Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 36, December 2013)

Johanna Skibsrud
A “Most Human” Call: Responding to Muriel Rukeyser at 100 years

In order to mark, and celebrate, the one-hundredth birthday of Muriel Rukeyser this year, I propose we take up and renew the supreme invitation of her poetry: an invitation to “total response.”

“A poem does invite, it does require,” wrote Rukeyser in, “The Life of Poetry,” first published in 1949. “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” (122).

It is precisely the “totality” of this invited response, Rukeyser suggests—its emotional as well as intellectual expression and origin—that often inspires fear, and even “direct resistance” to poetry. Now, more than ever, we fear and resist the idea of there existing outside—let alone within—ourselves, anything “total,” absolute. We forgo a concept of a broader system beyond our disparate experiences and realities, which we might go so far as to call “truth,” in favor of the readily apparent “facts.” Even if, by virtue of these “facts” being merely apparent, we must then accept the supreme subjectivity and corresponding insularity of our lives.

If, through all this, “there is a feeling that something has been lost,” it may be, as Rukeyser writes:

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. (120-121)

Like art and religion, the “tendency” of poetic meaning is toward what Rukeyser calls “the most human.” Were we able to actually live in the manner that poetry invites—“in full response to the earth, to each other, and to ourselves”—we might be, she contends, “more human” (132). If we accept Carl Linneaus’s early taxonomic definition of the human from 1735 as that being which has the ability to recognize itself (Agamben 26), it follows that to be “more human” is to recognize oneself more completely. Rukeyser’s call for “total response” was her suggestion of how we might be able to do this.

The fundamental role of subjective perception within human knowledge and experience (persuasively indicated by the definition, above, of what it means to be human at all) has long formed the basis—as well as the horizon—of Western thought. Plato spends the entirety of Theaetetus, for example, refuting the equation between “appearing” and “perceiving,” “perceiving” and “knowledge”—he ultimately concludes that there exists no way of extracting knowledge from sensible objects at all (163). Over two thousand years later the philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, who famously characterized the whole of the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato” (39), further defined human consciousness as “an emergent quality” that arises from the “conjunction of a fact and a supposition about that fact.” In other words: from, and in response to the conjunction between “Appearance” and “Reality” (269).

Rather than situating itself impartially in the middle, however, consciousness is always biased—aligning itself with the “artificial” and finite quality of appearance over and above any concept or experience of a holistic Reality. “It is Appearance,” writes Whitehead,

which in consciousness is clear and distinct, and it is Reality which lies dimly in the background with its details hardly to be distinguished in consciousness. What leaps into conscious attention is a mass of presuppositions about Reality rather than the intuitions of Reality itself. It is here that the liability to error arises (269).

We remain (as in Plato’s cave) riveted by the flickering shadows of that which—invisible to us, outside the “cave” of fluctuating human perception—actually exists in its “true” and not merely its “apparent” form. For Plato, of course, there existed the possibility that one might exit this “cave”: it was still possible that, in becoming a “philosopher,” one might come to know the true forms of things. Whitehead (today, widely considered the father of process philosophy) argued that it was not things-in-themselves, but the very process of knowing them that afforded us an “exit” from the solipsism of our individual minds. More recent philosophical history has foreclosed the possibility of any “exit” at all. It is, perhaps, as Rukeyser persuasively suggests in “The Life of Poetry,” now poetry’s task, not philosophy’s, to open it again.

But what could it mean to be “more human” in relation to the fundamental schism between the Apparent and the Real, which for so long we’ve identified with, or even as, human experience? It would seem as though any “tendency,” which Rukeyser asserts for poetry, toward being “more” human, would also, and perhaps only, be a “tendency” toward that gap; toward, that is, a fundamental error.

But perhaps that’s exactly it. Perhaps to be “more human,” in Rukeyser’s sense, is precisely to risk an approach to that gap. Of—to borrow an oft-quoted phrase from the painter, Paul Klee—“render(ing) visible” not any positive reply to the question of what it means to be human, but the very space of relation—of response—according to which human consciousness has for so long been defined.

Poetry, for Rukeyser, provides the possibility of just such an approach. Rather than looking at experience “fact by fact, deriving the connections,” it reveals and explores “relationships themselves, learning the facts as they feed and destroy each other” (122). Importantly, this is an approach Rukeyser does not limit to the “literary arts” or its products. As the title, “The Life of Poetry,” implies, for Rukeyser poetry is a living entity—rather than merely the representation or expression of a “life.” It is a dynamic way of perceiving, rather than a fixed representation of what’s been perceived. To quote from Rukeyser’s first collection from 1935, Theory of Flight, poetry “cries beginnings.”

