KWH House Pick: Muriel Rukeyser

Posted on April 20, 2012


In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ll be bringing you ‘House Picks,’ featuring poets most read as contributors’ ‘best-loved’ selection. We are celebrating Muriel Rukeyser. Listen here:

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

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

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

And listen again after reading the elegant words of Rachel Eliza Griffiths honoring Rukeyser as a poetic foremother. 

“All the poems of our lives are not yet made.” Rukeyser writes this truth in the last section of her star-steeled work, The Life of Poetry. I’m not certain when I was first introduced to Rukeyser but I believe it was during my graduate years at Sarah Lawrence College – a place where Rukeyser herself once walked and taught. Her name was never brought up in a classroom and yet the discovery occurred as I most often sought out poets whose shadows found me just when I willed myself to be lost. Each year I re-read Rukeyser’s collected poems and for some time a phrase from “The Poem As Mask” urged me to open my life (it still does):

“No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,                                                                                                        the fragments join in me with their own music.”

Rukeyser’s inimitable voice has surfaced frequently in my thoughts and in how my poems breathe lately – especially with the death of Adrienne Rich. In fact, with the deaths of Lucille Clifton, Ai, Carolyn Rogers, Ruth Stone, and Wislawa Szymborksa, I find myself bereft of my elder women poets – my sisters and mothers and aunts – whose works continue to tilt my perception of the world, of womanhood, of history, of war and identity.  I am quiet, afraid to wonder who will leave our human sea next, who will fly toward a peace and tell us more about the living than we can reckon. I don’t know if the dead need grief, I haven’t made up my mind on that and answers aren’t useful these days. Many mornings I sit and listen to the emptiness in the tide and even in the absence and elegy of their salt I am also renewed by the work I see around me. Voices rise to guide the void inflicted against us as they must. That there is work to be done and it will always be such, however visible or invisibly. And that I can support others around me who are resisting the comfort of illusions and violence. The promise of my imagination nods to each of these forces and Rukeyser shines through, uncompromised in her integrity. Rich once wrote of her contemporary: “Rukeyser was one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair.” I have several recordings of Rukeyser reading poems and her voice, sad and blazing as resin, contains so much with each listening. I wish she were introduced to younger poets – her voice works amidst us yet. I remember being surprised at my first listening of a her poem, “Waiting for Icarus” – Rukeyser possesses the drawl and power of a blues singer, of the woman, described in Lorca’s utterance on duende, who must abandon a trained throat for a wild one. Certainly Rukeyser’s powers as a poet permitted her to twist imagery and rhythms into an indivisible and intricate howl. I’ve returned this spring, it is a season of death and of blooming, to her essays, where she calls out to and for and against the task and body of poets and poetry – “We hear them crying to us, the wounds, the young and the unborn – we will define that peace, we live to fight its birth, to build these meanings, to sing these songs.”