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 values.
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.
Try not to cry when I tell you that Muriel Rukeyser wrote this untitled poem fifty-seven years ago. I know. I know.
Poems like this are sometimes called ‘prescient’ as if it’s astonishing that history should repeat itself. It is astonishing though that the poem is so relevant. The news ‘pours out of ‘various devices’. For Rukeyser, that’s radio and TV; for us, Facebook and CNN. She writes for people ‘unseen and unborn’. That’s us then. I normally urge specificity upon you but here the vagueness keeps it relevant – ‘setting up signals across vast distances,/ Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.’ That’s a bit of a cop-out but seems oddly specific to the internet age. It’s very moving, isn’t it, how precisely it applies to our times?
Now, I love the fluid, conversational pieces which enrich US poetry. Whitman, Frost, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, Eileen Myles….. I read them constantly, but I have no idea how they work. I hear music, but I don’t see how it’s made. So let me go back to what I know about poetry and see what I can make of this. I know that Muriel Rukeyser is moving me deeply, but how?
Let’s frisk her for sound effects. There is a slight pattern in some of the line ends, leaving an intermittent trail of N sounds: insane/ unseen/ reasons/ unborn/ women/ imagined/ brightened/ means. The poem is larded with long vowels; not the short O of clock, but the long O of more, stories, pour; not the short A of bat, but the long A of insane, newspapers, careless. Those stretched sounds slow it down, as does the plentiful punctuation. Why? Beats me. I look for meter – a deliberate pattern of rhythm. Nope, there is no syllabic corsetry here: the words jiggle about in happy freedom. There is, however, a chime where words are placed close together. Careless and various; stories and pour; sell and call; lights, night and brightened.
Hmmm. All these effects are slight, and some I can only see in a dim light with my special poetry glasses on. I may be imagining them. So what’s left, to make this a poem and not prose? Repetition, or line breaks maybe?
Bingo. The line breaks are plain and simple, falling where the sense of the sentence does. The repetition is most obvious in the first and last lines. That first line is a jolt: thank you Ms Rukeyser, you have our attention. It’s almost repeated at the end, and you remember what Glyn Maxwell said about repetition: ‘Repetition is never just repetition’. The second time around, we hear resignation or numb appraisal. In between, there are other repeats. Newspapers and news; devices; unseen; lights; and finally, five times in two lines, the most important one: ourselves.
Monotony becomes community. Gradually Rukeyser takes us from an alienating world of devices, news and advertising to a world where we can at least try to find each other, construct peace, make love. For the first half of the poem it’s all self. ‘I would call my friends… I would get to pen and paper.’ But as she starts to think ‘of those men and women,/ Brave, setting up signals’, the pronoun changes. ‘We would try to imagine them, try to find each other’. ‘We would try by any means.’
It might be deliberate that this happens after she’s written poetry. Or then again, that might be bollocks. I only go into such dissections here because I want to show poetry writers how much technique lies behind the seemingly effortless effects of great poems. For the general reader, none of this matters – no more than a cricket fan needs to know about physics to understand where the ball falls. The poem speaks to us, and the tricks by which it is done are incidental.
If a poem has one word at its centre, it is first. ‘I lived in the first century of these wars.’ Muriel Rukeyser knew there would be more. Looking back from the neighbouring century, I’m thinking of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘History does not repeat itself. But it often rhymes.’
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