Now we arrive to meet ourselves at last,

we cry beginnings

the criers in the midnight streets call dawn ;

respond  respond (27).

It “renders visible” the space of relation that is consciousness itself, allowing precisely for the possibility, described above: that we might “meet ourselves”; make “contact” with that which exists beyond—constitutive and inclusive of—that relation.

Master in the plane shouts “Contact” :

Master on the ground : “Contact!”

He looks up : “now?” whispering : “Now.”

“Yes,” she says. “Do.”

Say yes, people.

Say yes.

YES. (27)

It was in order to make renewed contact both with and beyond “ourselves” that Rukeyser sought—as she writes in her introduction to “The Book of the Dead”—a “new definition of what a poem might be” (30).

In 1936, at the age of twenty-two, Rukeyser had just returned from a stint overseas, reporting from Barcelona on the People’s Olympiad and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Disturbed by the reports she heard of the situation in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where hundreds of Union Carbide workers were dying of silica poisoning following the construction of the Hawks Nest tunnel, she set off to investigate what is recognized today as one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. In 1938, Rukeyser’s “new definition” of poetry—“The Book of the Dead”—was published in the collection US1. By incorporating documentary elements (interview transcripts, excerpts from letters, statistical charts) into the long poem series, Rukeyser opened an unfamiliar rift between the “facts” of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster and their relationship to a broader poetic structure more interested in call than response, questions than answers. This was crucial to Rukeyser’s “new definition” of poetic meaning. For her, poetry was not about indexing “facts”—but neither was it about retreating from them. Poetic meaning, according to Rukeyser, is that which—in the name of truth—willingly risks “error.” It is that which “tends” toward the dissolution of established distinctions between fact and fiction, appearance and reality, in order to make room for a “full response” to the world around us. Rather than an attempt to exit the “cave” of individual experience and perception, poetry illuminates the relation between the outside world beyond the cave and the flickering shadows within. It is interested, like Plato’s philosopher, in uncovering Reality in its wholeness, but knows better than to hunt blindly for the “real thing”—disregarding the play of light, however fleeting, on the inside walls.

Today, more even than in Rukeyser’s time (and even then, she informs us, the approach was commonplace) we are, of course, accustomed to thinking about experience in these terms: as an “in-between,” a space of relation. We have long ago given up, at least in the realm of literature, philosophy and the social sciences, imagining we might find some way of grasping the “real thing.” At least since Kant, we have concentrated instead on what or how that thing might appear “to” or “for” us. Without disregarding this history, or the fundamental ambiguity that persists at—or as—the root of human experience, and (if it is to be finally arrived at) truth itself, Rukeyser’s definition of “poetic meaning” goes beyond the limits of this “correlative” frame.

“Correlationism,” a term coined by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, describes precisely that approach to experience which for so long has dominated Western thought: the assumption that “Reality” is itself—and perhaps only—a play of appearances. A self-supporting system, which can have nothing ultimately to say about what exists outside itself, of which we can do nothing more than “pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein 89). Rukeyser rejects the partiality, and isolationism of this approach. For her, the “total response” invited by the poem—a response that invites us to be “the most human” we can be—ultimately moves us past the human. The poem is an invitation, via “the apparent” and its relation to the “real,” “fact” and its relation to “supposition,” beyond the limiting frame of subjective perspective to that which exists—is total, absolutely “Real”—beyond the mere “appearance” of things.

This is not to say that it arrives there. Crucial to understanding “totality” in this sense—and from there, Rukeyser’s conception of poetry more generally—is that it is, first and foremost, an “invitation.” The poem is not conceived by Rukeyser as a “total response,” but as an invitation to that response. The poem “requires”—but never that it be total in itself. A poem, for Rukeyser, is the act of requiring. It is that which calls: entering, at great risk to itself, into a relationship it cannot know in advance will ever be consummated with a reply.

