Ballad of Orange and Grape
Ballad of Orange and Grape
Muriel Rukeyser 1973
Muriel Rukeyser wrote “Ballad of Orange and Grape” toward the end of her long career. The poem reflects one of the central concerns of her life and art—the power of language to shape the world’s realities. Rukeyser was a pacifist and promoted many international social justice issues throughout her life. She always sought to express her political passions through her poetry, an attribute that made her stand out among women poets of her time.
“Ballad of Orange and Grape” takes the form of a ballad, telling a simple story in verse form. The speaker, a poet or thinker like the author, goes to a hot-dog stand in East Harlem at the end of a day’s work. After passing through a scene of urban squalor, she arrives at the hot-dog stand and encounters the vendor refilling two drink machines—clearly labeled orange and grape respectively—with the wrong flavor of beverage. This provides the poem’s central metaphor. Questioning such disregard for language, Rukeyser connects the vendor’s indifference with the inability of people in the neighborhood to take action to change their violent and depressed environment.
The poem was published in Rukeyser’s 1973 collection, Breaking Open and later appeared in several collections of her work. It is one of her better known poems. Critics are divided as to whether Rukeyser’s writing will stand the test of time. Some see her poetry as hampered by a naive or propagandistic message, while others, particularly feminists, view her as a renegade whose contributions to American poetry have yet to be fully appreciated.
Rukeyser was born in New York in 1913 to Lawrence and Myra Rukeyser, a conservative and well-off Jewish couple. Her parents provided her with many privileges of wealth, including a chauffeur and a private education. However, her parents’ unhappy marriage also contributed toward Rukeyser’s incipient pacifism. “The memories of emotional violence which she retained from her childhood must have colored her lifelong commitment to nonviolence, as surely as the graphic images from the battlefields of the Great War (World War II),” wrote Kate Daniels in her introduction to Out of Silence.
By her late teens Rukeyser had completely rejected her parents’ lifestyle, throwing herself into her writing and political commitments. She attended Vassar College for two years, then withdrew in 1932 in order to write full time. In 1933 she attended the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, an infamous case in which black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman. She was profoundly affected by the injustice she witnessed. She continued to travel as an advocate against injustice of all kinds, which took her from West Virginia, where she protested unsafe working conditions for miners, to Spain, where she protested the holding of the Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. She published her first, highly acclaimed volume of poetry, Theory of Flight, in 1935, which reflected many of these experiences. During the 1930s, when Rukeyser was in her twenties, she, like many other New York writers and intellectuals, joined the Communist party. By the end of the decade she had cut ties with the party, adopting politics of non-partisan pacifism that is evident throughout her body of work.
Rukeyser wrote prolifically and successfully until single motherhood slowed her productivity. She had a very brief marriage and then, in 1947, became pregnant out of wedlock by a man whose identity she never disclosed. In order to support her son, she took a job teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. Her position there was threatened when, in the conservative tenor of the 1950s, her ties to the Communist party were investigated, but the college supported her and she was able to retain her post. In the 1960s, when her son was grown and the mood of the country had become more sympathetic to her political activism, her career had a renaissance. Rukeyser published more frequently and remained politically active. She was once jailed for her participation in a Vietnam War demonstration.
In her sixties and in poor health, Rukeyser traveled to South Korea to protest the death sentence of a dissident poet. She based her last major poem, “The Gates,” published in 1976, on this experience. Rukeyser died in 1980.
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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Introducing the speaker, the opening stanza uses the second-person voice, describing the speaker as “you.” This strategy aligns readers with the speaker and places them in the midst of the action of the poem. The stanza also introduces the brief story the poem will tell by situating it in time. “You” walk to a nearby hot-dog stand “after you finish your work, after you do your day.” For this second-person speaker, work entails reading and writing, activities that are intellectual and solitary. Such work might well describe that of a poet like Rukeyser, and the speaker may be understood as loosely autobiographical.
The repetition of the word “after” in lines 1-4 emphasizes the contrast between such intellectual work and the visit to the hot-dog stand that is the main subject of the poem. While the speaker’s work is described in general and abstract terms, Rukeyser is very concrete and specific in her description of the world the speaker enters as she sets out on her walk. In this opening stanza, Rukeyser describes the neighborhood in which the speaker lives in terms of its geographical location and its broad historical context: “East Harlem in the twentieth century.” This contrast between the abstract and the concrete is only the first of a series of pairs of opposite terms, or binaries, that Rukeyser sets up throughout the poem. Thus she subtly introduces the poem’s theme of difference. The fact that the unpaired last line of the stanza (line 7) breaks the abcbdb paired rhyme scheme, as it does in each stanza to follow, further underscores the idea of difference.
The poem’s second stanza describes the cityscape that the speaker passes through on her way to the hotdog stand. It is a scene of urban squalor, suggesting poverty and other related social ills, such as substance abuse and violence. Most of the focus is on this threatening and depressing environment. But there is an implicit contrast between the speaker, who lives a life of the mind as she works all day, and the very tangible physical attributes of the street she walks—a contrast between the intellect and the world. The speaker herself is referred to only once, again in the second-person, in a vulnerable relation to a loitering man whom she passes “who’d like to break your back.” The longer, unpaired last line of the stanza (line 14) again introduces contrast: “But here’s a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose and pink, too.” They are not threatening or hopeless, as are the other images in this stanza. In this one line, three warm colors are mentioned. Through the woman and girl, the more positive and hopeful attributes of the environment are associated with femininity.
In this stanza the speaker arrives at the hot-dog stand. Here she encounters the vendor with whom she will engage in a kind of philosophical debate for the rest of the poem. It is significant that in this stanza the speaker shifts from a second-person to first-person voice. Rukeyser turns “you” into “I,” reversing the terms of a binary opposition. This stanza is also pivotal because it introduces the poem’s central metaphor: “the usual two machines” for dispensing drinks, “the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty.” Seen by the speaker in the most abstract way, these everyday items represent the distinctions made possible through the labels of language. Line 21, the last line of the stanza introduces the figure of a “black boy” who wanders through the scene. His racial labeling as “black” (as opposed to “brown” in the stanza above) is a concrete example of how language is used to make either/or distinctions that have real social significance.
