Speaking to Social Conscience: "Poem" by Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is another godmother for all women poets.  

She wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about he life?/ The world would split open.”  Well, we are telling the truth, and the world is splitting open.  The title of the all-time most popular anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks, also comes form Muriel.  For me, she is awesome as a poet of social conscience because she lived her radical political convictions, and was ready to go to jail for them, as well as writing about sex, pregnancy , nursing—all those taboo subjects.  Here is a poem of hopeful idealism and the fear that it is never enough.  A devastating poem for our time.



Copyrighted image





I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane.

The news would pour out of various devices

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves.  We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.


I lived in the first century of these wars.

Let's be friends

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  • Rukeyser remains a model of art and tenacity for me.  A wonderful, necessary choice.

  • Elizabeth Young

    I am thankful for this voice, a vivid and resonant voice, that we may understand through poet's voice the wisdom of her yesterdays.

  • Deborah Batterman

    A godmother, indeed, who opened my eyes to poetic possibility back in my college days. Hard not to be stopped by certain lines here. "I would call my friends on other devices;" times change, yes, but words with resonance take on even greater power with the passing years. Thank you for the reminder of this poem in these times.

  • Madhumati Manjunath

    Beautiful, tragic. In the world war, it was only the power hungry who were visible. The rest, helpless, just followed. We're lucky that we aren't living in such times. At least we have a voice.

  • Wendy Smith

    beautiful - using light to represent insanity and dark for sanity - a great flip of typical imagery. Poem still holds true in so many ways...

  • Widdershins

    Very evocative ... and imagine what would happen if EVERY woman told the truth about her life?