Wednesday, April 11

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 11, 2012 8 comments

Many think of poetry as being uniformly introspective--about sensations and feelings. But some poetry has a far larger agenda. Activist poetry seeks to give voice to the voiceless, to paint a picture that stirs you to action.

Modernist poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-80) is probably best know for her poem sequence, "The Book of the Dead" (1938) which sought to bring national attention to the epidemic of silicosis--a deadly lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust in mines and factories that did not take adequate steps to protect workers.

Rukeyser's style feels prosy, in part to make it widely approachable. She wanted the widest audience possible, so that national opinion would be swayed and her readers would put pressure on leaders to regulate industries that were poisoning workers. Here are two sections from that poem sequence.

by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

I first discovered what was killing these men.
I had three sons who worked with their father in the tunnel:
Cecil, aged 23, Owen, aged 21, Shirley, aged 17.
They used to work in a coal mine, not steady work
for the mines were not going much of the time.
A power Co. foreman learned that we made home brew,
he formed a habit of dropping in evenings to drink,
persuading the boys and my husband—
give up their jobs and take this other work.
It would pay them better.
Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.
He went into the tunnel.

My heart my mother my heart my mother
My heart my coming into being.

My husband is not able to work.
He has it, according to the doctor.
We have been having a very hard time making a living since
this trouble came to us.
I saw the dust in the bottom of the tub.
The boy worked there about eighteen months,
came home one evening with a shortness of breath.
He said, 'Mother, I cannot get my breath.'
Shirley was sick about three months.
I would carry him from his bed to the table,
from his bed to the porch, in my arms.

My heart is mine in the place of hearts,
They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.

When they took sick, right at the start, I saw a doctor.
I tried to get Dr. Harless to X-ray the boys.
He was the only man I had any confidence in,
the company doctor in the Kopper's mine,
but he would not see Shirley.
He did not know where his money was coming from.
I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,
but even then he would not do anything.
I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,
the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,
he took the case after the pictures were made.
And two or three doctors said the same thing.
The youngest boy did not get to go down there with me,
he lay and said, 'Mother, when I die,
I want you to have them open me up and
see if that dust killed me.
Try to get compensation,
you will not have any way of making your living
when we are gone,
and the rest are going too.'

I have gained mastery over my heart
I have gained mastery over my two hands
I have gained mastery over the waters
I have gained mastery over the river.

The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.
They sent the lawyers down and the doctors down;
they closed the electric sockets in the camps.
There was Shirley, and Cecil, Jeffrey and Oren,
Raymond Johnson, Clev and Oscar Anders,
Frank Lynch, Henry Palf, Mr. Pitch, a foreman;
a slim fellow who carried steel with my boys,
his name was Darnell, I believe. There were many others,
the towns of Glen Ferris, Alloy, where the white rock lies,
six miles away; Vanetta, Gauley Bridge,
Gamoca, Lockwood, the gullies,
the whole valley is witness.
I hitchhike eighteen miles, they make checks out.
They asked me how I keep the cow on $2.
I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children's flour.
The oldest son was twenty-three.
The next son was twenty-one.
The youngest son was eighteen.
They called it pneumonia at first.
They would pronounce it fever.
Shirley asked that we try to find out.
That's how they learned what the trouble was.

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal
I come forth by day, I am born a second time,
I force a way through, and I know the gate
I shall journey over the earth among the living.

He shall not be diminished, never;
I shall give a mouth to my son.

Gauley Bridge
by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Camera at the crossing sees the city
a street of wooden walls and empty windows,
the doors shut handless in the empty street,
and the deserted Negro standing on the corner.

The little boy runs with his dog
up the street to the bridge over the river where
nine men are mending road for the government.
He blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street.

Railway tracks here and many panes of glass
tin under light, the grey shine of towns and forests:
in the commercial hotel (Switzerland of America)
the owner is keeping his books behind the public glass.

Postoffice window, a hove of private boxes,
the hand of the man who withdraws, the woman who
reaches her hand
and the tall coughing man stamping an envelope.

The bus station and the great pale buses stopping for
April-glass-tinted, the yellow-aproned waitress;
coast-to-coast schedule on the plateglass window.

The man on the street and the camera eye:
he leaves the doctor’s office, slammed door, doom,
any town looks like this one-street town.

Glass, wood, and naked eye: the movie-house
closed for the afternoon frames posters streaked with
advertise “Racing Luck” and “Hitch-Hike Lady”.

Whistling, the train comes from a long way away,
slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the gray air,
the hotel man makes a note behind his potted palm.

Eyes of the tourist house, red-and-white filing station,
the eyes of the Negro, looking down the track,
hotel-man and hotel, cafeteria, camera.

And in the beerplace on the other sidewalk
always one’s harsh night eyes over the beerglass
follow the waitress and the yellow apron.

The road flows over the bridge,
Gamoca pointer at the underpass,
opposite, Alloy, after a block of town.

What do you want – a cliff over a city?
A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?
These people live here.

What causes do you think might be well represented in activist poetry?


  1. Rukeyser is the author of one of my favorite lines, from "Poem": "I lived in the first century of world wars..."

  2. One perk of my job is I'm learning about so many authors I never studied in school, Rukeyser among them.

  3. Beautiful poetry. I've never read Rukeyser before. Thanks.

  4. You're welcome. And please stay tuned. This month, I'll be posting about lots of great poets most of the general public doesn't know.

  5. Any cause can serve as the spark for poetry. I think the main pitfall is didacticism--if one can avoid that, there's material for strong poetry.

    1. Good point. I think Rukeyser's documentary approach, in which she incorporates others' voices and stories can be a helpful way to avoid being preachy.

  6. That is such a sad poem story about the miners. So well done. I ache for the mother.

    Play off the Page

  7. I think the sparseness of the style--and the way Rukeyser writes in a variety of voices--heightens the empathy factor. It's stark and unsentimental and heartbreaking.