KWH House Pick: Muriel Rukeyser

Posted on April 18, 2012

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In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ll be bringing you ‘House Picks,’ featuring poets most read as contributors’ ‘best-loved’ selection. This week Muriel Mania!

The Road by Muriel Rukeyser read by Nicole Cooley of New York, NY and New Orleans, LA

Islands by Muriel Rukeyser read by Jan Heller Levi of New York, NY

Waiting for Icarus by Muriel Rukeyser read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths of Brooklyn, NY

The Road by Muriel Rukeyser read by Jan Heller Levi of New York, NY

Poem by Muriel Rukeyser read by Beth Marzoni of Kalamazoo, MI

Check out this reflection on the power and purpose of Rukeyser’s work by the wonderful poet Nicole Cooley!

Teaching Rukeyser in a Time of Crisis: The book of the Dead and 9/11

What three things can never be done?

Forget. Keep Silent. Stand alone.

–Muriel Rukeyser, “The Book of the Dead”

My thinking about Muriel Rukeyser starts in Union Square, in New York City.  A week after the September 11 attacks, my husband and I took our daughter down to Union Square where round the clock vigils and protests against the way the government was handling the event were being conducted. As I circled the park, my daughter held against my chest, I read the posters telling of the “missing,” with names and phone numbers and physical descriptions of tattoos, scars and birthmarks, identifying features.  Beside these posters were poems, hundreds of poems, written by children, relatives, coworkers of the victims and people who wanted to express something about the event.  For hours, crowds filed through the square reading these poems.

This was the moment where I began to rethink my relationship to poetry, to reading it, to writing it, to understanding what it could do in the world. Poetry, in this context, had a clear social purpose.  The poems displayed on the fence and taped on trees were deeply personal and at the same time publicly displayed.   And they were part of the city’s healing and recovery. But they also, bravely, told the truth.

As Rukeyser said, in The Life of Poetry,  a book I would turn to throughout that terrible fall, “Art is not a world, but a knowing of the world. . . . Art is practiced by the artist and audience.”  All of us circling Union Square that day, that week, that year, all of us in the audience, all of us making art, were engaged in that knowing.

In fact, I was teaching Rukeyser’s work the week of 9/11 at Queens College-CUNY, the urban public university where I am a professor.  Ironically—in the most awful way— that fall I was teaching in a senior seminar on the twentieth-century long poem and history that investigated how poems can bear witness to catastrophic historical events. On Setptember 13, 2001, we were scheduled to talk about Rukeyser’s long poem “The Book of the Dead.”  The poem relates the story of the those who died and suffered from silicosis in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia in 1929 due to Union Carbide mining practices. Poems look at the incident from multiple perspectives — the miners, the doctor who made the diagnosis, a mother who has lost all her sons. The sequence is a mixture of collage, documentary, and dramatic monologue. The poem is, above all, a call for social justice

I was terrified when I entered the classroom on September 13, fearing first that students might be dead or missing, and second that I would not know what to say about what had happened but knew I had to address it somehow. My students were devastated.  They had lost relatives and friends.  Because most are from Queens, many had family members who worked for the Port Authority as firefighters. A number of my Spanish-speaking students volunteered as translators to help the families of the victims.   Some went immediately down to lower Manhattan hospitals to give blood or volunteer. Others went to the site, handing out food and supplies to the rescue workers.

I knew that a number of Queens College professors, even those holding class on Sept 12, decided not to mention the attacks, to conduct class as usual to provide a sense of normalcy. But my own classes all changed direction after September 11.  I had never before discussed personal or political issues in the classroom.  I had also never walked into the classroom so full of fear. Now my students needed a place to talk about their event.  For all of us, the way through this experience became poetry.

The way into the conversation was through Rukeyser’s work.  We talked about the terrorist attacks, and most of us admitted we felt stunned into speechlessness. Then we began to talk about Rukeyser’s poem.  I opened the conversation by noting that despite recent renewed interest in Rukeyser’s work, few critics have focused specifically on The Book of the Dead, which comprises the first section of Rukeyser’s second book of poetry, U.S. 1. We talked briefly about why this is the case, and how the poem forces us to reconcile seeming opposites, the lyrical and the historical.  The Book of the Dead explicitly contrasts personal testimony with “official” language, the words spoken by the company. This disjunction became our focus in class: how could a poem document a catastrophe, bear witness to a terrible event.

My students were very interested in the opening section titled “The Road,” written in regular tercets. In the very first lines, through an apostrophe that invokes the reader, Rukeyser leads us deep into the landscape of West Virginia she will explore:  “These are roads to take when you think of your country / and interested bring down the maps again, / phoning the statistician, asking the dear friend . . .” (handout, 71).[1] These tercets are the roads leading into the poem. And the place they lead us is a place of hybrid and found forms.   In her essay “‘Forever Broken and Made’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Theory of Form,” Meg Schoerke talks about how Rukeyeser’s work uses “a confluence of forms” (handout; there is also the moment when she inserts the Union Carbide stock report).

Much of The Book of the Dead is comprised of testimony poems, and this is where my students wanted to stop and pay most attention.  One of the first, “Statement: Philippa Allen,” for example, offers the perspective of a social worker reporting on the tragedy to the investigating committee. From its start, the poem counterposes her voice with the officials’:  “– You do like the state of West Virginia very much, do you not? / –I do very much, in the summertime” (73). While this poem on the one hand gives Phillipa Allen a voice, it also continually underscores the ways in which her speech is at every moment mediated by other voices which try to tell the “official” history of the event.  Similarly, “The Disease” offers an unnamed doctor’s description of the diagnosis of silicosis counterpoised, again, with the committee’s questions. These questions create a refrain (“Between the ribs?. . ./ Indicating? . . / What stage?”),  just as they interrupt the doctor’s voice.

The poem “Praise of the Committee” (77), Rukeyser conjoins italicized lines, a description of the “facts” of the case, the voice of a senator and, at the poem’s end, the perspective of the poet. When the poet speaks, she asks:

Who runs through electric wires?

Who speaks down every road?

Their hands touched mastery; now they

demand an answer (79).

What, my students wondered, was the “answer” or the official truth of 9/11 as it was told to us in the early days after the terrorist attacks?  Every time they turned on the TV, they said, all they heard was the story of “America’s New War.”  As the US began to bomb Afghanistan, they kept asking, where were the voices of the Afghan people, in the face of the official story that we needed to find and kill all terrorists no matter what the cost to other nations. 

Midway through the semester, my students told me, “We’re Generation 9/11.”  It was at that moment that I knew they needed to write their own poems, to put into practice what we had been theorizing; I offered the option of writing a long poem instead of the research paper at the end of the class.  Every single student wrote the poem, and they were all about September 11. Like the people who posted their poems in Union Square, my students—none of whom had signed up for my class with any expectation of writing a poem–  felt compelled to add their testimony to the story of this disaster.

My students and I returned to these questions about official language and testimony throughout the semester, and in fact I have made them central in my teaching of poetry ever since.  But it was Muriel Rukeyser who first taught me to ask these questions.


[1]John Lowney alerts us to the ways in which this first poem “invokes the relationship between narrative, place and audience followed by the American Guide Series. Its direct address to ‘you,’ traveling by automobile, through ‘your own country,’ appeals to the reader with the New Deal rhetoric of national purpose that informed the diverse local projects initiated by the Federal Writers’ Project” ( “Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility’: Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead,” 201).

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