Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keep Them from Closing the Book by Splitting the World Open

Today is the birthday of Muriel Rukeyser, who is probably more important to me personally for her mentorship of Alice Walker than for her own work.

I LOVED Alice Walker when I first read her in 1984. I struggled with the dialect in The Color Purple, but the content of the book blew me away. I had picked up 2 of her books at the same time, so that summer, as I spent long hours on public transit commuting back and forth between my parent's house and my summer job in inner-city D.C., I devoured In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. From then on, I loved Walker's essays better than any other genre in which she wrote.

But Walker got her start in poetry, and she recounts writing poems and sliding them under the door of Muriel Rukeyser, who taught at her college. Rukeyser showed her agent Walker's poems, and a literary career was born. Maybe it's because I spent last night watching It's a Wonderful Life, but I'm always happy to be reminded that our lives enrich many others, even when it's not obvious to us that our work enriches anyone.

But Rukeyser did important work, both with her writing and her activism. She's also important to me as a feminist; this quote has sustained me through many a dark night of the writing soul: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."

She had the enthusiasm about poetry that P.B. Shelley and Matthew Arnold had. Muriel Rukeyser said, "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger."

But she was also a realist, of sorts: "No one wants to read poetry. You have to make it impossible for them to put the poem down--impossible for them to stop reading it, word after word. You have to keep them from closing the book."

So, there's our challenge, as poets, as writers. What we write must be so compelling that our potential readers cannot look away. We might argue that we have so many more challenges today, so much more that can distract our potential readers. Our task has not changed. We must make our work more compelling than all the other stuff competing for eyeballs.

Happily, how hard can it be? Television becomes more and more inane, punctuated by commercials that are ever more awful. I don't know of many people anymore who spend their hard-earned dollars at movie theatres. People who get sucked into the world of computer games were likely lost to us from the beginning, but some day, they may emerge, blinking, back into the non-computer world, and our poems can be there, waiting for them.

Go ahead. Tell the truth and split the world wide open.


January said...

Loved reading this post! Didn't know the back and forth between Rukeyser and Walker.

And to make our words compelling, that's quite the challenge, but one I'll take happily.

Thanks for your words.

Kathleen said...

I love this post, too! Both for the writerly inspirations and the Christmas movie tie-in--the invisible rippling out of one life's goodness into many others' lives. Thank you.

Susan Rich said...

Thank you for this post. I know Rukeyser as a major influence on Adrienne Rich. Last month I went into a "Half Price Books" and they had two first editions of Rikeyser collections - she really gets around. Thank so much for this!

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Thanks, everyone, for commenting. It continues to fascinate me, the way that poets and their circles influence other poets and their circles . . . we are all richer for it!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Once again, I'm late to the party, but I wanted to add my three-cheers for this post. This is the second time in a week that I've read the "What would happen if one woman told the truth..." quote, so I'm guessing the universe is trying to tell me something. Thanks for the being the messenger!