Jeff Sychterz: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

Although I agree with most of Michael True’s reading of Rukeyser’s "Poem" I find his analysis hampered by a too narrow reading of the poem’s historical moment. What he regards as "a journey through discouragement, even despair" in the midst of the Vietnam War, I find to be a necessary lesson of survival in a much broader historical context haunted by World War II and anticipating an uncertain and troubled future.

Part of my disagreement with True stems from his cursory treatment of the poem’s final line. He says only that "the final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order." True seems to read the poem as ending on a triumphant note of realized resolution. The final line, even with the alteration of "world wars" to "these wars," does not suggest resolution to any conflict, internal or external. The verb "lived" does suggest a triumphant survival in the face of death and violence, but the rest of the line, "in the first century of these wars" deflates that triumphant note. To say that she has lived through the "first century of these wars" suggests that a second and maybe even a third century of unimaginable violence will follow before the peace described can come to fruition. I do not mean to say that the poem ends in despair, because although the era of "world wars" has not ended, the poem does look to a point—possibly in the distant future—when this era will pass.

A second effect of repeating the first line at the end of the poem is to enclose all of the poem’s activity inside a historical cycle of violence and war. All of the attempts to construct peace—networking, writing poems, and personal reconstruction—are circumscribed by war. Despite the hope that lines fourteen through nineteen engender, the poem does not achieve a peaceful resolution. Instead of offering an escape from carnage the poem offers us an example of everyday survival and resistance that operates under the shadow of war. In this way the poem casts the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" as partisans struggling behind the lines rather than as reformers safe on the home front. Rukeyser also invokes this partisan trope through a repetition of the word "unseen;" in the poem people remain unseen by both the capitalist machine and by the poet herself. Because of the inherent danger of partisan warfare, Partisans must remain unseen both to the enemy and to each other. They must operate in isolated cells so that the capture or infiltration of one cell will not compromise the entire partisan effort.

Two actions described by the poem particularly resemble the activity of partisans: the networking of friends, and the writing of poems. Both activities involve the opening of alternate lines of communication to disseminate counter-hegemonic discourses. Propaganda—as these discourses would be named in wartime—is a crucial weapon against occupying forces. Propaganda in the form of underground newspapers, leaflets, graffiti and broadsides not only help an oppressed populace maintain hope, they help that populace redefine themselves as a source of resistance and as necessary combatants against oppression. Without communication there can be no resistance. Rukeyser indicates that construction of alternative networks opposed to the newspaper and authorized media "devices" involves a certain level of risk; otherwise the men and women would not be "brave." Even the poet situates herself as not merely a recorder of everyday life, but as a fighter in this underground war. She writes poems to battle insanity and for the "unseen and unborn," not merely to remind them of what was endured, but to instruct them in how to fight, why to fight and what to fight for.

I find Rukeyser’s juxtaposition of her own poetry with that of official media sources suggestive given the journalistic techniques that she uses in her long poem sequence, The Book of the Dead. In that poem sequence Rukeyser energizes the disinterested, "objective" and "careless stories" in the official newspapers by juxtaposing them with first hand accounts, company documents, stock quotes and allusions to Egyptian mythology. The Book of the Dead does more than inform; it shocks, it condemns, it angers, and it wakes up the rest of us careless and disinterested individuals who blindly follow an oppressive capitalist system. In a way The Book of the Dead can be read as a work of propaganda that attempts to enlist our aid in a partisan war.

But I don’t mean to overplay the partisan trope for although a tone of vigorous and stubborn resistance does exist in "Poem" I find it tempered by a certain level of exhaustion. By casting the poem as a description of one day, which moves from "most mornings" through the day and into "the night," Rukeyser’s poem resembles stories told by survivors of the Battle of Britain, or of any number of German cities bombed by the allies. These stories, which describe a typical day and how one survived through it, often start "I lived through the Battle of Britain" or "I lived through World War II." For the "survivors" in this poem night brings with it a certain level of safety. They emerge at night after a day of bombing to find one another and try to rebuild what was destroyed during the day. The repetition of the word "try" is important, because it suggests a certain level of futility to the actions described. Any attempts at constructing peace are hampered by the violence of war. Tomorrow whatever has been constructed might be destroyed again. Therefore, both the external and internal rebuilding and restructuring are not complete by the poem’s close. The rebuilding has just begun but cannot be completed until we bring an end to the era of destruction and violence.

By situating the poem only in its immediate historical moment—the Vietnam War—Michael True misses the connections Rukeyser makes between that war and World War II, and subsequently reads the poem too optimistically. By bringing the concept of Total War to play in the poem, Rukeyser draws us, her readers, into the conflict; we can no longer pretend to be disinterested observers on the home front. The poem reconstructs us as part of her network and as combatants in a war that extends beyond the battlefield to encompass even the history of western society. We stand in the middle of an era of war, violence and oppression that directly targets us all. Her solution is more than a call for peace, but a wake-up call to the reality of war and an urging for us to fight as well. Only by fighting together—waging peace both internally and externally—can we hope to bring this era "of world wars" to an end.


Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz


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