In these lines the speaker describes the action that informs the central idea of the poem. She observes the hot-dog vendor refilling the drink machines. Paying no heed to the words on the machines that make a clear distinction between the two flavors, he puts the grape drink in the one marked orange, and vice versa. This stanza, through its repetition and capitalization of the words “orange” and “grape,” emphasizes the relationship between language and reality. The words are “large and clear, unmistakable,” but that does not mean that they reflect reality.
In this stanza the speaker interprets the events described in the preceding stanza in the form of a series of questions posed to the hot-dog vendor, interrogating his disregard for language. She asks him, how can we come to understand anything, “How can we go on reading and make sense of what we read,” if people pay so little heed to so simple and clear a distinction as that between orange and grape? This refers back to her own work as a reader and writer. In the next question, she frames the issue more broadly, in terms of the children in the neighborhood and their ability to have faith in the knowledge that is communicated through language: “How can they write and believe what they’re writing, / the young ones across the street?” In the stanza’s closing lines she expands on her point about the faith in knowledge that comes from reading and writing to encompass “what we say” (another form of language) and also, crucially, “what we do.” For Rukeyser, writing poetry is a political act that has real impact on the world; abstract concepts shape lived reality.
The hot-dog vendor’s response to this series of questions is to shrug and smile. He is indifferent to
- A film concerning Rukeyser, Three Women Artists: Anna Sokolow, Alice Neel, Muriel Rukeyser, by Lucille Rhodes and Margaret Murphy, is available on a 1998 videotape distributed by Kultur.
her passionate attachment to the integrity of language and the distinctions it enables us to make. He doesn’t seem to see her point. But his indifference toward the meaningful distinction between the categories of orange and grape could just as well be, she suggests, an indifference toward the distinction between the opposing terms in “any binary system,” including “violence and nonviolence,” “white and black,” “women and men.” These distinctions, as Rukeyser has subtly illustrated earlier in the poem, have a huge impact on life in East Harlem in the twentieth century. The ability to have faith in the meaning and integrity of language makes the difference between “what we do and what we don’t do.” Again, Rukeyser connects language to action.
Rukeyser closes the poem with a descriptive stanza that has a somewhat looser form than the previous ones. The rhyme scheme, which is always broken in the last line, is further attenuated in this stanza by the slant rhyme between “rape,” “hope,” and “GRAPE.” This loosening of the rhyme scheme points up the chaos of the urban setting: “garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape, / forgetfulness, a hot street of murder, / misery, withered hope.” These are the concrete human repercussions of people’s indifference to language and its potential to effect change. The poem closes by reiterating the hot-dog vendor’s central symbolic action, projecting him pouring grape into orange and orange into grape “forever.” Thus, Rukeyser suggests that action and change are not possible until people—everyone, not just poets and intellectuals—understand and respect the integrity of language.
Topics for Further Study
- Why do you think Rukeyser starts the poem in a second-person voice and then shifts to the first-person?
- How are the rhymes important to the overall meaning of the poem? Why does Rukeyser choose not to rhyme certain lines?
- Do you think that it is true, as a general rule, that one should aim to accurately reflect reality when writing or speaking? Describe an instance when it is especially crucial to do so. Or describe an example of when playing with or distorting words’ meaning is worthwhile or valid.
- Do some research to find out what the daily conditions of life were like for people living in East Harlem in the period when Rukeyser wrote. How effective a statement is the poem about these conditions?
- Idenitify the various political causes and movements with which Rukeyser was affiliated. Choose one that seems appropriate, research it, and explore how its tenets relate to the themes of “Ballad of Orange and Grape.”
The poem tells a simple story about the speaker visiting a hot-dog stand in East Harlem. There the hot-dog vendor refills two drink dispensers with the wrong flavor beverages, putting grape in the one marked orange, and vice versa. Rukeyser uses this action as an example of indifference to language’s power.
The central metaphor in the “Ballad of Orange and Grape” is the pair of dispensers that a vendor fills with the wrong flavor of drink. He disregards the “unmistakable” words that mark the difference between grape and orange, committing what the speaker sees as a blow against language’s integrity and, therefore, our power to use language to shape our world in constructive ways. The basic property that lends language its power is its ability to allow people to make distinctions and conceptualize differences. If people are indifferent to this power, Rukeyser suggests, impoverished and violent social conditions, like those that pertain in the environment she describes, will remain. If here, in the violent and economically depressed neighborhood where we live, we see orange drink in the machine marked grape and vice versa, she asks, how can we have faith in any words that we read or write, hear or say? How, therefore, can we make meaningful distinctions between the terms of far more crucial binaries, such as violence and nonviolence, war and peace, love and hate? And how can we make sense of the categories of difference that organize and stratify our society, such as men and women, black and white? Earlier in the poem, Rukeyser obliquely raises the issues of racial and gender difference in relation to the bleak conditions of the neighborhood. She also refers to the presence of violence in the lines “a man who’d like to break your back,” “rape,” and “a hot street of murder.” She argues that respecting the difference between orange and grape is one step toward shaping reality and changing its ills and inequities.
Language and Meaning
Rukeyser sees language, properly used, as an important tool for understanding reality and also for shaping it and effecting change. The poem’s speaker rails against the hot-dog vendor for his indifference toward the meaning of the words “grape” and “orange.” Such indifference toward language’s meaning has huge repercussions for Rukeyser. In stanzas five and six she describes how such indifference erodes everyday people’s faith in language (she speaks as part of a collective “we”) as an accurate reflection of the larger world’s reality. “How can we go on reading / and make sense of what we read?” the speaker asks. “How can they write and believe what they’re writing, / the young ones across the street?” If people see that, in its everyday use, orange really means grape, and vice versa, then maybe love really means hate and war really means peace. For Rukeyser such reversals undermine language’s power as an instrument of political change. She goes on to claim that the integrity of language’s meaning is necessary not only for knowledge, but also for the action that brings about change, “what we do and what we don’t do.” In the last stanza, she uses a list of nouns to describe the disorganized, powerless, and therefore nearly hopeless atmosphere of the East Harlem neighborhood. Its denizens are hampered from drawing meaningful distinctions by a disregard to language and its power as represented by the man pouring orange into grape and grape into orange “forever.”
