Muriel Rukeyser on poetry as a weapon against hate

In her 1949 book, The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser indicates what motivated her to make poems:

Writing is only another way of giving, a courtesy, if you will, and a form of love.”

Rukeyser was perhaps as well known for her political activism as for her poetry. Living through the death and destruction of two World Wars, living with those wars’ after effects–chaos, confusion, disillusionment, and fear– Muriel Rukeyser made a clear choice.
She chose for love, against hate.   The Poetry Foundation includes these details in its biography of Muriel Rukeyser:

In the 1930s Rukeyser attended Vassar College and became literary editor of the leftist undergraduate journal Student Review. As a reporter for this journal, Rukeyser covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama in which nine black youths were accused of raping two white girls. According to Wolfgang Saxon in his New York Times obituary of Rukeyser, the Scottsboro incident was the basis of Rukeyser’s poem “The Trial” and “may have been the genesis of her commitment to the cause of the underdog and the unjustly condemned.”

Following the Scottsboro trial, Rukeyser moved within very broad social circles for the remainder of her years. Among other things, she supported the Spanish Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War; she was once jailed in Washington for her protest of the Vietnam War; and, as president of the American Center for PEN, she travelled to South Korea in the 1970s to rally against the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha, the incident which later became the framework of one of Rukeyser’s last poems, “The Gates.” Since she aligned her creative capacities so closely with the current events of her day, a number of reviewers believe the history of the United States for several decades can be culled from Rukeyser’s poetry.

In 1949, writing The Life of Poetry, she channeled her anger against injustice into something positive–a book that promotes poetry’s power to bring life, love, and relational unity to a complex, fractured, wounded, and wounding world. Rukeyser defines poetry as a “kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship.” Not only does poetry have this power, she argues, but it is the one power “that is precisely what we need” to “call up, with all the strength of summon we have, our fullness,” which is to say our full humanity, our full goodness.

So why hasn’t poetry changed our world?

Because, Rukeyser says, America has a “fear of poetry,” which like all phobias is symptomatic “of a psychic problem.”
To fear the very thing that might liberate us from systemic racism, sexism, and classism, would indeed be problematic. Do you fear poetry?
Who, exactly, perpetuates and reinforces the cultural fear of poetry? Who persuades people (has anyone persuaded you?) that poetry is foreign, distasteful, unintelligible, “intellectual, confused, unmusical…and [worst of all!] effeminate.”
To overcome hate we need new poetry, Rukeyser says, poetry that organically evolves into the forms and sounds which illuminate the emotional truth of contemporary experiences. More importantly, we need poems not just for critics and professional poets, but those that speak to a broader, general audience.
Poetry fails, Rukeyser seems to be saying, when poets and poems fail to connect with ordinary, nonspecialist readers.
What the world needs now is love. All the wisdom texts in all spiritual traditions teach this. We know this. But we—as individuals and as cultures—don’t seem to know how to practice love, to give enough love, to be loving when and where it’s most needed.
So what if Muriel Rukeyser was right?  What if inherent in poetry is the power to liberate a society from systemic injustice—the power to replace hatred with love? What if, when communications between groups and individuals become irreparably broken, poetry could guide us to the mysterious deep where the important questions are buried, and teach us to listen respectfully to each other’s wisdom?

The poet as physician

Imagine poetry as the practice of a practitioner; the poet as physician. Muriel Rukeyser practiced poetry as “an approach to the truth of feeling,” and believed the practice of poetry “might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives.”
Imagine hate as a disease.
Imagine poems as anti-viral agents that wipes out hate at the cellular level.

How hate grows

bigotry: “obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices.”
Imagine bigotry as a viral infection that causes hate to grow and spread.
Bigotry dehumanizes whole classes and races, as well as individuals by saying, in essence, that there is only one acceptable way, one proper experience of being human—my way. Bigotry holds an ignorant, narrow vision of what a proper human looks and acts like. Everything that deviates from Bigotry’s own opinions and prejudices is considered by the bigot to be ridiculous, intolerable, evil, and ultimately inhuman. Bigotry is not interested in you, nor in your experience, nor your understanding. A bigot is pridefully self-absorbed.
Before a bigot will see you as deserving of a place at the table, of a share of the resources, of the allegiance of friendship, you must believe like, think like, talk like, and act like the bigot.
Bigotry’s language is dogmatism–the tendency to lay down principles as undeniably true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.
Imagine a bigot as a willful child closing her eyes and plugging her ears with her fingers, saying, “I can’t see you, I can’t hear you.” Because whether or not bigots act out in this manner, it’s exactly what they’re doing on the inside. Bigots won’t consider any contradictory evidence and won’t listen to any differing opinions. Bigotry treats the other with disdain and distrust.
Put very simply, bigotry causes hate to grow by treating others hatefully. Hate is infectious. And we all know there is only one thing that can overcome hate.

