30 July 2005

Muriel Rukeyser

I’ve been reading Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, originally published in 1949. Some of it I connected to strongly. Other sections seemed dated, or maybe I was being a bad reader. I'm left feeling I should read it all again. Here are some bits I copied down.

A poem invites you to feel. . . . it invites you to respond . . . a poem invites a total response . . . the way is through emotion

in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source

[Rukeyser quoting Melville] “the man who . . . declares himself a sovereign nature (in himself) . . . may perish; but so long as he exists he insists on treating with all powers upon an equal basis. If any of those other Powers choose to withhold certain secrets, let them; that does not impair my sovereignty in myself; that does not make me tributary. And perhaps, after all, there is no secret.”

The history of a symbol . . . will show the history of human passion for a relationship—in this instance between growth and form.

the rule of perfection or death does not hold in organic life

“I find this poem obscure” tells us about the audience, nothing about the poem

Is the challenger prepared to receive the poem? This is the value of finding a teacher and peers who will listen for the poem—listen for and to the poem.

not being prepared to receive the poem is another way of disowning imaginative experience

Originality is important before the accord is reached; it is the most vivid of the means in a poem, and the daring of the image allows the reader to put off his emotional burden of association with the single words, allows him to come fresh to memory and to discovery. But when the whole poem has taken its effect—even its first effect—then the originality is absorbed into a sense of order, and order then becomes the important factor.

We know that the poetic strategy, if one may call it that, consists in leading the memory of an unknown witness, by means of rhythm and meaning and image and coursing sound and always-unfinished symbol, until in a blaze of discovery and love, the poem is taken.

I think there is choice possible at any moment to us, as long as we live. But there is no sacrifice. There is a choice, and the rest falls away. Second choice does not exist. Beware of those who talk about sacrifice.

I’m moving now to her collected poems.


  1. Good post!\

    “I find this poem obscure” tells us about the audience, nothing about the poem

    (I resemble this remark).

  2. I read this book several years ago and loved it but then I like Rukeyser very much. I have been planning on reading again because I think some of what she says is very important. Seeing your post will get me to read it sooner rather than later :)