In moments of desperation, a favorite poem has resurfaced lately, sometimes on Twitter and sometimes in memory. Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” originally published in The Speed of Darkness fifty years ago this month, is in part about the entanglement of these two stimuli, internal and external:
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
Since 2016, “Poem” has become a vehicle for anti-Trump sentiment, an equivocal fate for any artifact but one Rukeyser would not likely have chafed against. Throughout her career, she remained sensitized to a political and cultural landscape that was changing rapidly. When The Speed of Darkness appeared in 1968, that landscape was more crowded than ever and more vividly perceived: the civil rights movement had given way to Black Power, the women’s and gay liberation movements were coalescing, the Cold War raged on, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated, despite being the most thoroughly reported and divisive military conflict since the Civil War one hundred years before it. The speaker of “Poem” can’t opt out of this deluge, as the vitality of her art depends on its responsiveness to the world it enters. But neither can art concede to that world’s terms: “Slowly I would get to pen and paper, / Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.” Rukeyser struggles, here and elsewhere, to write toward the poem’s divergent “unseen”: an anticipated future audience of poetry and that other living audience already in thrall to newspapers, TV, and the various devices through which the world tries to reach us.
Both this highly mediated landscape and the writer’s difficulty apprehending it seem essential to the poem’s renewed appeal. Online, it’s shared as either earnest consolation (“She wrote this for us, for days like this,” a bookstore tweeted on election night) or inspiration (“It is time to reach beyond ourselves, as she suggests here,” a poet encouraged the following day), but the poem’s speaker is less certain of her success than these invocations imply. The poem’s circulation on Twitter restages its fundamental challenge: how to fish this datum from the stream of a feed and be fully present with it, reading it deeply, without forgetting the feed that brought it to your screen.
Interest in Rukeyser’s early work has been resuscitated in recent years by a handful of new publications. Her autobiographical novel, Savage Coast, begun in 1936 after Rukeyser returned from a reporting trip to Europe where she’d witnessed the first days of the Spanish Civil War, was published by the Feminist Press for the first time in 2013; that same year, New Directions reissued Elegies, a series developed across three collections and first assembled for republication in 1949. This past February, West Virginia University Press published a new edition of the poem cycle The Book of the Dead, originally included in her 1938 volume U.S. 1 and composed from testimony by the victims of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, which caused the deaths of hundreds of workers, most of them black and destitute. These new editions include extensive introductory essays describing Rukeyser’s unique melding of documentary realism with subjective lyricism, a sensibility that made her an important figure for both U.S. Modernism and the literary Left. In the preface to her first Collected Poems (1978), Rukeyser characterizes this approach as “two kinds of reaching in poetry, one based on the document, the evidence itself; the other kind informed by the unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream, the parts of life in which we dive deep.”
Written thirty years after those early innovations, The Speed of Darkness at once extends this project and transforms it. Although it contains few poems we might call “documentary,” throughout the volume, Rukeyser strives to represent the obligations and demands of a dense public world from the private vantage of intimate experience. The wars with which “Poem” opens are literal and unprecedented in scale—World Wars I and II, the Spanish Civil War, and U.S. involvement in Korea and Vietnam each preoccupied Rukeyser in turn. Over the course of the poem, however, the project of self-realization takes its place alongside “these wars,” promising a more peaceful way of living. In her final lines, the speaker joins an anonymous community of others imagining new values, avowing, “We would try by any means / To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves, / To let go the means, to wake.” The poet’s task is to link conflicts both interpersonal and international without equating them. Speed is obsessed with the challenge of situating “the parts of life in which we dive deep” among what another poem calls “the constellations of all things,” a horizon not transcendent but political.
The politicization of intimate experience has been one of the most valuable and widely acknowledged legacies of the U.S. women’s movement of the sixties and seventies. (Consider the vast consequences of the personal is political.) Rukeyser’s role in that mobilization is underappreciated but easily verified. Poems from The Speed of Darkness lent titles to two popular anthologies of women’s poetry—Florence Howe and Ellen Bass’s No More Masks! (1973) and Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open (1974)—as well as Ruth Rosen’s more recent history The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (2000). Alice Walker found a mentor in Rukeyser, Sharon Olds had a formative experience in her New York workshops, and Anne Sexton famously called her “Muriel, mother of everyone.” Adrienne Rich, who became acquainted with Rukeyser at activist readings in the sixties and seventies, writes in her introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, “Gradually I found her to be the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life.”