Poetry as a form of love to overcome hate

Yes, there have been, there are, and there will arise again crafty, cunning, insidious people who will gain power in politics, religion, science, education, institutions, organizations, clubs, and families. Those kinds of power-mongers promote policies and attitudes that foster hate and fear, that stifle our awareness of what Rukeyser calls “all our need, our need for each other and our need for ourselves.” Those kinds of power-mongers think violence and wars are solutions.
Nearly seventy years ago, Rukeyser wrote a book that offers an antidote to hate, to violence, to war. She believed that poetry—as a courtesy and a form of love—can heal us.
In the awareness of our need for each other and our need for ourselves, poetry becomes both a tool of investigation and a healing method. As a tool of investigation a poem can be like a mammogram allowing us to see below the surface to the concealed tissue, or like a biopsy to identify whether the discovered lump is cancerous. Certain poems also may constitute healing methods — like surgical removal of malignant masses, radiation, chemotherapy, nutritious food, and rest from disease-making stressors. Rukeyser explains that poetry does this diagnostic-healing work by illuminating the relationship between feeling and response, and conversely, by exposing lack of feeling and lack of appropriate response.
A poem, Rukeyser says, “invites you to feel,” and requires “a total response….reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling” (8).
Truth in feeling engenders authenticity in response. The authentic, humane response to the suffering of another human is compassionate empathy. Compassion is not found in empty words like our thoughts are with the victims and their families. Compassionate empathy is revealed in action calling for change.

Even noisy non communication is a form of silence

Silence, in Rukeyser’s book, is the antithesis of poetry. Silence is non communication. Some forms of silence can trick us into thinking someone is communicating, because they make use of words.
American culture has become accustomed to empty words posing as emotion, words which attempt to mask indifference, which cover up an acquiescent lack of response and allow injustices and atrocities to continue doing business as usual. Another kind of cultural silence wears a mask of shouts and raised fists.
Empty words don’t communicate, they dismiss. Heckling, shouting, and waving fists are not methods of communication, rather, they are disrespectful behaviors emblematic of a complete failure in communication.

Poetry, like love, communicates deeply

Poetry communicates deeply, in a place where we feel “a source speaking to another source” (13).
Rukeyser believes poetry offers us capability: to gather together seemingly disparate, even contradictory elements into an interdependent unity; to clear our fears; to make whole the spirit; and to identify the complex “forces…that love to make and perceive relationships and cause them to grow” (18).
Poetry offers the same capabilities as love—unity in diversity; the transcendence of fear; wholeness and integrity; meaning and purpose.
Our need for poetry, then, is the same need as our need for love.

Overcoming the fear of poetry

Where do we turn, when all the forms of communication we know how to use have become irreparably broken?
Rukeyser urges us to go to the mysterious deep where the important questions lie, beneath the silence masked by the “surface shouting” to where we feel “a source speaking to another source.” Shall we turn to poetry, then? But to do that, we must unlearn our fear of poetry.
The fear of poetry, Rukeyser believed, is planted in childhood and grows during adolescence, when we begin forgetting the truth of our own emotions by wondering, “What should I be feeling?” This is “the first stoppage of expression” in which “a dry perfectionism is substituted for the creative life” (6).
These, according to Rukeyser, are the murderers of poetry:

  • distaste for anything foreign; 
  • accepting “the shared norm of ambition and habit and living standard”;
  • repressive codes and censorship;
  • too early specialization in education leading to inflexibility (narrowness) of imagination.

The fear of poetry, then, is the fear of owning our emotional truth, a fear of all that we keep hidden beneath the social masks we wear—the impulses, griefs, betrayals, loneliness, wounds, and sufferings we deny in ourselves and project onto others—what Carl Jung calls the shadow.
Poetry rails against the fear of strangeness, against the complacent acceptance of generic standards, against repression and restriction of speech, and against inflexibility.
But reading about poetry is like reading about yoga or meditation. It doesn’t do any good unless we practice it.
So let’s do it. Let’s read poetry. And perhaps even write poetry.
To get you going, this link will take you to forty-seven poems selected by The Poetry Foundation–poems that “rail against complacency and demonstrate why poetry is necessary and sought after in moments of political crisis.”

Do you think Muriel Rukeyser might be correct? Could poetry help us communicate in a way that gets to the emotional truth of our experience? Might writing a poem be “way of giving?” Have you ever found a poem to be “a form of love?”


7 thoughts on “Muriel Rukeyser on poetry as a weapon against hate”

  1. You have a number of vital questions, many new to me, and you have inspired me to look again at poetry and its power — something I’d forgotten since high school, frankly. Thank you.

    1. Let’s stay in touch, Janet, if you really do end up looking at poetry again. I recently got a small grant to explore the “work” poetry does, and I’d love to hear about your experience in taking another look.

    1. Hello, and thank you for commenting on my blog! What work does poetry do? I would agree that it can be a sane way of expression, but I also agree with Muriel Rukeyser in “The Life of Poetry” that it can be so much more. It appears to me she is saying that poetry is “a creation,” something poets make which can be a form of peace making, inside of which we may live and which will save us. (In contrast to war, which destroys us).
      So, poetry, she implies, is the antithesis of war. “We are against war and the sources of war We are for poetry and the sources of poetry.”
      That answers the “what,” of your question. She devotes her entire challenging and provocative book to the answering the question “how?”
      As an idealist poet, I love to believe it could be true that making a poem can be a kind of standing against war and making peace. What do you think?

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