This Old Book
The Life of Poetry
Paris Press, 1996
by Kathleen Flenniken
M uriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, originally published in 1949, fell out of print for many years until Jane Cooper founded Paris Press for the purpose of reprinting it. This collection of essays, written before and after World War II, takes up important themes—war and peace, and the brave claim that poetry can save, certainly change, the world.
The essays are not practical how-tos, but broad, sweeping, unabashedly sincere statements of belief, which makes them both uplifting and difficult. Rukeyser, whose interests ranged from particle physics to jazz and blues to film editing to Gene Kelly to flight and beyond, and whose imagination, as Cooper notes in her introduction, is “fired by analogy,” is never afraid to wander into a variety of theoretical territories, and is at her best when she brings these other worlds to bear on her belief that poetry must have a place in our lives.
Rukeyser begins with the premise that most people are afraid of poetry, and she breaks down those fears, examines them. Our educational system has forgotten how to teach poetry with joy, she writes (how contemporary this complaint feels). We are not willing to face the deep feelings that poetry induces. We are more comfortable being repressed, too tired or insecure to be otherwise. Poetry invites us to imagine our possibilities and confront the shortcomings of our lives; we turn away instead. We feel most free (and most easy) when we have amputated our imaginations!
These are idealistic concerns, eminently impractical problems to solve. Rukeyser breathes life into them by the sheer force of her belief. Rukeyser does not believe in “bad art” or “good art.” She writes instead about art and non-art, and the role of the audience in any piece of art. She presents a vector diagram to illustrate the way art works on its creator and its audience and even on itself. She contends that “intentionally obscure” art is an exercise in contempt and exclusion. At the same time, to call a poem obscure is to comment on oneself—and say nothing about the poem. A profusion of such poems may be a signal of distress and illness in a culture.
Rukeyser is most interesting, and very topical, in the second section, in which she considers the rift between our nation’s spiritual tendency toward democracy and our economy of warfare. Recently, Eisenhower’s 1961 warnings about the growing “Military Industrial Complex” have been heralded as prescient, and here is Rukeyser addressing the problem in 1949—and before. She believes the predicament is symptomatic of our culture’s affinity for conflict, dichotomy, good and evil. She goes on to discuss the poetry that rises from such a culture—Melville, the poet of outrage, and Whitman, the poet of possibility, who refused that model of conflict and held that man contained good and evil at the same time. She has some loopy ideas about the physical manifestations of Whitman’s beliefs (his autopsy turned up an asymmetrical tuberculosis), but her ideas are charming and do not damage her argument, which is always an esoteric one anyway. This is the thing about The Life of Poetry—Rukeyser’s ideas about poetry are so large as to go beyond practical application, and yet, infused as they are with conviction, they seem like breaking news.
Rukeyser addresses the “uses” of poetry, and demonstrates an eclectic knowledge of jazz, movies and film editing (which she practiced), theater, dance, painting, photography, even cave painting. She finds poetic moments in these arts, though she considers them lesser arts since they are a step removed from pure language. She acknowledges too that these can be routes into poetry because they are less fearsome places for our understanding to begin. She also insists that our audiences are trained by advertisers and popular culture not to trust their own reactions to art. But they could! Each time Rukeyser sees the limitations in our society, she flips the coin and imagines that it could be otherwise just as easily, with the help of poetry.
One of her very best stories concerns the abstract artist Charles Biederman who visited an early cyclotron in Chicago. After giving him a tour, his scientist friend asked him what he thought. “It would be very good, according to my standards, except for one thing: that joint—if you put a sphere in, just there, it could really be called perfect.” Of course this annoyed the scientist. Months later he confessed to Biederman that they had been having trouble at that very joint, and upon replacing it with a sphere, it worked perfectly. Such a story demonstrates very elegantly Rukeyser’s belief that art contains the solutions to our problems.
Directly after 9/11, commentators contended that our age had become too ironic, devoid of sincerity, and as a result our art was not feeding us properly. Perhaps that explained why it all seemed to fall so far short? How many scrambled to find poems that satisfied, and found themselves going a long way back, to Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” for instance, or far afield, to poems like Szymborska’s “Could Have.” With that in mind, The Life of Poetry feels corrective. It never slips into preachiness or naïveté because Rukeyser’s immense intelligence won’t allow it, yet it offers as sincere a belief in the power of poetry as any our age is likely to find.
Kathleen Flenniken, a regular columnist for Umbrella, came to poetry late, after earning B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil Engineering from Washington State University and University of Washington, and working eight years as an engineer and hydrologist, three on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She started writing when she quit work to stay home with her children. Kathleen's poems have appeared in Poetry, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Farm Pulp, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Daily. Her first collection of poems, Famous, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry and was released by University of Nebraska Press in August 2006. She was awarded a 2005 Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. To read other poems and read more about Kathleen, please visit her website.