Order vs. Disorder
Order and disorder are often important ideas in poems with irregular rhyme and meter schemes, like the “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” Rukeyser, who most often wrote in free verse (poetry that is not strictly structured), uses a fairly structured form of seven stanzas of seven lines each. The lines are in rhyming pairs, except for the longer, extra seventh line in each stanza that breaks the pattern, sounding irregular. This introduces an element of disorder. The poem’s structure is, of course, integrally related to its content. Indeed, one of the poem’s important themes relates the social disorder in East Harlem to the disorder or confusion between binary terms in language. When the vendor pours the wrong flavor drink into the two drink dispensers, he undermines language by breaking its order. The drinks are, one might say, disorganized. Rukeyser attributes great significance to this, using it as an example: once language’s categories are violated, meaning is undermined and action and change are impossible. The poem’s last stanza is its loosest, in terms of both grammar and rhyme. It takes the form of a list of varied but disorganized images. This stanza illustrates the disorder of a social world that has no faith in language and the paralysis that comes with it.
As identified in its title, Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape” takes its form from the musical and literary genre of the ballad. Arising in the late Middle Ages, ballads were originally short folk songs telling concise stories. The literary ballad, growing out of the musical form, borrows certain stylistic elements from song. For example, they often tell emotionally charged stories and repeat significant words or lines. Early literary ballads employed a specific form—four-line stanzas with iambic lines of seven accents in rhymed pairs (abcb, defe, etc.) In the twentieth century, with the growing domination of free verse, these formal features of literary ballads became less important. However, many modern ballads still employ some pattern of rhyme and repetition, in keeping with the form’s musical roots. Most ballads bear some resemblance to songs, and songwriters continue to employ the ballad form often as well.
“Ballad of Orange and Grape” is a typical modern ballad. It tells a short, compact story in verse form. Playing on the ballad’s history of emotionally heightened narrative, the poem takes a seemingly mundane event—visiting a hot-dog stand—and places it as the center of the story, and endows it with great significance. While Rukeyser is known mostly as a free-verse poet, this poem has a clear structure and rhyme scheme that bears some relation to the ballad’s heritage through its use of rhymed pairs. There are seven stanzas of seven lines in “Ballad of Orange and Grape”, with the first six lines in rhymed pairs and with the last, non-rhyming line unpaired and longer than the rest (abcbdbe). The last line in each stanza stands out to the ear for this reason and suggests a contrast or shift. Though Rukeyser does not repeat any line at regular intervals, as in a traditional ballad, she does repeat phrases that describe the central action of the man pouring grape into orange and orange into grape in the fourth and seventh stanzas.
Idealism and Apathy in the 1970s
Critic Jascha Kessler stated that reading Rukeyser’s Collected Poems is “like rereading the last forty years, not in terms of the arts or even history, but in terms of the events and issues that are most typical of the times.” “Ballad of Orange and Grape” reflects the integrative sense of historical time for which Rukeyser is known, offering a representative event that reflects the larger spirit of the historical moment.
The poem is set in time generally, “in the twentieth century,” suggesting that the poet’s concern for language is not tied to a particular decade or period, but to the shifts represented by the whole century. However, the social and political climate at the particular time Rukeyser wrote doubtless shaped the vision of lost faith that she puts forth in the poem. When the poem was published in 1973, the legacy of the liberalizing political movements of 1960s continued, but with their idealism severely hampered in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The politically active set of which Rukeyser was part struggled on, but with considerably less optimism than they had had in the years
Compare & Contrast
- 1973: The last American troops are withdrawn from Vietnam, ending a period of great social unrest associated with anti-war activism.
1990: Iraq invades Kuwait under the command of President Saddam Hussein. The U.S. responds by working through the United Nations and sending troops to Saudi Arabia. Amidst protest from other governments, the U.S. and allies attack Iraq and liberate Kuwait. Public sentiment in America is strongly in favor of the display of U.S. military might. Hussein remains in power.
- 1973: In a decision known as Roe v. Wade the U.S. Supreme Court declares unconstitutional state laws that prohibit abortion up until the sixth month of pregnancy. Feminists hail the decision as one of the most significant strides for women’s rights of the century.
1990s: After decades of being legal, abortion remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues in American politics. In some parts of the country there are no health care providers who will perform abortions. The number of abortions performed is in decline.
- 1973: President Richard Nixon denies any knowledge of the illegal events surrounding the
Watergate scandal, in which members of his administration have been indicted. Televised hearings rivet public attention. A year later, among calls for his impeachment, Nixon resigns.
1999: President Bill Clinton, after initially denying an extra-marital affair with a young intern, admits to some sexual contact with her. Because he stated in a separate case that they had had no sexual relations, he is impeached by Congress for lying under oath. Impeachment means to accuse and try a government official. Clinton undergoes an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, but the charges fail to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority of votes needed to remove the president from office.
- 1973: Already facing economic troubles, Americans confront an energy crisis that leads to high prices and rationing. Combined cutbacks in gas, home heating, and transportation fuel lead to the loss of an additional 100,000 U.S. jobs.
2000: Amidst a period of unprecedented economic prosperity in the United States, the price of petroleum products surges. Home heating fuel and gasoline prices nearly double in some parts of the country.
before. Public cynicism was generally high, with the fiasco of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal in the White House undermining faith in government. In a 1975 survey, 69% of Americans said they believed that over the past decade leaders had consistently lied to the people.
The 1970s were, furthermore, a time of severe economic problems for the United States. This brought a conservative backlash as well as urban riots and white flight to the suburbs. While the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s had led to significant legislative changes, it failed to translate into greater economic equality for people of color in the 1970s. Feminism was perhaps the most vital social movement of the decade, but it too failed to bring economic equality for women. In the 1970s, the American underclass was increasingly black and female.
