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The Life of Poetry

4.41 of 5 stars 4.41  ·  rating details  ·  174 ratings  ·  21 reviews
Observing that poetry is a natural part of our pastimes and rituals, Muriel Rukeyser opposes elitist attitudes and confronts Americans' fear of feeling. Multicultural and interdisciplinary, this collection of essays and speeches makes an irrefutable case for the centrality of poetry in American life.

Paperback, 256 pages
Published September 1st 1996 by Paris Press (first published 1968)
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Hugh Martin
Wow. I'm going to use so much in here when I have to defend poetry and why it matters. "Why is it feared?" Rukeyser asks. "It demands full consciousness..."
I am fascinated by Rukeyser's personal story & her engagement with history. Although her thinking in these essays is sometimes fuzzy & her use of abstractions, such as truth, reality, imagination, consciousness & even language, is often contradictory (she says one thing & then, shortly thereafter, seems to say its opposite), she repeatedly won me over when her poet's voice sneaks into her prose. For example, when she characterizes Emily Dickenson's style as one of a "slang of str ...more
I am so glad I read this. This book was published in 1949, and in response to what she was saying, advocating, complaining about, at that time made me fervently wish I could have had conversations with her during the 1960's & 1970's as so much of what bothered her was dramatically evolving. I sat talking out loud to this book. I like her concept of, in my words, her concept of the whole. Nothing is separated, everything is integrated. She decided to refer to readers as witnesses instead of r ...more
Sherry Chandler
Nov 21, 2008 Sherry Chandler rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who are smarter than I
I was not a good reader of this book, maybe because it's out of a time that I know little about. A lot of the cultural references Rukeyser makes mean little to me, so I felt that I needed a key to unlock the code. Reading it was like wading through deep water and occasionally encountering the buoy of a quotable quote. Reading it also made me very sad because, in 1949, Rukeyser seemed to have great hopes for a world transformed by art and poetry. Fifty years on, engaged in what George W. Bush cal ...more
Paris Press

The Life of Poetry is an interdisciplinary book that explores American culture. This collection of essays addresses Americans' fear of feeling and how that fear contributes to the devaluation of the arts, especially poetry, in the United States. Through discussions of history, science, film, literature, mathematics, the visual arts, dance, theater, and politics, Rukeyser speaks to Americans who are intimidated or bored by poetry; she also speaks to those w
I finished reading this book on the second anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. In those two years, it felt to me that our country was in a constant state of war, with each other and with the world. Muriel Rukeyser wrote the first edition of this book following the end of World War II, in the wake of our country's controversial choice to use nuclear bombs to end the war with Japan. The poignancy of this parallel informed and haunted my reading of this passionately intelligent treat ...more
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This is one of those serious books that I read quickly -- not a good combination. And I suppose, given the many 5-stars, it shows just how shallow I am when it comes to poetry. Yep. Kept thinking it was like a textbook. Or criticism. Rough, meet sailing. But I DID love her brief chapter toward the end -- the one with childhood memories written in a poetic way. Rukeyser takes her poetry straight up and on the rocks. Seriously. Alas, more seriously than I do....
Daniel Klawitter
"Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference...If you ask your friends about it, you will find that there are a few answers, repeated by everyone. One is that the friend has not the time for poetry. This is a curious choice, since poetry, of all the arts that live in time--music, theater, film, writing--is the briefest, the most compact."

I wanted to love this book. I really like Rukeyser's poetry, and she was a boundary-busting activist who did not separate that activism from her creative work. There were some great moments in these essays - "...remember what happened to you when you came to your poem, any poem whose truth overcame all inertia in you at that moment, so that your slow mortality took its proper place, and before it the light of a new awareness was not something new, but something you *recognized* "(35) - I just ha ...more
Read a long time ago and have as a mainstay of poetry on my shelf. This is a classic and very inspiring for any poet.
Catherine Theis
So inspiring! If anyone is feeling blue about poetry, and what's the use anyway, she should read this.
Rukeyser's arguments for the significance of poetry are full of detours and asides, which can make this a difficult read. Much of her views on poetry's possibilities are very closely tied to her interest in the sciences, which can be distracting (although her criticisms of the rigidity of method that emerges in science and the humanities resonates). The detours and asides, though, are often quite wonderful, as are her conclusions about the reader not just as audience, but witness, and the poem a ...more
I really liked her discussion on what is underlying the general complaint of a person who says "I don't get/don't like poetry." I liked when she talked about society and the arts more than the poem-chapter on her childhood she wrote at the end. The last page has given me one of my favorite epigraphs.
When I was 15 I started reading this in the bathtub and stayed in there until I got pruney and the water turned cold and then slowly drained out, and I really felt that she had the right idea about the anti-touch people and the anti-poetry people and how they ruin everything and the fear of poetry is the fear. The ideaology didn't hold up very well, and I hold that against this book, maybe unfairly.
Liz Scheid
One of the best books that tackles the undefinable answer to the question: what is poetry? Rukeyser, perhaps way ahead of her time answers this questions in an arc, circling into it, passionate about it's ability to change lives. This is a must read for every poet.
Good call, Sarah. I hadn't thought about/read this one in a while, but I love it dearly. Especially "The Resistances" and "The 'Uses' of Poetry."
Natalie Raymond
A good look at Rukeyser's poetics, but a bit dated in its references. Overall, I found the first part to be the most useful.
This book validated my existence.
Great for restoring your faith.
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Muriel Rukeyser was an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. Kenneth Rexroth said that she was the greatest poet of her "exact generation".

One of her most powerful pieces was a group of poems entitled The Book of the Dead (1938), documenting the details of the Hawk's Nest incident, an industrial disaster in which hundr
More about Muriel Rukeyser...

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“Always our wars have been our confessions of weakness” 18 likes
“I think there is choice possible at any moment to us, as long as we live. But there is no sacrifice. There is a choice, and the rest falls away. Second choice does not exist. Beware of those who talk about sacrifice” 8 likes
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