Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

Title page, The Life of Poetry (1949; 1968 repr)

I meant to write more, to write up my experience of the women's march, to write about what I'm doing to connect, resist, and defend this outrageously nasty new Republican administration (more than nothing; not enough; maybe enough), but then those who are doing more shamed me into silence. For a moment.

In any case, let's get back into it with a little Muriel Rukeyser. Beautiful, astonishing, bracing words, as valuable now as they must have been in 1949. These, the opening paragraphs of her nonfiction collection of talks and essays, The Life of Poetry. Its incantatory and strange. Read it. Read it again. And again:

In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are luck, 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.--Muriel Rukeyser

Rilke remembered

The first-year book at my campus this year--the one that incoming students are encouraged to read and reflect on over the summer--is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I was asked to contribute a brief reflection on the text to get discussion going, and I thought I'd share it here, too:


I've always thought of Rilke as a poet for grown-ups, a serious poet, and I can date my respect for him back to the summer that I graduated from high school. I was a dishwasher in a small café in Seattle, getting ready to move East for college. There was a waiter there, a very handsome man, smart and curious about the world--maybe he was an actor--about thirty, divorced, with a small child. He was a real grown-up and it meant a lot to me that he treated me with respect, asked me questions, and encouraged me to take my life seriously. Before I left for school, he invited me to his apartment for dinner: a very adult occasion for me, and he gave me a copy of Rilke's Selected Poems, translated by Robert Bly. I didn't know about Rilke, but coming from that smart grown-up who seemed to think I was smart made me think Rilke important. It's a dual language edition, with German on the left page and the English on the right. On the inside cover, he had painted a funny cat wearing glasses and written: "Anne: CONGRADUATION!"                

I devoured Letters to a Young Poet when I was in college, eager then, as now, for any and all advice for how to live a great life, be an artist, express myself in the best and most authentic way. My friend knew I was about to change my life by moving away from home and getting an education. In giving me Rilke, he armed me with a little courage to use my education to make a real change. 

Looking back through my copy of the poems tonight, the bookmark rests half way through, at Rilke's great poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the one that ends: "You must change your life."

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I’m delighted for Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen, a book of prose poems on Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America, is getting lots and lots of praise. I read the book—devoured it, really. It’s an amazing performance, full of contemporary art (including some work by Glenn Ligon, whose text-based paintings have long been a favorite of mine), rage, tenderness. Some of the language is so easy to understand that it hardly feels constructed at all; other pages are dense, thick, hard to read. Sometimes what’s hard is the confrontation with my own racial fears, my own biases; sometimes, she makes the text hard just by leaving you with a lot of blank space on the page. I expected it to be a great book, but I didn’t expect it to be so engaging. I’m amazed at the power with which she manages to speak hard truths about race, racism, and violence in ways that keep you reading even through the pain. We are talking James Baldwin levels of power, here.

Of all the pages in the book, the one that upset me the most, the one that sticks with me, the one that makes me wince is the one about going to a new therapist: “You have only ever spoken on the phone,” she writes. “Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients…..When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”

With that, the trauma therapist doles out her trauma to the patient.

How do you go on from there?

The therapist apologizes, there is a break, and Rankine writes “I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”

Who is apologizing? To whom? We know the therapist was wrong—very, very wrong, and we know she apologizes, but this free standing sentence is more than that: it’s a kind of prayer for the mess we are in, an acknowledgement of how much more we will have to do before we can get out. It’s one of many apologies in the book and it’s both enough and not nearly enough. It’s beautiful.