In contrast to its general historical setting, the poem is set in a very particular geographical place, East Harlem. At the time when Rukeyser wrote the poem she was working with the Writers’ and Teachers’ Collaborative, which was located in East Harlem. The poem is likely based on an autobiographical anecdote. Rukeyser was born in New York and never ranged far from her hometown. “Ballad of Orange and Grape” reflects her intimacy with the city’s geography and social history.
East Harlem is adjacent to but distinct from the better known neighborhood of Harlem. In the 1880s cheap apartments sprang up in the formerly rural area to house an influx of immigrants. It has remained a poor immigrant neighborhood, though its ethnic makeup has changed. In the first decades of the twentieth century East Harlem was known as a Jewish ghetto. Along with the neighboring Harlem, it formed the second-largest Jewish community in the United States. Puerto Ricans began to move into East Harlem over the next few decades, and white immigrants slowly moved out. Because of its Latino population, it is now sometimes known as “El Barrio.” However, reflecting the racial diversity of the United States, East Harlem has been home to many blacks and Italians as well as Latinos in recent decades. As a poor immigrant neighborhood, East Harlem has borne more than its share of social ills. Poor housing, unemployment, and poverty have long been associated with this struggling, but vital neighborhood.
Rukeyser earned early praise as a poet, winning a Yale Younger Poet’s Prize for her first volume, Theory of Flight, published when she was only twenty-two, followed by a series of other awards and honors in the 1940s. Known as an outspoken activist in the words of Poetry magazine’s Linda Gregerson, led a “lifelong campaign against the conventional partitioning of thought and action,” her poetry is often evaluated through the lens of politics, and her critical reputation has risen and fallen accordingly. While her career flourished in the 1940s, it faded during the conservative 1950s, rose in the radical 1960s, and fell again after her 1980 death. Some signs of a critical reevaluation of Rukeyser’s place in American letters are taking place, as evidenced in new collections of her poetry published in the 1990s as well as a laudatory collection of essays on her work, How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? published in 1999.
Breaking Open, the 1973 volume in which “Ballad of Orange and Grape” first appeared, received generally positive reviews, though some critics had reservations. Peter Meinka of the New Republic interprets the collection’s title: “What Rukeyser is breaking open are the living moments of her life, our lives, a conscious affirmation of the meaning and energy that our best poetry has always given us.” He goes on to call the volume “a testament to human toughness and compassion, even against overwhelming odds.” J. J. McGann of Poetry likes the collection but is less effusive, writing that “Breaking Open shows no diminishment of her early [technical] mastery…. Yet the book is decidedly uneven.” Though Breaking Open is not one of Rukeyser’s most frequently discussed collections, “Ballad of Orange and Grape” has appeared in all of the major anthologies reviewing her career, identifying it as one of the volume’s strongest poems. It has also been included in a number of poetry anthologies and other collections.
Some critics find Rukeyser’s political messages too heavy-handed or not sufficiently timeless to be the substance of great poetry. Some of her lines “appear politically naive at this distance from the turbulent times in which they were written,” stated a Publisher’s Weekly critic in a 1992 review of her Collected Poems. She has been embraced by feminist critics, who sometimes claim that she has been under-credited for her talent because she exceeded certain boundaries set for the female poet. “Rukeyser’s desire to transform herself from a silenced member of an oppressed group into a powerful spokesperson for herself and other women led her to break many of the barriers and taboos that impeded the development of women’s writing earlier in the century,” writes editor Kate Daniels in her introduction to the Rukeyser collection Out of Silence.
Many scholars and critics have connected Rukeyser’s poetic vision with that of Walt Whitman. In a 1974 retrospective article on her career in American Poetry Review Virginia R. Terris placed Rukeyser in the tradition of nineteenth-century American Transcendentalism, a literary movement of which Whitman was part. “Her reliance on primary rather than on literary experience as the source of truth,” according to Terris, ties Rukeyser “to her forebears in the nineteenth century.” Terris added: “At the same time, through her highly personal contemporary voice, they project her into our era” and secure her a place as “one of its most important figures.” Terris explored the connections between Whitman and Rukeyser in what was then her most recent collection, Breaking Open, arguing that “both poets recognize the variety within unity. For each, the self is the One but also the Many, all mankind is joined mystically and is thus one, and each human being partakes of the life of every other human being, living and dead and yet unborn, in all cultures and in all lands.” In another comparison to Whitman, a Library Journal reviewer summed up Rukeyser’s career in a way that reflects on the meaning and method of “Ballad of Orange and Grape”: “Her muse demanded that she pay as much attention to the shared, literal world as the world of literature, so, like Whitman, she personalized the public events of her time.”
Sarah Madsen Hardy
Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literature and is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses Rukeyser’s ideas about the relationship between language, power, and morality in “Ballad of Orange and Grape.”
In “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” Muriel Rukeyser suggests that a hot dog vendor’s indifference to language when he pours an orange drink into a machine labeled “grape” and grape drink into a machine labeled “orange” is part of a larger moral problem. For her, social ills in the East Harlem neighborhood of which she writes can be attributed to people’s lack of faith in the meaning of language. In this atmosphere of lost faith, morally loaded categories that should be distinct, such as “war and peace” and “love and hate,” start to blur. Without going so far as to compare the two acts, Rukeyser connects them using the wrong word to connote acts of physical violence. The prevalence of real, physical violence named in the poem’s last stanza, “rape, forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,” can be related to the casual, everyday ’violence’ that people like the hot dog vendor do to language. This seems like a polemical claim, perhaps even a hyperbolic one. This essay explores and questions the ideas about language, power, and morality that Rukeyser voices in “Ballad of Orange and Grape.”
Rukeyser, who was born during World War I and came of age during World War II, was sensitive to violence in all its forms. Her life spanned much of the century and she saw herself as a spokesperson of causes surrounding its crises. In another work entitled “Poem” dated from the 1940s she states, “I lived in the century of world war.” Rukeyser was a well-known pacifist, and her strong leftist political views grew out of a sense of outrage at the violence of the times in which she lived. Though “Ballad”’s setting is portrayed in specific detail and can be connected to specific biographical facts of her life, Rukeyser describes the events of the poem in sweeping terms as taking place “in the twentieth century.” The shocking violence of the World Wars of Rukeyser’s childhood and youth—experienced by her and other Americans at an arm’s length, mediated by press reports—shaped her view of morality and her understanding of the power of language. It is through this lens that she observes East Harlem of the 1970s in “Ballad.”
