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Good Letters

Oftentimes in my teaching of creative writing, I include on the syllabus this passage from the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s book The Life of Poetry

“Faith is found here, not in a destiny raiding and parceling out knowledge and the earth, but in a people who, person by person, believes itself. Do you accept your own gestures and symbols? Do you believe what you yourself say? When you act, do you believe what you are doing?” 

Since reading these words years ago, they often come to me in times when I feel lost or feel that we, as a society, are lost. What would it mean to accept [my] own gestures and symbols? To believe what I am saying? This is a good thing for writers to slow down and ask themselves periodically, a good thing for us all to ask ourselves. Do you believe your own words and gestures?

Rukeyser is an inspiring figure for me for a number of reasons.  As Adrienne Rich explained in her introduction to the Muriel Rukeyser Reader (a wonderful book edited by Jan Heller Levi in 1994, helping usher in a new generation of Rukeyser fans), “Any sketch of her life…suggests the vitality of a woman who was by nature a participant, as well as an inspired observer, and the risk-taking of one who trusted the unexpected, the fortuitous, without relinquishing choice or a sense of direction.” She was a young woman who had won the Yale Younger Poets Award at twenty-one and who had written about struggles for justice as a witness to events such as the Scottsboro trial in Alabama and the tragedy in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in which many workers died of the lung disease silicosis. In her early poems, she also served as witness to the Spanish Civil War and World War II, while bringing in autobiographical and mythic threads. By the late 1940s, Rukeyser was living as a single mother in San Francisco. As others have noted, Rukeyser served as a model for many writers as an artist for whom life and art were not separate things, and her voice in this collection expresses this idea. She is the artist as socially-engaged human being, as mother, daughter, lover, teacher. Rich again: “She wrote out of a woman’s sexual longings, pregnancy, night-feedings, in a time when it was courageous to do so, especially as she did it—unapologetically, as a big woman alive in mind and body, capable of violence and despair, as well as desire.” 


I set out to write about New Year’s intentions and having faith in oneself as an artist, as a whole-souled human, but when I went to look at Rukeyser’s work again, I spent the evening before New Year’s Eve immersed in it, not knowing what to write but basking in Rukeyser as model for a creative life, a woman’s life, and the bravery and unconventionality of that. 

Coincidentally, even as the Rukeyser lines from The Life of Poetry were rattling around in my mind, a friend sent me a photo of her poem “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” which he had read to his father at his bedside. The poem appears in Rukeyser’s first book Theory of Flight, published when she was just twenty-one, and the self-assuredness is startling. The first stanza reads:

Speak to me.     Take my hand.   What are you now?

I will tell you all.           I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair   :

a pink rabbit   :   it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.         

This is what Charles Simic called the “living voice” of poetry (in speaking about Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann). This is, in Rukeyser’s own conception of poetry, “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships” (quoted in Rich’s introduction).  Rukeyser’s voice reaches out to us from across time and space.  We take her hand.


I spent the morning of New Year’s Eve intending to work on this essay but instead messaging with three women writers I know, exchanging ideas for places to publish and giving each other encouragement to follow our threads of creative impulse, despite (or because) they were spilling across genre boundaries or becoming too weird for mainstream publications.  Protection, one friend said, was her word of the year, protection of her own time and energy for creative projects and encouragement of her women artist friends. It seems strange but not strange at all that the issues Rukeyser and Rich were writing about in their overlapping creative lives would still be with us—how women’s gifts can be protected and heard, how community is at the center of what is powerful about the arts, how the lives of working people and those who came before us and made our lives possible must be respected and witnessed. One conversation this morning ranged backward to our mothers and the work they did, the parallels we found in the stories of our mothers’ humble beginnings and stubborn, unlikely achievements. In another conversation, we situated ourselves as mother-artists, wondering about the degree of guilt we should feel about protecting our artist lives. 

No guilt! said my friend. Protection.  (But who does what labor? Who starts with which advantages? These are the questions that still tug at our minds, and that we should keep pondering as artists and citizens.) Still, we can relish the idea that our children will see their mothers working at the edges of their powers, finding art in the everyday.  This is an important one to hang onto. It was Rukeyser, after all, who wrote in the poem “Käthe Kollwitz”: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open.”


In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser wrote,“Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry. Are we to teach this? All we can show to people is themselves; show them what passion they possess, and we will have come to the poetry. This is the knowledge of communication, and it is the fear of it which has cut us down.” This book was published in 1948.

My intentions for 2019 are to become very still and to listen. To observe the world around me. To believe that my observations are worthwhile.  To allow the stillness necessary for a deep sort of noticing of my own desires and impulses. To believe my own words and gestures. To gently nudge my students in the direction of believing in their own interest in the world, believing that what they do and say is worthwhile. 

Believing in oneself, believing in community, believing in the redemption of poetry and art. These are heady intentions. As always, it helps to see it collectively, through the eyes of my community of artist friends and with the help of literary forebears. The last stanza ofRukeyser’s “Effort at Speech Between Two People” is a start:

What are you now?      If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle . . . yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving. . . . Take my hand.       Speak to me.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper

Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for the journal Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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