Originally published as an October 24, 2009 webcomic for Everyday Citizen
The above cartoon was influenced by two things. The first was the movie The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins and one of my favorite movies of last year. The second influence is my recent discovery of the poet Muriel Rukeyser.
Over the last few months, I’ve been running into the name of Muriel Rukeyser. I first ran into her in a passage in Grace Paley’s book Just As I Thought, where Paley describes being both honored and a bit intimidated being in Rukeyser’s presence. Then her name kept popping in magazines that I was reading. Since I didn’t know much about this woman, I decided to do a little research into her life. What I found was a woman who had a rich and varied life as a poet, a journalist, a pilot and a political activist. The more I learned about Muriel Rukeyser, the more I grew to like and admire her. She exemplifies the combination of artist and political activist that I want to follow in my own life.
Muriel Rukeyser was born in 1913 to a wealthy, second generation, strongly Republican Jewish couple in New York City. Despite being raised in a privileged environment, Rukeyser developed a deep sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged and the outcasts of society. After spending 2 years at Vassar College, she began writing for various socialist papers, among them the New Masses magazine. At the age of 19, Rukeyser reported on the second trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Decauter, Alabama in 1933 and was arrested during the trial. The Scottsboro trial involved 9 black defendants who were accused of rape, and were unable to have a fair trial due to the all white jury and the inexperienced defense attorneys assigned to the case. In 1936 Muriel was assigned by a British literary magazine to report on the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, that had been organized to protest the regular Olympics that took place in Nazi Germany. While there, the Spanish Civil War erupted and she wrote various articles supporting the Spanish Republicans. Rukeyser used her poems to highlight the industrial disaster in West Virginia, where an untold number of migrant workers, many of them African Americans, died of silicosis poisoning because of inadequate precautions taken by Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation in the drilling of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. In 1972, she traveled with Denise Levertov to South Vietnam to protest the Vietnam War. Muriel traveled to South Korea in her capacity as president of the PEN American Center to hold a vigil outside the prison cell of the radical Catholic South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha, who was in solitary confinement.
Any person who takes such strong stands is bound to have critics, and Muriel Rukeyser had critics in both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Though Rukeyser was a leftist, she was not doctrinaire, and she was heavily criticized by leftist journals like the Partisan Review for thinking independently and not towing the party line. During the anti-communist 1950s, Rukeyser’s left wing politics was attacked and in 1958, the American Legion led an investigation of her in Westchester County in New York and tried to force Sarah Lawrence College to drop Rukeyser from a teaching post. The FBI had Rukeyser under surveillance for 40 years and garnered an FBI file of over one hundred pages.
In spite of her critics, Muriel Rukeyser received many awards for her poetry. She received the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award in 1941, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943, won the Levinson Prize in 1947, won the American Academy of Poets’ Copernicus Prize in 1977, won the Shelley Prize in 1977 and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1967.
These are the facts about Muriel Rukeyser. Though these facts gives some indication as to Muriel’s courage and perseverance, they do not indicate the love and admiration that many writers and activists have towards her. The book How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser is a series of essays from fellow poets, former students and fellow activists on the effect Muriel Rukeyser and her writings have on their lives. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, poet and Professor of English at Rutgers University, noted in the Forward to the book that writers as diverse as Grace Paley, Kenneth Rexroth, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Anne Sexton, and Erica Jong have all expressed reverence for Rukeyser’s life and poetry. Janet Kaufman, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah contributed an essay on Muriel’s identity as a Jewish poet. Poet and essayist Elaine Edelman wrote of her time as a student of one of Rukeyser’s classes. The last essay in the book is by her son, William Rukeyser. He shared some personal reminiscences of her mother and her love of poetry.
Muriel Rukeyser really believed that poetry is for everyone, that we could all do it. While she said that poetry was egalitarian, she insisted on and valued a high degree of excellence; she could be scathing of students and others she felt were lazy or untalented writers. However, she told my high school class that the Beatles were poets and cried when she listened to Eleanor Rigby. She also loved to make up bilingual doggerel that made little sense in either English or French.
My mother invented her own career and she invented her life. She broke a lot of rules and she paid the price. In the thirties she didn’t fear to embrace the Communists – for what they believed, or at least what they said they believed. But she wasn’t timid about rejecting Communist dogma or thought control. For her pains she was vilified by both sides in many battles because she wouldn’t follow anybody’s party line except her own.
I think it is this courage and independence that her son refers to that I most admire about Muriel Rukeyser.