Rukeyser saw her lifelong commitment to pacifism as inextricable from her work as a poet. Though Rukeyser was affiliated with Marxism and the Proletariat School of Poetry in the earliest part of her career, she soon broke off from any specific school of political thought or poetic style to exhort readers in her own individualistic voice. Louise Kertesz, who wrote The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (1980), one of the first book-length studies of her work, describes how Rukeyser bucked all of the dominant trends in modern poetry—irony, alienation, and an increasing interest in form—to write out of a highly personal mission of meaning, hope, and social change. Kertesz quotes Rukeyser, writing in the wake of the discovery of the concentration camps at the end of World War II, describing the poet’s role on the world stage: “The war for those concerned with life, the truth which is open to all, is still ahead. It is a struggle in which poetry also lives and fights.”
This vision of the poet as a fighter is one that, Kertesz argues, “explains the remarkable thrust of her work to the present.” As a pacifist, Rukeyser participates in the century’s wars with a pen rather than a sword. In “Poem,” Rukeyser goes on to describe the poet’s task in this century of world war. She has a heroic vision of her vocation that can be traced back to Whitman—a belief that the poet belongs in the public sphere, speaking and writing in an emphatic voice that people can understand and to which they respond more emotionally and morally than intellectually or aesthetically. “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,” she writes in “Poem.” It is the poet’s job, according to Rukeyser, to use language in a way that fosters meaning and creates new possibilities for change and hope—or, as she writes in the same poem, “to construct peace, to make love.” To do less—to use language in a way that nullifies meaning—is a form of destruction that colludes with the forces of violence and exploitation. And for Rukeyser, such forces are always readily and clearly identifiable, as “unmistakable” as the labels on the two drink machines in “Ballad.”
But the context and the tone of 1973’s “Ballad” are radically different from those of “Poem.” The poem takes place here in the United States, in a neighborhood the poet/speaker inhabits. Rukeyser attempts to apply the moral vision forged by her abhorrence of the World Wars to a more subtle and intimate local situation—a poor neighborhood in which the speaker works. Though the poem is, in some ways, a exhortation typical of her earlier style, an older and perhaps wearier Rukeyser recognizes that the poet’s work of making meaning and therefore bringing about social change is in many ways ineffectual, even in a modest local context. She wrote the poem while she was involved with the Writers’ and Teachers’ Collaborative in East Harlem, an effort through which Rukeyser expressed her commitment to pass along a sense of poetic mission to the underprivileged. Thus, when the speaker asks the vendor “How can we go on reading / and make sense out of what we read?— / How can they write and believe what they’re writing, / the young ones across the street?” she sees him as a force eroding the values of empowerment through language that Rukeyser tried to foster among the East Harlem youth.
If Rukeyser’s vision of the poet is that of a valiant fighter, what is the speaker fighting for in “Ballad”? She fights for faith—belief in language as a system of signs that is intrinsically moral. If the word orange can really mean grape and vice versa, then humanity has no way to sort out right from wrong, to recognize moral truths. Without being able to make clear moral distinctions, action and change are impossible. Thus, the poem concludes, the dilapidated neighborhood will continue on its entropic course. With black-and-white language distinctions muddied by the hot dog vendor’s mixing of orange and grape, what is left to stop the young ones across the street from continuing on the course of deprivation, addiction, and crime that they see around them? The threatening atmosphere that stanza two describes—boarded-up windows, a Cadillac sticking out of a “crummy garage,” a menacing drug addict “who’d like to break your back,” all contrasted with the hopeful, vulnerable image of a woman and girl dressed in rose and pink—is interpreted in stanza five as the result of a paralysis in moral distinctions brought about by indifference to language. If we can’t distinguish the orange from the grape, the purity from the garbage, the good from the bad, “How are we
“She has … a belief that the poet belongs in the public sphere, speaking and writing in an emphatic voice that people can understand and to which they respond more emotionally and morally than intellectually …”
going to believe what we read and we write and we hear and we say and we do?” Ignorant of or indifferent to language’s meaning-making power and, therefore, to its moral implications, the hot dog vendor indirectly perpetuates the cycle of violence and exploitation in the neighborhood. The last stanza creates a depressing picture of the neighborhood’s fate illustrated through the melding of contrasting categories. In this unwholesome place, “a deep smile” is followed by “rape.” Rukeyser’s last word, “forever,” is a bitter one for this poet of hope.
The question for Rukeyser is not related to her view of language as intrinsically moral, but to her valuation of the binary nature of language. She rejects the vendor’s shrug toward the difference between orange and grape as the equivalent of his dismissal of any binary or “two-part” system, such as that which allows people to say either yes or no, to either act or not act on a community’s behalf. While irony—a literary trend that Rukeyser bucked for her entire career—has often been associated with a politics of apathy, it does point toward a more complex, multiple view of meaning in language—a “third part” to meaning, that hovers between yes and no, either and or. In the high literary modernism of the 1940s against which Rukeyser reacted, irony may have been largely apolitical, but this is not the case with the popular culture of the 1970s, a context far more relevant to the East Harlemites of whom Rukeyser writes. Suppose the vendor is not being indifferent, but ironic? Ironic reversals in meaning are a common feature of the vernacular of oppressed groups. In this case, the vendor’s undermining of the distinction between
What Do I Read Next?
- Readers wishing to get a sense of the breadth of Rukeyser’s writing career should begin with A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi. This compilation includes highlights from Rukeyser’s eleven volumes of poetry as well as a provocative array of her songs, lectures, and biographical writings.
- Theory of Flight, published when she was only twenty-two years old, was Rukeyser’s daring and highly praised literary debut. It is still among her most frequently discussed collections of poetry.
- The poet to whom Rukeyser is most often compared is Walt Whitman, an impassioned voice of the democratic American spirit and an inventor of free verse. His classic collection Leaves of Grass was one of Rukeyser’s strongest influences.
