By Robin Lippincott, Fiction & Creative Nonfiction Faculty, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. -Muriel Rukeyser
Because it’s almost National Poetry Month as I write, and may already be April by the time this post appears, I want to repost a freshened-up version of an earlier blog—a tribute to the late, great poet Muriel Rukeyser.
I was fortunate enough to see Rukeyser and to hear her read, in 1978, less than two years before her death. This was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard University, in the Woodberry Poetry Room, as I recall, and the place was packed. Stratis Haviaras, director of the Poetry Room and later a teacher of mine, must have introduced her, but I don’t remember that.
Muriel Rukeyser was 65 at the time; she had suffered a couple of strokes and was nearly blind. She was so fragile that she had to be helped up to the podium. But then, and I’ll never forget this, she recited her poems, from memory, in the strongest voice, as if suddenly filled with the passion and vigor of an eighteen-year-old. That passion was one of the many qualities that made her such a fine poet, but of course it takes a lot more than fervor to be a great artist. Adrienne Rich called her “one of the great integrators.”
She was active in progressive politics for all of her adult life; she had such breadth (yes, she was Whitmanesque; she contained multitudes): Rukeyser covered and wrote about the Scottsboro Trial, and the Spanish Civil War; she investigated the recurring silicosis among miners in West Virginia and composed a book of poems about it (The Book of the Dead). The subject matter of her poetry was vast; she also wrote a great, long poem about the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. She wrote biographies, too—one was of the physicist Willard Gibbs. She wrote a play about Houdini; she wrote children’s books; she wrote a memoir; and she wrote the seminal and necessary treatise, The Life of Poetry.
Here’s a quote:
I cannot say what poetry is; I know that our sufferings and our concentrated joy, our states of plunging far and dark and turning to come back to the world—so that the moment of intense turning seems still and universal—all are here, in a music like the music of our time, like the hero and like the anonymous forgotten; and there is an exchange here in which our lives are met, and created.
That gives you a good idea of her mind, her sensibility, as well as of the uniquely fresh quality of her prose.
On February 12, 1980, I was at a reading by a group of feminist writers, among them the great Grace Paley, at the Arlington Street Church in downtown Boston, when it was announced that Muriel Rukeyser had died earlier in the day. And not long after that, I published a poem entitled “Theory of Flight” (also the title of Rukeyser’s first book), which was about her and her work, and it was also dedicated to her.
When I think of Muriel Rukeyser now, in this, our moment, the spring of 2020, so much of her work comes to mind—still beautiful and true; some of it even prescient. “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” for example, speaks to the particular skew offered by the current Administration’s penchant for “alternative facts.” But I’m choosing Rukeyser’s simply entitled, “Poem,” written over fifty years ago:
“I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane….”
To quote further would risk violating fair use laws, but she goes on to write about delivery of the news being interrupted to sell products, friends contacting friends via various devices, and said friends being more or less mad for similar reasons. But then, she writes that she would slowly get around to making poems “for others unseen and unborn….” (The poem can be read in its entirety at the Poetry Foundation.)
A photograph of Rukeyser which, for the longest time (but many moves ago) was taped above my desk, comes to mind: She was in her early 60s and not in the best of health, and yet there she was, standing outside of a prison in Seoul, South Korea, in the rain, where the dissident poet Kim Chi Ha was being wrongly held on death row. She was there on behalf of PEN International, bearing witness.
That tells us a lot about her, too.
Amid so much flotsam and jetsam that washes up on our cultural shores, here is an important writer who should never be forgotten, or ignored. And here’s to writing our poems, stories, novels, essays, plays, screenplays, and children’s books for others unseen and unborn.
Robin Lippincott is the author of six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. He has been teaching in the Spalding MFA Program since 2001. He lives in the Boston area.