I’ve been reading the poems of Muriel Rukeyser for the first time, and when you read about her, she comes with all these labels: political poet, feminist poet, lesbian poet. So many contemporary poets --- at least, so many of those I know personally shy away from political poetry, wary of creating propaganda instead of art. There’s this sense that to be political is to compromise one’s work. My own poetry has been far more personal than political for the most part, but that’s starting to change --- and even faintly political poems tend to raise eyebrows in workshops. I remember once, just the words “vice president” (used in a fairly generic sense) made several of my classmates bristle. “Those words just seem too political-sounding to use in a poem,” one poet said. I’m thinking: Of course they are political, I want them to be, I want you to think of Cheney, of Gore, of Bush the elder, of the concept of vice president. Vice presidents are part of the culture in which I write. They mean something. I don’t know. I don’t want to be a speechwriter, or to engage in the debates you’ll find on the talking-head shows on the cable shout networks. I also don’t want to presume to speak for my social class, or my generation, or whoever. And although I do believe that to some extent the very act of writing a poem is political, I don’t want to make too much of that; the act of buying a car, or a latte, or of watching mindless reality television --- these are political acts as well, in their own ways. But I do have deeply felt political beliefs, and as such how can I leave them out of my poems? And if I can make those deeply felt beliefs part of successful art, isn’t that all the more powerful a triumph? In the introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, the magnificent Adrienne Rich writes of Rukeyser’s “lifelong project of knitting together personal experience with politics,” but adds: “ ‘Knitting together’ is the wrong phrase here; in her words, she simply did not allow them to be torn apart.” That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I aspire to.
Some of these poems, Rukeyser’s poems, are so good it makes me hurt. I could go through and quote lines that open up a wistful ache in the back of my throat. The phrase that has stuck in my head long after first reading it is “audacious landscape.” I want that one, I want to steal it, to use it, to have written it in the first place. With this book arranged in chronological order, you can definitely trace the lyrical arc of her career, and my favorite poems are in the middle. It strikes me that these are the most insistent, the most skilled, the most startling pieces in the book. But there are good poems from start to end. These are poems of the body: the body physical, the body politic, the body of pop culture and high culture. You can feel how she surely influenced more contemporary poets from Sharon Olds to Jorie Graham. One of the weird things about reading poetry backwards through history, which is pretty much what I have done, am doing is that I find traces of current poets in writers of the past, when in fact of course the earlier writers came first; it’s like hearing the echo first, and then tracing it to the original cry and being amazed all over again at the beauty and urgency.
Rich calls Rukeyser “the poet I most needed in the struggle to make my poems and live my life.” Which makes me think about who that poet is for me. I am not sure that I know yet, but forced to pick one and one only, I pick Jorie Graham. I cannot escape her. I go back to her work over and over, and it is so often what gets me writing again when I feel stuck or frozen. Although my work has little in common with hers, something in Graham acts as a trigger for me --- the way she uses language, the way she breaks lines, the way everything she writes seems so important and heartfelt and smart. I envy her. I aspire to her. I crave her words.
Recently on DVD
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (grade?): I confess, I don't know quite how to grade this movie. I saw it so far after its initial release, and it generated so much hype, it's difficult to judge how much I'm reacting to it as a movie and how much I'm reacting to it as a pop-culture phenomenon. Was it outrageous? Sure, in a few places. (Naked wrestling scene, I'm looking at you.) But, really, it wasn't any more wanton than, say, South Park has been for years. Funny? Yeah, definitely a handful of laugh-aloud bits. But also some predictable jokes that fell flat (kids run screaming from bear in ice cream truck, to pick one). So much of what made this picture such a big deal was its startle factor, and it's essentially impossible to recapture that experience a year after it reached theaters. Maybe that's a sign of a shortcoming of the movie: I'm not sure it can stand up over time. Its release was a moment in the zeitgeist, but its very presence erases the possibility of that particular moment happening again. In other words, once a movie like Borat exists in the world, a movie like Borat is extraneous.