- No More Masks!, an anthology of feminist poetry edited by Florence House and Ellen Bass, takes its name from a line in a Rukeyser poem. This volume places Rukeyser in the context of an emerging tradition of feminist poets.
- Adrienne Rich shares with Rukeyser a strong belief in the political relevance of poetry. Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language is a critically acclaimed collection of poetry addressing themes of oppression, feminism, sexuality, and motherhood.
orange and grape could be seen as a symbol of rebellion, a gesture toward undermining the categories that unequally divide the social world of East Harlem, “black and white, women and men.”
Rukeyser saw her role as a poet globally. She wrote sweepingly, passionately, and personally of her century and her world, drawing daring parallels between the self and the universe in a Transcendentalist tradition. But there is a flip side to such heroically vast vision. It tends to obliterate the diversity and complexity of the local. Thus it is, for me, as a poem of place that “Ballad” falters. Its speaker does not acknowledge that she is not really a member of the East Harlem community or admit that she may not be attuned to its own, particular brand of language use with its own unique and unappreciated powers.
Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Taibl has a master’s degree in English writing and writes for a variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the interplay of opposing words, such as good and evil, in “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” and how the poem questions and celebrates the complex meanings of words.
With The Theory of Flight, published in 1935, Muriel Rukeyser, at a mere twenty-one years-old, entered the poetry scene as a full blown “spokes-poet.” As a voice for women and the marginalized (those outside the mainstream) of society, Rukeyser strove from the very beginning to share her political and social visions of humanitarian action. The collection won her the Yale Younger Poets award and launched her career as a political poet. From the beginning, Rukeyser has melded her career and passion as a writer with her political activism. Separating life from politics, for Rukeyser, is like separating life from poetry, which she viewed as being impossible. Thirty-eight years after Theory of Flight, came Breaking Open, a continuation of Rukeyser’s political convictions through powerful images. Critics have likened reading Rukeyser’s work to reading the history of her times. She is stubborn in her loyalty to current social struggles and honest in her frustrations. She is a poet of witness, training her readers to be witnesses.
Her collection of essays and elegies, Life of Poetry, offers keen insight into the goals and struggles of the poet as an agent of culture and change. In the text, Rukeyser notices “how in our culture every quality is set against another quality.” She discusses how good and evil, for example, are taken as opposites, not as two problems in their “interplay.” “Ballad of Orange and Grape” is one of many poems that explore this theory of perceived opposites. Rukeyser stretches the language, and questions the meanings of words. Is orange really orange? What is orange exactly, and, more deeply, what does it mean and how did it get that way? Rukeyser explores the time after people discover that nothing is as it seems. The poem asks, “How are we going to believe what we read and we write and we hear and we say and we do?” Ultimately, “Ballad of Orange and Grape” leads readers not to the horrifying loss of meaning but to the possibility of things. She leads readers to make connections, at once horrifying and inspiring, in “Ballad of Orange and Grape.”
“Ballad of Orange and Grape” requires the reader to encounter the rhythm of the ballad as it sweeps into a landscape of opposites. Rukeyser, who preferred writing in long, free-flowing, un-rhymed verse, uses the ballad form, rhymed every other line, to create a feeling of walking. The narrator is going down the street after a day of work. It is the “twentieth century.” These statements of setting in the first stanza place the reader in a time that is moving forward. The reader is “you,” a collective you, a fellow witness. At the second stanza’s “windows boarded up” the reader is already into another moment of the century, propelled by the rhythm of the text, which is a rhythm of discovery as the reader sees the windows, then the rats, the garage, and the Cadillac. The reader makes a steady path through the words and down the street, riding through the neighborhood as it reveals a raft of opposites: a rundown building and a Cadillac, an ominous “man who’d like to break your back” and a serene woman and child. There are things to be scared about and things to respect and desire.
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser wrote, “Outrage and possibility are in all the poems we know.” The poem suggests that these opposing forces, outrage and possibility, are life itself. The words simultaneously travel the street of poverty, drug addiction, and violence and the possibility of beauty in children and future hope. The poem pushes the reader to confront and unravel opposing systems, or binaries, in a way that is not always natural or comfortable. Opposing forces within consciousness are also revealed and confronted, as the reader wrestles with the poem. He or she walks along and discovers that words in connection with their meanings are infinitely complex.
The shock of complexity stops the poem in its tracks. The rhythm continues in the third stanza with “Frankfurter frankfurter,” but the repetition slows the thought. The emphasis implies uncertainty, as if asking, what is this name? What is a frankfurter? The ballad pushes the reader forward to the orange and grape soda machines, which are both empty. The reader will discover shortly that the words are also empty. They hold no meaning
“What is orange exactly, and, more deeply, what does it mean and how did it get that way?”
except that given to them through social construct. Orange soda is only made orange after it’s given the name orange. Before that it could just as well be purple or blue or pink.
The “I” in the poem faces the hot dog man “in between” the two machines. The “I” is an “eye,” seeing the emptiness of words, seeing words as containers for meaning for the first time and stuck between what is known and familiar and what is unknown and utterly mysterious. These words, and by default all words, are empty, just as the soda machines are empty.
The soda man fills the emptiness and propels the poem forward again, only to have it run circles around the words orange and grape. The wheels spin as he pours “in the familiar shape.” The words are familiar to the witness. Orange is orange and grape is grape, yet the man pours the opposites into one another. He pours “the grape drink into the one marked ORANGE and orange drink into the one marked GRAPE.” Perceptions fall apart. Even with the words grape and orange, “large and clear, unmistakable,” the familiar becomes convoluted.
Jane Cooper, a critic and scholar of Rukeyser’s work, wrote in the introduction to The Life of Poetry that Rukeyser, “liked to say that poems are meeting-places, and certainly as one composes a poem there is a sense of seeing farther than usual into the connection of things, and then of bringing intense pressure to bear on those connections, until they rise into full consciousness for oneself and others.” The road to consciousness in the poem is accepting that orange has just been poured into grape and grape has just been poured into orange; for all the reader knows, this is the way it is really supposed to be. This is the moment of enlightenment, the moment when a horrifying truth is revealed: meanings do not mean in the ways the witness believed. The meanings themselves are empty.
