lives are not yet made.
We hear them crying to us, the wounds, the young and the unborn — we will define that peace, we will live to fight its birth, to build these meanings, to sing these songs.
Complement this fragment of Rukeyser’s uncommonly vitalizing The Life of Poetry with Maya Angelou’s poetic consolation for our crises and our contradictions, then revisit Rukeyser on the deepest wellspring of our aliveness.