Clear evidence of her contributions to the literature of second-wave feminism can be found in her writing itself. Rukeyser’s voice is different in significant ways from that era’s younger poets—as were those poets’ voices different, of course, from one another—but there are strong ideological affinities among them. Anticipating much feminist art of the decade to follow, The Speed of Darkness is confidently erotic, a boldness evident throughout Rukeyser’s career; she wrote and spoke frankly about sexuality and single motherhood before the emergence of independent feminist presses, journals, and readings to shelter writing on such topics. Although “experience” was a polemically valued category for Rukeyser, Speed rarely offers sustained accounts of specific experiences delivered from a stable perspective. Unlike, say, Sexton’s early asylum poems, Speed’s first-person lyrics tend toward the anecdotal rather than the confessional, often lingering in small moments of conscious reflection or encounters unfolding in real time. Unlike the poems of June Jordan, Rukeyser’s rarely issue from a credible conversational voice, though she was interested in the enlivening potential of idiomatic speech. And unlike Olga Broumas, Audre Lorde, and other feminist revisionists, Speed is deeply ambivalent about myth: the volume’s opening poem announces, “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Her nimble pivoting between symbolic and concrete registers reflects an effort to divorce figurative language from patriarchal euphemism. Rukeyser was drawn to the power of metaphor but suspicious of its potential to eclipse the embodied reality of women’s lives.
In praising Rukeyser as a feminist forebear, one risks obscuring the reciprocity that underwrote so much of her poetry and politics. The last poem published during her lifetime, 1979’s “An Unborn Poet,” is dedicated to Alice Walker; it describes how Rukeyser cherished her relationships with younger writers and the possibilities they represented for her own restless self-fashioning. “It’s called ‘An Unborn Poet,’ and that’s not Alice Walker, that’s me,” she joked before the poem’s only public reading. In the poem proper, she gently affirms, “Alice, we’re handed down. / Alice, there is a road of long descent. / Cold and shivering and something of ascent.”
There are always multiple forces at work in the upkeep or neglect of a writer’s legacy. Selected editions of Rukeyser’s poems exist, and a new Collected Poems was released by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2005, but (as far as I can tell) none of her original collections are currently in print as standalone volumes. Just as troubling is the fact that Rukeyser seems insufficiently attended to by the feminist institutional practices—syllabi, memorial conferences, critical and creative response—that have been so vital to the preservation or restoration of other women writers. Rukeyser’s work ought to be preserved precisely because she’s such an unwieldy candidate for feminist canonization. Bridging the old Left and the New, international and domestic politics, foremother and front-runner, her career poses profound challenges to the conventional schools and period divisions through which we narrate twentieth-century literary and political history.
Despite much scholarship and memoir contesting its sufficiency, a familiar but skewed narrative endures of U.S. feminism in the sixties and seventies. In the most reductive versions of this history, middle-class white women launched the second wave by foregrounding and politicizing their own experiences; women of color are still often imagined to have wandered onstage a decade or two later to force race, class, and imperialism onto feminism’s agenda. The critiques couched in this story are necessary and well-founded—many early women’s groups were overwhelmingly white, myopic in their analyses, and either indifferent or hostile to the concerns of nonwhite, working-class, queer, and trans women—but their effects are self-reinforcing. Because this portrait of the sixties cannot accommodate either women of color engaged in gender politics or white women whose feminism was inextricably bound up in other struggles and scenes, second-wave feminism continues to refer primarily to the single-issue politics of white women’s groups.
The Speed of Darkness reintroduces us to a broader horizon of feminist thinking. Its poems reveal the second wave’s politicization of sex and family to have been entangled, from the beginning, in the overwhelming and variable world beyond the home. Rukeyser’s expansive rewriting of intimate experience might also yield new resources for navigating the compulsory publicity of our own private lives—resources she refers to as “the gifts and madness of full life, on earth, in our time.” The recently resurfaced “Poem” pushes us to reconcile “ourselves with each other, / Ourselves with ourselves” and casts writing as one such effort. Throughout Speed, Rukeyser returns again and again to being among as an orientation to the world’s heterogeneity. In one of my favorite poems, “The Overthrow of One O’Clock at Night,” being among starts to cohere into something like an ethics:
That’s this moment,
when I lean on my elbows out the windowsill
and feel the city among its time-zones, among its seas,
among its late night news, the pouring in
of everything meeting, wars, dreams, winter night.
The speaker projects a deep rootedness even as she modulates between scales and perspectives: “the pouring in” first brings young girls kept awake by love, followed by “the little children / half world over tonight” being bombed by “us” and calling on “us” for help. The fullness of this vision is achieved not by retreating from but rather tuning in to immediate experience, a lucidity she describes elsewhere as being “in the world / to change the world.”
We often lament our porosity to the world’s data as a uniquely contemporary curse. Rukeyser imagines it instead as a capacity we might cultivate, no easier for having been attempted before by others like her, from whom we are lucky to learn, and by many more who will not be preserved or restored. So often in her poems, Rukeyser is both student and teacher. “There is no out there,” she instructs in one of Speed’s many self-revisions. “All is open. / Open water. Open I.”
Sam Huber is a graduate student in English and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University.
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