The witness, the “I,” enters the poem to rescue meaning, grasp after it, and question how a society can move forward without set constructs, set meanings for words, ideas and acts. The hot dog man shrugs his shoulders. He is not a witness to the revelation. It is not a big deal to him. His nonchalance fuels the “I,” as the poem explores binaries, or opposites. The poem asks what the world would do if “war” bled into “peace” a little bit, or “love” slipped just a tiny bit into “hate.” The “witness” in the poem, the “I,” is aggravated and maybe a bit afraid, as if saying there must be meaning we can all believe in. Rukeyser plays with the audience, suggests the “interplay” of words, and revels in the fact that life offers this conundrum. “Love” is in “hate.” “Violence” is in “non-violence.” Indeed, how can there be one without the other? If the world defines words according to their counterparts, meanings seep over boundaries. Rukeyser has fun with the reader, seeming to suggest that it is time to lighten up. As she pokes at the “I,” she is serious as well.
Rukeyser writes in The Life of Poetry, that through poetry, “we are brought face to face with our world and we plunge deeply into ourselves, to a place where we sense the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.” In the sometimes ugly words of the penultimate stanza, Rukeyser implies that words are at play with and in each other. She lets the opposing ideas breathe into one another and offer, in their “interplay,” another layer of meaning.
The whole concept of opposites breathing into each other is a source of great power for the marginalized. With the outrage of lost voice, there must also be possibility. Rukeyser seems to offer herself, as marginalized poet, that gift as well. The critic Michele Ware, writes in “Opening the Gates: Muriel Rukeyser and the Poetry of Witness,” that “Rukeyser’s work has been relegated until very recently to a kind of critical back water reserved for women writers long dismissed by a Modernist male poetic sensibility.” If Rukeyser harbors outrage at this neglect by a Western male dominated canon, she has also used it to discover her own possibility. Ware claims that the general critical consensus before 1974 was that Rukeyser’s work was too political, that her first person “posturings,” a word used frequently by the critic M.L. Rosenthal, were in love with themselves, and that the poems were full of exhortation and public promises. The tide changed after 1974, as Rukeyser’s name was mentioned in the ranks of female poets whose writing succeeded in propelling them into the ranks of “myth makers.” Her optimism, which was once so sharply criticized, became, as Michele Ware claimed, “a feminist denial of the Modernist male poetic system, a denial that attempts to defy limitation.” Her writing is a ballad of orange and grape. She defies the limitation of containers and allows meanings to move through and reside within each other.
In the final stanza of the poem, the opposing words are gone. In their place is the moment described in extreme. The place is East Harlem. There is “garbage,” “a deep smile,” “rape.” With every word and idea the reader is meant to feel or sense the opposite, because the opposite is always in the moment. There is possibility with outrage and outrage with possibility. They keep pouring into each other, as orange is poured into grape. Rukeyser brings life to the relations of word and meaning and defines the poem through its opposites. In The Life of Poetry, she wrote, “I have attempted to suggest a dynamics of poetry, showing that a poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world.” There is truth in “interplay,” and a chance at reformation and transformation. It is the experience of “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” and an experience, Rukeyser seems to say, of a life lived in poetry.
Source: Erika Taibl, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
David Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Composition at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines how the apparent weaknesses in a poem like “Ballad of Orange and Grape” can actually help enforce the poem’s overall message.
Relatively late in her long and illustrious life, in her second-to-last completed collection of poetry, Muriel Rukeyser produced a poem, “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” that was typical of her work. In this piece, like her best poems, Rukeyser slides effortlessly back and forth over the line that divides formal verse from informal thought. She escapes the categories that people rely on when they label serious art and seal it off somewhere, so that it won’t become mixed up with the personal musings of someone who is just thinking with a pen in hand. Getting this near to casualness, I believe, accounts for the unevenness of Rukeyser’s reputation since her death; she made poetry seem too easy.
A poem like “Ballad of Orange and Grape” seems to only touch on any sort of artistic design when it wants to, or when it remembers to, but not with a strong enough structure to make readers confident that the author is in control. As with all of Rukeyser’s best work, her detractors can believe that those who like the poet’s work are simple people able to vaguely recognize occasional rhythm and rhyme and think that nice thoughts are nice. Her supporters, on the other hand, are surprised to see how many people fail to understand that under the guise of simplicity Rukeyser was a wise old fox.
The best thing that can be said about any artistic work, and this poem in particular, is that it takes its own circumstances into account and includes the readers’ feelings about the work into their understanding of it. This is a poem about division, about dichotomies, about those lines that humans mentally draw in order to understand, or to control, or to conquer. Any sense that it doesn’t “belong” with serious poetry helps to draw attention to its point.
One thing often mentioned about Rukeyser’s work is the way she used it to bring factions together. In the preface to her Collected Poems, she used a basic example of how surprising it might have seemed to some that her publisher, McGraw-Hill, would put out her book, when at the time their reputation rested on publishing scientific texts. This situation suited her fine, Rukeyser wrote, because “I care very much about that meeting-place, of science and poetry.” The same wording appeared in Eileen Myles’ review of the 1997 reissue of Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. “Muriel Rukeyser,” Myles wrote, “unspools one of the most passionate arguments I’ve ever seen for the notion that art creates meeting places, that poetry creates democracy.” She went on to explain, “’Meeting-place’ is her mantra, and it means linking the public to a cumulative privacy of people, to living.”
The distinction between “cumulative privacy” and “the public” is that the first depends on seeing things (or even oneself) as an independent unit, separate from all others. The same goes for the concept of “meeting place.” A place by itself can stand complete, as a concept, but when it becomes a meeting-place it brings together different, distinct elements that usually stand alone. At the meeting-place they stand alone in each other’s presence.
