Annette Kolodny: On "The Poem as Mask"

Punning on the multiple meanings of mask and masque, the first stanza owns up to the fact that, in an earlier work (her long poem, "Orpheus" [1949], which was itself composed as a masque), the poet had employed forms of disguise, masking both experience and identity, and had thereby diminished true Orphic power. The disguise, in short, produced only an elaborate entertainment, akin to the ornate but essentially trivial court masques of the seventeenth century. The maenads tearing Orpheus to pieces is a physical sensation she knows through childbirth; but what she successfully rescued from death, through her own body, was a child rather than a lover. The storehouse of symbolic structures which we call our literary heritage, however, offered neither models nor validation for the importance of that kind of tearing and rescue; only "memory" had preserved the masked truth of the event intact.

Quite literally, then, the first stanza becomes itself a mask, at once exposing the earlier poem's masquerade and, with that, serving as prelude to the significant action which is to follow; that is, the second stanza's fuller explanation of the deception and the consequent revelation of the poet's (painful) ecstasy in childbirth. The myth's assertion of the Orphic power that comes only through the ecstasy of dying is here displaced by Rukeyser's assertion of the ecstasy of bringing forth life. And, as the closing lines indicate, this ecstasy, this "aggressive act of truth-telling" also renders Orphic power, as life replaces death and fragments become whole:

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me and with their own music.

Repossessing the significance of the "memory / of my torn life," Rukeyser is liberated from a sense of "exile from myself." No longer unable to speak,"capable now of renewed--but also different--music, Echo is returned to speech.


Criticism Overview
Title Annette Kolodny: On "The Poem as Mask" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Marie Harris, Kathleen Aguero Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry
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