To attempt this step, beyond the correlative bounds of the subjective—to speak, that is, not just “to” or “for” oneself, “to” or “for” one or two “apparent” things—is to take on a big—perhaps even an impossible—responsibility. And yet it is the weight of this impossible responsibility we seem to crave “above all things” (Rukeyser 119). Describing her experience in the early days of the Spanish Civil War in the opening pages of “The Life of Poetry,” Rukeyser reflects that, more than anything else, it was responsibility—to their subject, as well as to their audience—she and the other foreign journalists wanted. For some voice, she writes—“deep, prophetic, direct”—to speak. For someone—something—to charge them with the supreme task of poetry, which is also that of revelation. To say: “go home: tell your peoples what you have seen” (119).

By looking at the world not as it “appears” to or for us, but instead at “relationships themselves” (122), poetry “tends” toward a meaning that moves us past the bonds of “correlationism” and, therefore, linear history as well. Time and temporality can be understood—poetically—as an on-going process, rather than as a determinate trajectory from one (previously established) point to the next. In this way, “the life of poetry” is one that allows for transition—for genuine change. Allows, that is, for the possibility of actual arrival—at an “imaginative truth” (135) more inclusive than (and yet certainly inclusive of) established, or yet-to-be-established, scientific or historic truths. After all, “art,” Rukeyser reminds us, “is not in the world to deny any reality”:

You stand in the cave, there are walls on every side. The walls are real. But in the space between you and the walls, the images of everything you know, full of fire and possibility, life appearing as personal grace… There is here a reciprocal reality. It is the clue to art; and it needs its poetry (60).

Poetry’s ultimate responsibility then, is indeed one of revelation. Of finding a way to uncover, and express, the reality of the walls that surround us “on every side”—without neglecting to account for the flicker of shadows and images reflected “between [us] and the walls.” The more willing we are to recognize the “fullness” of the reality that surrounds and includes us by venturing into that rift—the “conjunction” between the Real and the Apparent, fact and supposition, the past and the future, what it is possible to “know” and what it is not—the “more human,” Rukeyser suggests, we will be.

“In a time of crisis,” begins “The Life of Poetry,” “we summon our strength.” It seems especially pertinent in our own “time of crisis” that we summon Muriel Rukeyser. That we listen, and take up her call to become “more human” than we currently are. That we find a way to recognize ourselves as part of—not as the sole producers of—the reality of the world around us. That we attempt “contact” across the correlative divide of consciousness—which, in marking the “conjunction” of “Appearance” and the “Real,” also serves to reify that division. That we take up the responsibility, which—as “foreign correspondents” even to our own experience—we so often seem to be “kept from,” but which we nonetheless desire “above all things.” A responsibility of bearing witness not only to what appears “to” or “for” us, but to what, beyond ourselves, shapes our experience.

This is a responsibility, ultimately, Rukeyser suggests, toward belief. “Faith is found here,” she writes. In the poetic image, which both is, and is not, what it “appears.”

Not in a destiny raiding and parceling out knowledge and the earth, but in a people who, person by person, believes itself. Do you accept your own gestures and symbols? Do you believe what you yourself say? When you act, do you believe what you are doing? (131)

This is not a blind faith in what exceeds us, and over which we ultimately have no control, but a responsibility of resistance. The resistance of any further “correlative” retreat in favor of acknowledging the ways in which our words and actions actually make contact with, and thus directly impact the world around us. The belief in a broader reality—inclusive of, but not only or directly contingent upon what becomes apparent to the individual eye, or mind. It is ultimately, therefore, a responsibility toward truth. And toward risk: the risk of actually arriving there.

This, though—tapping into faith, and a spirit of adventurousness—is hardly what’s proved, over the course of human history, so continuously difficult. What’s difficult is sustaining these dynamic impulses: not having them harden into apparent “facts”—then turned against us. Poetry, in Rukeyser’s sense, works actively against this debilitating effect. It counters with a vital force, which does not and cannot end itself in any apparent “fact”—any single, finite, “product” or “thing”—but persists, instead, as the relation (that infinite resource, “never to be used”) between, or rather beyond, “Appearance” and “Reality.” Like consciousness, poetry is never—in itself—total, but an invitation toward totality. It is never, in itself, the fulfillment of response, but the generosity—the perpetual promise—of that invitation. Above all, it is not afraid of what lies outside itself. Instead, it exists only within—is generated by—the space of that relation. It is the revelation of what, beyond the apparent “fact” of itself, it cannot name. It is a point of inquiry. And it can sustain itself only by remaining open.

Works Cited

Rukeyser, Muriel. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. Ed. Jan Heller Levi. New York and London: Norton, 1994.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Mentor, 1955.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. David Pears and Brian McGuinness. New York and London: Routledge, 1974.