The last two stanzas of “Ballad of Orange and Grape” bring together opposites. Rukeyser starts
“This is a poem about seeing beyond form, and it has to break its form to fully make its point.”
out with sets of opposites that are contradictory just because of semantics. Our language is arranged in such a way that a word often has an opposite word, which leads us to think the things represented by these words actually are opposites. The words here represent binary systems, the areas where things can only be either one or the other. There are a whole lot of divisions of this kind that are real and truthful: you are either inside of a room or out, unless you are one of those rare cases that linger in the doorway; an event either did or did not take place, provided that you define it well enough to rule out the idea that it “sort of happened”; someone is either dead or alive. The first examples that Rukeyser gives—white and black, women and men, love and hate, enemy and friend, etc.—are binary pairings. But these are just the first ones. Then the logic of seeing things in this binary way falls apart.
The later things are not pairs that we usually see linked together: garbage and reading, a deep smile and rape, forgetfulness and a hot street of murder. Are they opposites? They can be, if you look at them as opposites. Are they different ways of saying the same thing? They can be.
It doesn’t matter, one’s the same as the other, there is no rule requiring that these concepts must be defined. That is the attitude of the poem’s hot dog vendor, who ignores the labels on his drink machines and pours the wrong syrups into each. Apparently, he is not acting out of illiteracy, because once the mistake is pointed out he does nothing to fix it. It hardly seems that he is being completely subversive, either, as he would if he crossed them up on purpose just to contradict expectations and make people think. The shrug and the smile might be signs that this act is done as a joke, but he has no audience to play to. Most likely, this reversal was done out of laziness and carelessness, because he cannot see how it could make any difference to call one thing the other. The narrator does, though. Established as the sort of person who goes out for a hot dog only after the day’s work is done, this is a person who appreciates order and worries over the disorder that brings the woman and the little girl together in the same place as the back-breaker and the addicts.
The speaker of the poem has limits as to how much she thinks we should, on the one hand, live by socially stifling divisions, but also, on the other hand, how much we ought to ignore them. Knowing this, it helps to step back and look at the broader dichotomies (pairings of different things) played out in Rukeyser’s style. For instance, the first stanza talks about the poet in the second person, as “you,” not as “I.” As a poetic device to make readers feel involved in the poem, this technique has limits to its effectiveness. However, it picks up greater significance in the third stanza when the reference changes from “you” to “I.” This is the sort of change within the poem that earned Rukeyser a reputation for being uneven, unable to stay with the pattern that she herself set out. It does, though, fit the poem’s theme of sticking to labels (or not) perfectly. Many poems take readers to places they have never been before, making them live new situations that are dictated to them as “you,” but this poem, as a meditation on differences, is in its rights to act as a meeting-place for one person’s “you” and “I.”
The poem’s title identifies it as a ballad. Traditionally, a ballad is a folk tale about the exploits of some central character. This poem’s weary reader-and-writer fits that profile. Since the ballad is an ancient form, we associate it with the opportunity they give to examine exotic cultures, which is certainly something that this ballad offers. But while this poem starts off like many ballads, with its main character setting off on a quest (in this case, for a frankfurter), the quest disappears somewhere in the telling. The story disappears. It starts with someone going somewhere, bringing readers into their physical world, but it dissolves in the last stanzas into a chant about opposites. At the same time that this is happening, the rhyme scheme falters; it is undeniably bcbdbe in the first three stanzas, but in the fourth the rhyme is worn out, matching the words shape, GRAPE, and then GRAPE again. From there on the rhymes are approximate, at best: read / street / GRAPE, again / men / friend, rape / hope / grape. The inconsistency from the beginning of the poem to the end might be taken as a weakness, but only by readers who are not paying enough attention to the poem’s overall message.
I cannot say whether this harmony between subject matter and what appears to be clumsy execution is intentional. Since that pattern recurs time and again in Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry, it is probably not accidental here. Regardless of how it happened, “Ballad of Orange and Grape” is doing what it a poem is supposed to. This is a poem about seeing beyond form, and it has to break its form to fully make its point. It is a poem about opposites, and it has to introduce the vendor’s unclear thinking to balance out the poet’s clarity. In the end, a poem about order needs to flirt with disorder, even if it means that some readers might feel that the poet is out of control.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Cooper, Jane, The Life of Poetry, by Muriel Rukeyser, Paris Press, 1996.
Daniels, Kate, Introduction to Out of Silence, by Muriel Rukeyser, Northwestern University Press, 1997.
Gregerson, Linda, Poetry, Vol. 167, February 1996, pp. 292–97.
Kessler, Jascha, “The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser,” in Gramercy Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 and Vol. 4, No. 1, Autumn-Winter, 1979–80, pp. 27–9.
Library Journal, May 1, 1992.
McGann, J. J., Poetry, Vol. 125, October 1974, p. 44.
Meinka, Peter, New Republic, November 24, 1973, p. 25.
Myles, Eileen, “Fear of Poetry,” in The Nation, April 14, 1997.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1993.
Rukeyser, Muriel, The Life of Poetry, Paris Press, 1996.
Terris, Virginia R., “Muriel Rukeyser: A Retrospective,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 3, No. 3, May-June, 1974, pp. 10–15.
Ware, Michele, “’Opening the Gates’: Muriel Rukeyser and the Poetry of Witness,” in Women’s Studies, Vol. 22, No 3, June 1993, p. 297.
Herzog, Anne R. and Janet E. Kaufman, eds., “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, St. Martin’s, 1999.
A compilation of essays by nearly forty prominent poets and critics seeks to redress the neglect of Rukeyser’s work since her death in 1980. Selections include discussions of Rukeyser’s poetry and tributes to her as a woman and artist.
Kertesz, Louise, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, Louisiana State Press, 1979.
One of the few book-length treatments of Rukeyser, this study is appropriate for readers seeking a sustained, in-depth interpretation of Rukeyser’s career. It includes detailed information on critical reception and influences and also offers interpretations of specific poems.
Rich, Adrienne, “Beginners,” in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 1993, p. 12.
In this article Rich compares Rukeyser to two of the most highly esteemed American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. She suggests that, like Dickinson and Whitman, Rukeyser was too daring and innovative to be appreciated by critics in her own time.
Rukeyser, Muriel, The Life of Poetry, Current Books, 1949.
Rukeyser’s treatise on the meaning and purpose of poetry reflects her passionate commitment to both art and social justice. In this work she explains her motivations to write, as well as discussing the origins of American poetry and its social role.