The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Muriel Rukeyser on What Poetry Does for Us, What It Shares with Science, and Why Some People Resist It

One sweltering New York afternoon in my twenties, I was sitting across from a dear friend several decades my senior as I mentioned, with the matter-of-factly, arrogant naiveté of someone who does that sort of thing, that I didn’t much care for poetry. Without missing a beat, she began reciting E.E. Cummings in the middle of that bustling Manhattan café. And just like that, everything changed — this was the ignition spark of my ardent love of poetry.

But even though Joseph Brodsky believed that poetry is the key to developing our taste in culture and James Dickey wrote that it “makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” my reaction that summer Tuesday was far from uncommon — as a society, we seem to harbor a strange resistance to poetry, a stubborn refusal to recognize that it contains what Wordsworth called “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

It’s a resistance that “has the qualities of fear.” So argues the magnificent Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) in the 1949 classic The Life of Poetry (public library) — a wise and wonderful exploration of all the ways in which we keep ourselves from the gift of an art so elemental yet so transcendent, so infinitely soul-stretching, so capable of Truth.

Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser writes in the foreword:

A way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities. . . . There is an art which gives us that way; and it is, in our society, an outcast art.

In this book, I have tried to track down the resistances to poetry, with every kind of “boredom” and “impatience,” the name-calling which says that poetry is “intellectual and obscure and confused and sexually suspect.” How much of this is true, and how much can be traced to the corruption of consciousness? We can see what these attitudes mean, in impoverishment of the imagination, to audience and to artist, both of whom are deeply affected.

In seeking to “go behind the resistances,” Rukeyser considers the parallels between poetry and science:

The relations of poetry are … very close to the relations of science. It is not a matter of using the results of science, but of seeing that there is a meeting-place between all the kinds of imagination. Poetry can provide that meeting-place…

A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions… To accept poetry in these meanings would make it possible for people to use it as an “exercise,” an enjoyment of the possibility of dealing with the meanings in the world and in their lives.

It is curious — and curiously assuring — to note that all the reasons Rukeyser considered poetry timely in 1949 ring with double urgency in the context of today:

In this moment we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.

Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has — the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge — infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

She returns to poetry’s singular role in relation to science and the other arts:

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.

She offers a necessary definition of the nature and purpose of poetry in a sentiment that Alain de Botton would come to echo more than half a century later in asserting that “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.” Rukeyser writes:

Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling, and what is the use of truth?


However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

And yet of all the arts, Rukeyser argues, poetry has been made “the least acceptable” — in large part due to our chronic perplexity in the face of emotions and our clinging to the false divide between emotion and the intellect. In examining the root of our resistance to poetry, a fear that “presents the symptoms of a psychic problem,” Rukeyser writes:

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 that that: a poem invites a total response.

This response it 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, thorough what we call feeling.

(To grasp this roundabout rousing of the intellect via emotion, one need only consider the original 1943 review of The Little Prince — a children’s classic immeasurably poetic in spirit — which captured this beautifully: “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”)

In returning to the various reactionaries who denounce poetry, Rukeyser considers “the roots of communication” in defining poetry:

Poetry is written from these depths; in great poetry you feel a source speaking to another source.

And yet we are cut off from the source early in life. In a sentiment that seems to paraphrase Picasso’s famous assertion that “every child is an artist,” Rukeyser argues that every child is a poet:

The fear that cuts off poetry is profound: it plunges us deep, far back to the edge of childhood. Beyond that it does not go.

Little children do not have this fear, they trust their emotions. But on the threshold of adolescence the walls are built.


In adults, you know those who put poetry far behind them; not naturally, like children outgrowing toys who forget them (or beat them to pieces), but with a painful shocked awareness that here was something outside their reach.

The same adults, no doubt, sit in cafés and proclaim their disdain for poetry. And that disdain is planted in us as soon as the natural inclination for the poetic is schooled out of us, quite literally — Rukeyser echoes Buckminster Fuller’s lament about the specialization of education and revisits the parallels between poetry and science:

Our education is one of specialization. We become experts in some narrow “field.” That expertness allows us to deal with the limited problems presented to us; it allows us to face emotional reality, symbolic reality, very little… A first-rate scientist, or a fine prose writer, is able to say “How can I know a good poem? I can tell an honest piece of work in my own field from a phony piece of work, but how can I tell a fine poem from a phony poem?” And what has to be said to such a question is that these are people who cannot trust their emotional reactions, their total reactions.

Our mistrust of the emotions, she argues, is a special kind of insecurity — and yet until we are able to embrace the interconnectedness of all pieces of ourselves, to integrate them with grace, we will remain ruptured by our inner incompleteness. The promise of poetry is ultimately one of integration:

This gathering-together of elements so that they move together according to a newly visible system is becoming evident in all our sciences, and it is natural that it should be present in our writing. Wherever it exists, it gives us a clue as to a possible kind of imagination with which to meet the world. It gives us a clue that may lead to a way to deal with any unity which depends on many elements, all inter-dependent.

The Life of Poetry is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry, Edward Hirsch on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

Published May 16, 2014




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