Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem" ("I lived in the first century of world wars") recounts the experience of war as mediated by the culture industry. The speaker grows more or less insane as she is exposed to newspapers and radios; she communicates with others through the telephone, establishing a network of madness. These instruments of mass culture are periodically interrupted by attempts to sell products, affirming Adorno and Horkheimer's assertion in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" that "the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest."

The culture industry becomes not only a way of relating war, but a means of constructing the meaning of war, "the ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics" ("Culture Industry" 123). Soldiers mimic consumers in that they are "setting up signals across vast distances." And these signals, too, are rooted in an economy of "almost unimagined values." The totality of the culture industry threatens a totalizing, fascistic politics.

As she does in so many of her poems, Rukeyser tries to find in such oppression a place for poetry: "Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/ Make my poems for others unseen and unborn." In one sense, any attempt to make poetry declares allegiance to the culture industry-Rukeyser's poems are intended for those unseen, just as products are sold to the unseen. But Rukeyser does not make products. Her making of poems must be read in the sense of "to make love, to reconcile." What is important is not the poem, itself, but the act of making poems. And in this way, Rukeyser hopes to rupture the domination of the culture industry and war that draws on such domination. So, Rukeyser says, while "we would try by any means," by any technological mediation, "to reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves," such reaching is a failed project. Ultimately, what one must do is "to let go the means, to wake." One must recognize cultural and political systems as a means of domination if one hopes to escape such domination.

Rukeyser concludes her poem with a refrain of the opening line, "I lived in the first century of these wars." The line is suggestive of two things. First, the line suggests that this is the first century of world wars. There will be others. The dominance of the culture industry and technological mediation will have lasting and devastating effects. Second, while the poem was written not much more than half-way through the 20th century, Rukeyser exclaims, I lived through these wars. Rather than using the present tense, which would be suggestive of the fact that the possibility of world war is not exhausted, and that another one could happen in her century, Rukeyser emphasizes the past. In doing so, however, she is making a distinction between living and surviving. While others may have simply survived the war, reduced to automatons and emptied of authentic experience, so that they never knew their times and now can't remember them, Rukeyser was still able to live. She can remember those times and is still able, after 20 years, to return to them in a poem.


Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman



Criticism Overview
Title Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Bartholomew Brinkman Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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