The Life of Poetry
“In time of crisis, we summon up our strength.” So begins the introduction to poet, activist, and journalist Muriel Rukeyser’s 1949 manifesta The Life of Poetry. Written from a series of lectures Rukeyser delivered at Vassar College, the California Labor School, and Columbia University before, during, after World War II, The Life of Poetry speaks from the frame of conflict to discuss the significance that poetry can bear on American culture’s need to reach always toward peace.
In Rukeyser’s experience, poetry existed as a vital, natural, human resource for a society’s people to reconcile their present fears and actively seek out hope either as poet or reader specifically because “[a]lways we need the audacity to speak for more freedom, more imagination, more poetry with all its meanings.” Conversely, Robert Frost, the 1962 Poet Laureate of the United States, who read at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and who worked from a more individualistic perspective, cited that writing poetry served its author by making meaning through the creation of “a momentary stay against confusion.”
The two are not mutually exclusive. When written to communicate openly, American poetry of all colors has the capacity to cut through the static noise of its made-in-the-USA brand of manufactured chaos and enable each of us to experience some aspect of the elusive lyrical. Some barely recognize the faint symphonic melody when we hear it over the din of traffic while others crave its discovery in unexpected places. A poem can arrest us as a snippet of melody on a radio surprises us or as a story stored in our bones that when released, when heard, connects us with a familiar knowing that we long to nurture by turning up the volume. That song, that poetry, is our “momentary stay against confusion.”
But how can we sustain that ecstatic moment? How can we open ourselves to listen for greater meanings? Every Thursday while in graduate school, I would scour and highlight the upcoming week’s poetry readings in the Boston Globe’s events insert. The twin literary meccas of Boston and Cambridge, as well as the surrounding college towns in New England, provided an abundance of opportunities. My friends and I didn’t have the money to wine and dine our way through Beantown’s finer culinary establishments, but we could afford the price tag of poetry readings (often free) and intoxicate ourselves by drinking in the life poets breathed into their poems on the page.
Often after a reading, our eclectic dinner party would pool our money to purchase the poet’s book. The litmus test: if we heard a poem that “killed” us. We always agreed on the poem as we did on the quest for that ecstatic, lyrical moment when the alchemy of language and meaning and truth cut through the defenses we’d walled up and grabbed our hearts by our throats, grabbed our lapels and shook us down saying “See here, you are going to listen to something, get it?” That adrenalin rush from the experience often lingered well into the night and next day when we’d meet up at school and review the previous evening’s feast.
Poetry remains an endeavor of discovery for me as it did on those electric nights in Massachusetts, and I’ve also read enough now that I’ve curated a personal anthology of poems that I turn to in time of crisis or joy or anything in between. Housed in a small, bound, cloth book that my best friend in high school instructed me to fill with things that mattered to me, the book honors our friendship with poems about love, loss, grief, and joy. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain.” Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love.” William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read Each Other.”
When I rediscovered the book a few years ago by accident, I opened it up and marveled at the poems that my younger, emerging adult self had curated. Captured by the fading ink in a book now held together by an elastic band were poems that spoke perfectly to my current sensibilities. One poem, Philip Levine’s “Picture Postcard from the Other Side of the World,” speaks of sending messages ahead to a future self. I carry this fragile book with me everywhere now, ready if the moment strikes when I need to share a poem.
Like the poets of witness that preceded and followed her, Rukeyser plead that a culture disconnected from poetry reflected “an indication that we are cut off from our own reality.” She urged earth’s inhabitants to use poetry’s unique capacity to speak its truth through motion and image to reverse America’s imperialist penchant for disaster, its turn away from the star.
Those poems that killed my friends and me in graduate school, like all productive poems, built momentum line by line to arrive at a pivotal moment, a threshold, where the poem’s power burst through. In poetry, that momentary stay against confusion is called the volta, a xxx word for turn. Poetry allows each of us to turn toward the face of one we love, whether partner, stranger, plant, animal, country, or all of humanity, whether in the light of day or the hush of night, and offer this stay against confusion. Poetry offers us the opportunity to quell the deafening silences that divide us. Poetry encourages us to imagine a place where the last word in Rukeyser’s poetry manifesta resides. And that last word in her house of poetry is peace.
Sandra Yannone is a poet, educator, and antique dealer in Olympia. She is a Member of the Faculty and Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College.