Rereading Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem"—beginning, "I lived in the first century of world wars" (RR 211 )—I inevitably wonder why anyone speaking American English wouldn't regard it as one of the most remarkable poems in contemporary American literature. Where else, in 20 lines, do we have such an accurate rendering of what it feels like to live at this moment in history? Who else provided such a precise, simple statement of our "nuclear" dilemma? Which other writer managed not only to identify the terror that dominates the landscape, but also to suggest a strategy for moving through its insanity toward a safer place?
. . . "Poem" is, among other things, a journey through discouragement, even despair, to a renewed acquaintance with the restorative powers of history and biography, represented by the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" (RR 212).
I lived in the first century of world wars.
The opening line, an assertion, places the speaker in time, in an era unlike any other, scourged by modern warfare. In the 1970s, Rukeyser, as with any person her age, rightfully felt that the world had been at war continually throughout her lifetime. "Kathe Kollwitz," written about the same time as "Poem," mentions the special bond Rukeyser feels with an artist enduring the same fate:
Held between wars
among wars, the big hand of the world of death (RR 214)
Although the movement against the war in Vietnam, to which Rukeyser contributed, had gathered strength by the late 1960s, it had provoked no change in policy in Washington, and the war would drag on for another five years.
The simplicity of the opening statement in "Poem" gives it a particular weight and authority. It is a pronouncement, but also a lament, whose simple language keeps it from sounding pompous or pretentious. It’s as if the speaker were beginning a casual autobiography—"I was born in Philadelphia in 1913." The mood, approaching depression, is quickly established) so that we are prepared for the ironic statements, bordering on anger, that follow. Both the depression and the anger are reasonable responses to the situation in which the speaker finds herself. That first line sets up expectations that are fulfilled and at the same time challenged by the second line:
Most mornings I would be more or less insane, (RR 211)
The word "insane" in the second line is surprising in the way that Joseph Brodsky said is characteristic of American poems (he had in mind Auden’s "September 1, 1929"): "it violates the preconceived music of the meter with its linguistic content" (Brodsky 308).
Although wars are obviously horrible and impinge on the lives of everyone, including people far from the battlefield, Rukeyser’s rather bald statement, nonetheless, draws the reader up short. Is she being funny—or serious? The following lines not only answer that question but also describe how the peculiar insanity of the Vietnam period was accomplished:
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.
The war in Vietnam was a TV war fought in living rooms and barrooms across America. It was an undeclared war initiated by "careless" people who felt no responsibility to tell the truth. Communication, based upon trust, was systematically subverted by bureaucrats merely doing a job, assisted by journalists whose reports were little more than press releases from the White House. Stories of the war omitted or suppressed important details. "Careless stories" repeated lies of American foreign policy, as it was being conducted from Washington (a fact substantiated only later by the Pentagon Papers). Also),contrary to a popular impression, TV coverage of the war probably lengthened rather than shortened it. Domesticated by TV, it became mere background among advertisements in the media.
The word "devices" suggesting something devious or malign, is particularly appropriate here. Although the Pentagon did not exploit TV for propaganda purposes as fully and obviously during the Vietnam War as it did during the Gulf War, people sensed that information was being withheld. Only later did the public learn that the body counts, evidence that "we were winning," were phony.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
In the search for reassurance, the speaker in the poem telephones a friend, only to find that person similarly undone by a century of wars. Even after the guns are silent and the treaties are signed, the destruction goes on and on, in the suicides and the innocent victims of landmines that seldom appear among the casualty lists, as well in nightmares, evidence of scars and trauma among those who survive.
The theme of war's insanity is given further weight by the word "mad." Although this is a lyric poem, anger, even fury, over circumstances responsible for "a century of world wars" are central to the argument of the poem. ("Mad," by the way, was used with similar effect in the Auden lyric mentioned earlier: "the world offence . . . / That has driven a culture mad.")
Little by little, however, the speaker moves through the negative energy associated with this state of being toward a positive state. The transformation occurs when she offers to others a simple gift:
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
The generous impulse to make a poem is life-giving for the person offering the gift, as well as for the one receiving it. And in the act of writing, changes take place that ultimately move the speaker toward a new insight. This change is accomplished with the aid of memory, as the speaker reclaims the lives and values of those who represent positive alternatives to the present:
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
Although the speaker does not mention specific people, the list undoubtedly includes people such as Kathe Kollwitz and Pablo Neruda, who told the truth about war and, against all odds, resisted injustice, and whom Rukeyser wrote about elsewhere in The Speed of Darkness.
Remembering their legacy, the speaker moves through the day toward evening. her mind filled with precise memories of what they achieved and how they went about it:
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
It is the concluding lines of "Poem," it seems to me, that dramatize the speaker's authority and authenticity in speaking about her subject. Historically, poems on the subject of peacemaking are often predictable, even shallow in content, and anthologies about "peace" are inordinately dull. The sentiments may be admirable, but the images, sounds, and arguments are either predictable or slack. Conventional verses on the topic tell the reader what peace looks like, but not about how it is made. In poetry, as well as in public policy, peace is too often understood as merely the absence of war. An obvious exception to this rule is "Making Peace" by Denise Levertov (with whom Rukeyser traveled to Vietnam about the time "Poem" was written).
In the concluding lines of "Poem," Rukeyser gives us not only a vision of peace, but also specific guidelines for the resolution of conflict and the transformation of power associated with it. Peace is not a happening, but a construct. It is built through the systematic arrangement of ideas and concepts, including love and reconciliation; it is a design that meets specific requirements, a shelter assembled according to plan:
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.
The requirements for peace involve transforming ourselves as well as the world around us. They include integrating our conscious and unconscious "selves," our dreams and our actions, in the long struggle to "wake up." Accomplishing peace "within" and "without" resembles a Buddhist enlightenment, which enables us to become less egocentric and to be fully present to others. Perhaps we may even begin to trust the rhythm of experience that Rukeyser refers to in a number of her major poems.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
The final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order.