Though I like reading poetry, I have to admit that I don’t know much about the intricacies of a poem. I don’t know anything about meter or the structures of a good poem. I just like poems that sound good to me. Which is why I was glad that Muriel wrote the book The Life of Poetry in 1949 to break down the resistance of people to poetry and to show its relationship to the world. It is admittedly a tough read at times, as Rukeyser is trying to describe a rather complex subject, and I’ve had to read a few paragraphs a couple of times to try to understand what it is trying to convey. I’m still in the beginning of the book and hope it gets easier to understand as it goes along. Rukeyser’s poems are a much easier and enjoyable read for me, but I still find value in The Life of Poetry because it gives some sense of Rukeyser’s goals in her poetry. She writes in her introduction:
“I have attempted to suggest a dynamics of poetry, showing that a poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions. It appears to me that to accept poetry in these meanings would make it possible for people to use it as an ‘exercise’, an enjoyment of the possibility of dealing with the meanings in the world and in their lives.”
Muriel Rukeyser has been a wonderful discovery for me in the last few months. I enjoyed reading about her life and admire the courage that she had in staying true to her principles. This life of the artist/activist is one that I want to emulate in my own life. Most of all I admire her poems. My favorite poems of Rukeyser are understandable, and have a fire about them, a compassion for those who suffer and are forgotten. I end this with a few poems that I liked from her book Out of Silence: Selected Poems, a collection of selected poems.
He stood against the stove
facing the fire-
Little warmth, no words,
wished money mailed,
quietly under the crashing:
“I wake up choking, and my wife
“rolls me over on my left side;
“then I’m asleep in the dream I always see:
“the tunnel choked
“the dark wall coughing dust.
“I have written a letter.
“Send it to the city,
“maybe to a paper
“if it’s all right.”
Dear Sir, my name is Mearl Blankenship.
I have Worked for the rhineheart & Dennis Co
Many days & many nights
& it was so dusty you couldn’t hardly see the lights.
I helped nip steel for the drills
& helped lay the track in the tunnel
& done lots of drilling near the mouth of the tunnel
& when the shots went off the boss said
If you are going to work Venture back
& the boss was Mr. Andrews
& now he is dead and gone
But I am still here
a lingering along
He stood against the rock
facing the river
grey river grey face
the rock mottled behind him
like X-ray plate enlarged
diffuse and stony
his face against the stone.
J C Dunbar said that I was the very picture of health
when I went to Work at that tunnel.
I have lost eighteen lbs on that Rheinhart ground
and expecting to loose my life
& no settlement yet & I have sued the Co. twice
But when the lawyers got a settlement
they didn’t want to talk to me
But I didn’t know whether they were sleepy or not.
I am a Married man and have a family. God
knows if they can do anything for me
it will be appreciated
if you can do anything for me
let me know soon
THE POEM AS MASK
When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it
was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.
There is no mountains, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.
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.
I want to speak in my voice!
I want to speak in my real voice!
This street leads into the white wind
I am not yet ready to go there.
Not in my real voice.
The river. Do you know where the river springs?
The river issues from a tall man,
From his real voice.
Do you know where the river is flowing?
The river flows into a singing woman,
In her real voice.
Are you able to imagine truth?
Evil has conspired a world of death,
An unreal voice.
The death-world killed me when the flowers shine,
In spring, in front of the little children,
It threw me burning out of the window
And all my enemies phoned my friends,
But my legs went running around that building
Dancing to the suicide blues.
They flung me into the sea
The sunlight ran all over my face,
The water was blue the water was dark brown
And my severed head swam around that ship
Three times around and it wouldn’t go down.
Too much life, my darling, embraces and strong veins,
Every sense speaking in my real voice,
Too many flowers, a too-knowing sun,
Too much life to kill.
WHO IN ONE LIFETIME
Who in one lifetime sees all causes lost,
herself dismayed and helpless, cities down,
Love made monotonous fear and the sad-faced
Inexorable armies and the falling plane,
Has sickness, sickness. Introspective and whole,
She knows how several madnesses are born,
Seeing the integrated never fighting well,
The flesh too vulnerable, the eyes tear-town.
She finds a pre-surrender on all sides:
Treaty before the war, ritual impatience turn
The camps of ambush to chambers of imagery.
She holds belief in the world, she stays and hides
Life in her own defeat, stands, though her whole world burn,
A childless goddess of fertility.
VII MOTHER AS PITCHFORK
Woman seen as a slender instrument
woman at vigil in the prison-yard,
woman seen as the fine tines of a pitchfork
that works hard, that is worn down, rusted down
to a fine sculpture standing in a yard
where her son’s body is confined.
Woman as fine tines blazing against sunset,
wavering lines against yellow brightness
where her fine body becomes transparent in bravery,
where she will live and die as the tines of a pitchfork
that stands to us as her son’s voice does stand
across the world speaking.
The rumor comes that if this son is killed
this mother will kill herself
But she is here, she lives,
the slender tines of this pitchfork standing in flames of light.
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
If you enjoy this cartoon, take a look at these links for more of my political cartoons at Everyday Citizen:
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
Jasper At A Detention Center
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage