Today during my internet wanderings I discovered by chance that it is World Poetry Day. Not only that, but it happens every year on March 21st. Why I didn’t know this I have no idea. UNESCO adopted the day back in 1999 with the objective to “support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.” And of course it is meant to support poetry in all of its various traditions.
UNESCO has a Poetry Day website that has poetry excerpts and inspiration as well as a list to provide suggestions on how one might go about celebrating poetry. Number five on the list is “Fight against the outdated image of poetry.” I am not sure that people think poetry is outdated but maybe they do. I find most people don’t read poetry because they are afraid of it, afraid of not “getting it.” I hope, and maybe it’s a big ego kind of hope, but I hope that my occasional posts about poetry go some way to help people not be afraid of it.
So I’m going to share a little about one of my favorite poets, Muriel Rukeyser. She is an appropriate poet for today because she was also a political activist who believed in social justice and was a feminist before the 20th century feminist movement even got underway. Born in New York in 1913, she later attended Vassar College as well as Columbia University. Her literary career began in 1935 with the publication of her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight, which won the Yale Younger Poets competition.
Her poems are passionate, political and sometimes feel like a punch in the stomach. Her early work tends towards the sloganistic but as she matured so did her poetry. Early poems also tend to be long. Gradually she moved to shorter poems and cluster or collage poems. In 1949 she published a wonderful book called The Life of Poetry. In it Rukeyser argues that poetry is essential to democracy and human life and understanding. She talks a lot too about how poetry and science make important and excellent companions. She also talks about fear, what poetry does and doesn’t do, and what it can and can’t do. Here is a taste from early in the book:
A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.
This response is total, but it is 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.
The book went out of print but was reissued in 1996 and is still available. It’s been a long time since I read it but I still think about it now and then. I hope to reread it this year. It’s about time for that.
At this point you are probably wondering about Rukeyeser’s poetry so I’ll give you some samples.
Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.
They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.
What are you now? If we could touch one another,
if these our separate entities could come to grips,
clenched like a Chinese puzzle…yesterday
I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,
and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.
Everyone silent, moving….Take my hand. Speak to me.
And from “Waiting for Icarus” written from the point of view of his wife:
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the
Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.
While mainly a poet, Rukeyser also wrote plays and screenplays, several biographies, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelof. She also taught university classes and led workshops, and presided over PEN’s American Center for a time. Sadly, she died from a stroke in 1980 at the age of 66.
I hope you might be inspired to try some of her poetry. The titles of the poem excerpts are linked to the whole poem. There are even more of her poems at that site, Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive as well as short pieces of scholarship on her work.
And since it is World Poetry Day, I want to leave you with a final thought from Rukeyser that can be found in The Life of Poetry:
If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger. And from that need, from the relationships within ourselves and among ourselves as we went on living, and from every other expression in man’s nature, poetry would be — I cannot here say invented or discovered — poetry would be derived. As research science would be derived, if the energies we now begin to know reduced us to a few people, rubbing into life a little fire.