National Poetry Month almost got away from me before I thought to bring it up here. I’d like to offer this, from Muriel Rukeyser, plus my comments. Each month, for our local newspaper I take a poem and talk it through, as an introduction to poetry for those who ordinarily wouldn’t read a poem at all. Here is this month’s column.
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The news would pour out of various devices
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
–Muriel Rukeyser, from The Speed of Darkness (Vintage Books, 1968)
I’ve thought about this a lot. Here’s my answer, from a poet’s point of view:
Poems demand that we slow down and become deeply aware of words. And aren’t words how we shape our reality? The more nuanced words we own, the more we see how nuanced, how complex, the world is. There are mixed emotions, conflicting loyalties. Ultimately, things are not black or white, Democrat or Republican, good or evil.
Sure, we have to grapple with and sometimes combat the evil things people do. But at the purest level, there are just people—all of us with beating hearts, sadness, fears, and joys. The poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “What will always be to poetry’s credit is the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it.”
A poem can make our own “totally resourceful expressiveness,” as Heaney puts it, available to us.
How does it do that? By speaking in its individual, vulnerable voice, a voice that hasn’t yet hardened itself into dogma. A voice that maybe has no “right” answers all cooked up in advance, but is as open as a child, and listening.
When she says that most mornings she was more or less insane. I am with her. I feel it, too. I am listening even more carefully. I well know how the news pours out of devices, all careless and trying to sell me some thing, some attitude, some righteousness.
I know how it is to call my friends and join in the mutual lament for the state of the world. I know how it is to try to imagine utterly different people with different world-views. And I know how it is to imagine my poems and others being read by others, now and in the future, maybe, all of the words sending up their signals “across vast distances.”
The rest of the poem expresses exactly what poetry is “for.” We want to find each other on that vulnerable level. The poem is spoken as one voice speaking to another, quietly, way beyond the level of labels.
The poet is always looking to reach the limits of herself. She wants to go beyond that limit. She wants to let go even of the tools she used to get there. If she’s writing in a strict traditional form—which Rukeyser is not—she wants the words to carry her beyond those tools into the ineffable place where even words fail. She wants to wake up to what’s fundamentally true, to let her words point to that truth.
What does it mean to “wake up?”
It means to see. When we close ourselves off to a major part of the truth, we can be dangerous—and we can be in danger. When we believe clichés, we can be dangerous, and in danger. When we are afraid, as we all know, we can be dangerous. There’s a lot to be afraid of right now. Muriel Rukeyser was afraid. Her poem shows us how to face fear bravely and so avoid its toxic consequences.
I guarantee that if we read some poems this month in honor of National Poetry Month, the poems will show us things we didn’t quite see before. And, like Rukeyser, we’ll feel less alone with our worries.
I want to thank the Record-Eagle newspaper for its incredibly enlightened willingness to print a long column about poetry every month. Readers like it. They respond. It just goes to show, people are open to more than we might think.