Friederike Kaufel: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

In “Poem,” Muriel Rukeyser deals with the lack of humanity, the growing anonymity, and the loss of human innocence brought upon by “the first century of world wars” (1), but also with a certain sense of helplessness felt by those always to far away to make a real difference. Rukeyser herself was deeply influenced – and mutilated – by these wars fought by her country, yet never on her soil.

The first line, which is similar to the last line, sets the tone for the poem and provides a framing.  Rukeyser was not an active part of the worldwide events; she was neither victim not perpetrator, merely a witness whose life was never threatened. This is not to say that her and her American contemporaries (those who did not happen to be soldiers) did not try to make a difference; however, there is a tone of disillusioned, desperate helplessness in the poem.  Therefore, the verb used in the first and last line is rather weak and passive: she merely “lived” in this century, rather than survived it or fought in it, etc.  The line also indicates the change in humanity, and a sense of lost innocence: this was the first – yet certainly not the last – century of worldwide destruction.

At the point when “Poem” was written, Rukeyser’s despair already had a history. WWI brought upon nerve gas, a horror that shortly after fell into insignificance when, after WWII, the precise attempts of the Germans to eliminate an entire people –aimed at the highest efficiency possible – came to light. The accurate organization of mass-destruction then was contrasted with the chaotic and instant death brought upon tens of thousands in a nuclear blast in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1968, when Rukeyser wrote “Poem,” the Vietnam War was going on with full force, a war that Rukeyser not only opposed, but that was also covered extensively by the media, hence bringing the reality of modern war into American living rooms for the first time. Rukeyser turns “more or less insane” (2) when hearing the news of war cruelties.  Yet her strong reaction is contrasted by the fact that the gruesome news are carelessly delivered by “various devices” (4), which interrupt their stories of massacres and death camps with consumerist advertisements.  This indicates both the increasing anonymity, but also a growing lack of human compassion and care; in fact, of humanity itself: not only has the world turned into a place where one people tries to eliminate another with industrial precision and children are burned with napalm; moreover, these events seems to be downplayed by the fact that the world and its inhabitants do not stop to hold their breath whenever these news are made public.  Rather, they go on with their material ways of selling and buying.

The uninterested, capitalist media is contrasted with the true heroes of this war: journalists in Vietnam, who are “brave, setting up signals across vast distances” (11). There values are “almost unimagined” (13); they do not share the apathy of the mass media, yet the morality of war reporters is left unconsidered. Rukeyser contemplates their way of living; witnessing – and the publication of what is witnessed – seems to be the last, yet not the least resort for Rukeyser to make a difference (which ties in with “The Book of the Dead,” a poem of witness she wrote in 1938). Nevertheless, the heroes who risk their lives daily while finding the news for the cold devices of mass media are not commemorated; they remain “unnamed” (13), creating a strong sense of anonymity.

The theme of anonymity even enters Rukeyser’s private life: though she shares her grief with friends similarly “mad” (7), they talk to each other over “devices” rather than vis-à-vis.  Then, Rukeyser proceeds to make poems for people “unseen and unborn;” humanity seems to loose its face. In a world that seems impossible to understand anymore, Rukeyser even looses touch with herself: she long for herself, her friends and the world at large not only to reconcile “ourselves with each other” (16), but also “ourselves with ourselves” (17). The impression that Rukeyser is loosing touch with herself and reality is also indicated by a certain fuzziness in the tone of the poem: “most mornings” (2) she will grow “more or less insane” (2), there are “various devices” (4) and “other devices” (6), but nothing is definite, and, like the war journalists, most remains unnamed. This lack of definitions is caused by the constant contrast and changes of the political world in the 20th century: heroes become incorporated by the capitalist, careless mass-media, the country that was known for its humanities turns to genocide, and the saviors of WWII suddenly become perpetrators in Vietnam. Even in the description of feelings is ambiguity: while Rukeyser states that she is “more or less insane,” her friends are “more or less mad for similar reasons” (7), leaving it open if mad refers to anger, insanity, or insanity caused by too much helpless anger. The only reality Rukeyser can still hold on to is what frames the poem: the fact that she lived in the first century of world wars.

In this world of growing anonymity and lack of human values, simply being human suddenly becomes a hard task.  When Rukeyser says that “slowly I get my pen and paper” (8), it seems that even writing poetry suddenly becomes unbearable work requiring physical strength. Likewise, connecting to fellow humans becomes an almost impossible task: people try to find each other to break through the numbness of their times, to wake up and re-create humanity on an individual level; they try to “construct peace, to make love, to reconcile.”  It is a quest for humanity in the individual; yet in these new times, the normal degree of mere humanness seems insufficient; therefore, people try to reach their limits and go beyond them.  In the first century of world wars, one needs to become superhuman in order to merely regain any kind of humanity.


Copyright © 2004 by Friederike Kaufel


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