The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser is an exploration of poetry—its relationship to the visual and performing arts, its role in our personal lives and in the life of our culture.
Rukeyser begins her exploration by discussing the fear of poetry, a fear she attributes to all imaginative work for its ability to invite a total response reached through emotions. Convinced of the transformative power of poetry, Rukeyser argues the impact of poetry and the arts is to make us more compassionate and humane, linking us to our common humanity. She cites various poems, exploring the impact of and similarities between poetry and works in the visual and performing arts. Her vision is expansive.
Rukeyser peppers her discussion with references to poets, authors, philosophers, and scientists. She draws on events from her personal life and from her interactions with others. She argues all aspects of our culture are integrated, the only barriers being those that are artificially created. She promotes the view that even science and poetry are integrated—one bleeds into the other.
The originality of her thought is impressive. First published in 1949, so much of what she says is still relevant. But there were times when it was difficult to follow her train of thinking. The organization was choppy. She seemed to jump from one thought to another, from one reference to another, without making clear the connections or transitions. Perhaps this is reflective of so many thoughts and images and ideas bombarding her mind simultaneously that even though the connections are obvious to her, she is unable to communicate them adequately to the reader. In spite of some of these drawbacks, however, the work contained passages that were lucid, quotable, and truly inspirational.
Rukeyser defines the poem as “an exchange of energy,” as “process,” as one part of a dynamic triadic relationship between the poet and the reader. She redefines the reader as a “witness,” since the term “. . . includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence.” Her final chapters are particularly compelling. In language breathless with anticipation, she retraces her experience with the images and thoughts that went into the process of writing a poem. And bordering on lyricism is the chapter containing fleeting images of her childhood memories.
There are many quotable and inspiring passages in the work, including this passage that is perhaps one of the most salient:
The tendency of art and religion, and the tendency of poetic meaning, is toward the most human. It is a further humanity we are trying to achieve, at our most conscious, and to communicate.The thinning out of our response is the weakness that leads to mechanical aggression. It is the weakness turning us inward to devour our own humanity, and outward only to sell and kill nature and each other.
Words to savor. Words to remember. Words to live by.