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Read of the Week: The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser

Written by The Reader, 19th October 2016

A new Read of the Week for your reading pleasure, Volunteer Coordinator and Reader-in-Residence Laragh has suggested The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser.

Written in the aftermath of the wars that shaped the first part of the twentieth century, the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser here offers us her statement of belief and the dream of finding a place for poetry in the world.

In doing so she identifies a deep-seated resistance, a fear, of poetry - that of the familiar, closed, responses of “I don’t understand poetry” or “I have no time for it”. She unearths the fear that lies behind such statements, which in themselves arise to mask the very need we have for poetry: the need for a language of feeling if we are ever to fully understand ourselves and our reality.

"It seems to me that we cut ourselves off, that we impoverish ourselves, just here. I think that we are ruling out one source of power, one that is precisely what we need.

Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these – the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives – the attitude of poetry." - Muriel RukeyserThe Life of Poetry

It’s a rich, vital, often aphoristic work that despite being of its time remains startlingly relevant today; and though largely concerned with the state of the American poetic tradition and culture the work also reaches out beyond this to find us where we are now.

100341"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." - Muriel RukeyserThe Life of Poetry

There is much that is redolent of Shared Reading here too: poetry as live experience, as process; the reader understood not as a passive bystander but an active, responsible, witness; and more widely that change is possible - for individuals, society, humanity – and that it is poetry, literature, that can prepare and help to realise such change.

This is what Muriel Rukeyser also seeks to prove in The Life of Poetry, so I’m recommending it as a source not only of potential inspiration and deeper understanding, but of encouragement and confirmation in times of need or doubt.

"Choose your poet here. Or, rather, do not choose. But remember what happened to you when you came to your poem, any poem whose truth overcame all inertia in you at that moment, so that your slow mortality took its proper place, and before it the light of a new awareness was not something new, but something recognized.

That is the multiple time-sense in poetry, that is the ever new, which is recognized as something already in ourselves, but not discovered." Muriel RukeyserThe Life of Poetry

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