How does the actual world come into the actual poem, and what is lost in the translation? Can a poem be a siren articulating some truth of the moment? Or must it be, as Reginald Gibbons has described the New Critical definition, “an instance of graceful tension in which paradox was set in amber, so to speak, rather than lived?” A passage from Louise Kertesz’s The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser gets as close as anyone to articulating the paradox:
The scientist Jacob Bronowski stood in the pond at Auschwitz for television viewers in the 1970’s and picked up a fistful of sludge, explaining that into that pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. He urged his audience to adopt the humble attitude of the atomic scientists who were discovering, ironically, just as Nazism was flourishing, that no certainty is possible, that no dogmatism is justified. What is important, said, Bronowski, holding his fistful of sludge, is “that we touch human beings.” Rukeyser’s theory of poetry is essentially that it is a touching . . . .
Both Rukeyser and Mattawa explore the distances between subject and poem, fact and art, documentary remove and passionate human response. “If you want to know how it was,” says Marvin Bell, “make the siren into the shape of a man / or woman.” Both Rukeyser and Mattawa acknowledge the distances between us and those sirens, and they listen. “Take my hand,” says Muriel Rukeyser in another one of her poems. “Speak to me.”
An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2011.
“1500 Doomed: People’s Press Reports on the Gauley Bridge Disaster.” People’s Press, 7 December 1935. NARA, Record Group 174, Department of Labor, Sec. Frances Perkins, Labor Standards — Jan.-April 1936, Box 59.
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Gibbons, Reginald. “Fullness, Not War: On Muriel Rukeyser.” “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writings of Muriel Rukeyser. Eds. Anne F. Herzog and Janet F. Kaufman. New York: Palgrave, 1999. 106.
Kaward, Widar. “Preface.” I Would Have Smiled: Photographing the Palestinian Refugee Experience: A Tribute to Myrtle Winter-Chaumeny. Eds. Issam Nassar and Rasha Salti. Jerusalem: Institute of Palestinian Studies, 2009.
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