Over the course of a poetic career that kept her in the international spotlight for more than forty years, Muriel Rukeyser established a reputation for concern about social justice. This concern is evident in "St. Roach," which was published in her final book, The Gates, in 1976. On its surface, this poem is about the ways in which the poet was taught to view cockroaches with disgust and hatred, thinking of them only to plan ways to kill them. Not far below the surface, however, is a message about racial enmity or hostility. In the end, the poem offers a solution when the speaker looks at the cockroach and notices what is noble and beautiful about it.
While Rukeyser has not been considered a major poet by critics, her work remains just shy of the distinction and has nevertheless garnered a lasting critical respect. In the years since her death in 1980, various collections of Rukeyser's poems have gone in and out of print. "St. Roach" can now be found in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (2005).
Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York, New York, on December 15, 1913. Her father, Lawrence, was a concrete salesman, and her mother, Myra, was a housewife who had been a bookkeeper. Rukeyser attended high school at a
private school in the Bronx, the Fieldston School, and then went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie before moving back to New York City to attend Columbia University. After finishing college, she returned to Poughkeepsie, and her passion for progressive politics began to show. Rukeyser, along with Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Eleanor Clark, created a new literary magazine, Student Review, to compete with the mainstream Vassar Review. In 1932 Rukeyser traveled south as a reporter for Student Review to cover the trial of nine black men in Scottsboro, Alabama, who were accused of raping two white women in what was to become one of the most famous civil rights cases in the country's history. For the rest of her life, Rukeyser was committed to social issues, giving her vocal and financial support to the underdogs and dissidents in causes ranging from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. She wrote columns for the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the American Communist Party. She also wrote extensively about feminism and Judaism. Because of her strong political beliefs and her willingness to stand up for what she believed, Rukeyser was a divisive figure, often criticized by those on all sides of the political spectrum.
Her career as a poet started with acclaim when her first collection, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize and was then published by Yale University Press. Over the next forty-one years she wrote constantly, publishing poems, novels, translations, television scripts, biographies, and essays. Her notable works include the poetry collections U.S. One (1938), Elegies (1949), and The Speed of Darkness (1968) as well as the novel The Orgy (1965) and several unpublished plays. Almost all of her work reflected her social concerns and political situations of the times they were written in. She supported herself, first with office jobs and then, as her career developed, by teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Over the years, her writing won several prestigious awards, including the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award in 1941 and the Levinson Prize for poetry in 1947. She also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1942 and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Rukeyser suffered a stroke in 1964, at the age of fifty-one. The event did little to inhibit her writing or political activism, however, as she went on to travel to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and to South Korea to protest the planned execution of the poet Kim Chi-Ha. That visit, in 1975, inspired the poems in Rukeyser's collection The Gates, in which "St. Roach" was published. Rukeyser suffered another stroke in 1978 and was permanently disabled by it. She died in New York City in 1980.
"St. Roach" comprises three stanzas of varying lengths; at twenty-two lines, the first stanza is by far the longest, followed by the five-line second stanza and the four-line third stanza.
The poem begins with a form of address that implies that readers are joining the speaker in the middle of an ongoing conversation. The actual subject being addressed is not even identified within the poem, such that it must be assumed to be the roach, or cockroach, mentioned in the title.
The first two lines of the poem use negative observations to draw attention to how little the speaker has been taught about the cockroach. Both of these lines start with what could be positive associations, to know the cockroach and to touch it. However, they each end with the negative associations that were taught to the speaker as she was growing up: that the roach is to be dreaded and that it is filth. The third line does not have the split positive/negative feelings of the first two, instead going for one straightforward, extreme point. The speaker has been taught not to dislike or distrust the cockroach but to despise it—and not just certain elements about it but everything about it.
The poem's fourth line begins with the same words that begin the first two lines. It diverts from the pattern established by them, however, by extending the observation to a full line rather than a half. This line goes far to confuse the identity of the subject of the poem: while cockroaches can be unknown and untouched and despised, as in the previous lines, wars are usually fought between people. Readers are therefore given a clear indicator that, even as it speaks of attitudes toward cockroaches, this poem is hinting at human relations as well.
The speaker's response to observing the war on the cockroach is given in line 5, which repeats the poem's first idea of basic unfamiliarity. This line, according to the pattern, is connected to line 4, and its thought is also carried over into line 6, which explains the unfamiliarity as stemming from the speaker's childhood, lived in places that were kept clear of cockroaches.
Lines 7 through 9 contain one continuous thought. This thought is centered around the violent imagery of line 8, which uses the poem's most explicit language and images. Line 7 leads into this violence with the ironic reference to people meeting the subject, as if the acts that are to follow are going to be friendly actions. Line 9 completes the idea of pouring boiling water and then goes on to pair it with flushing cockroaches down toilets, keeping all of the water imagery on one line.
The idea of being unable to distinguish cockroaches from one another is brought up for the third time in line 10, using almost the same wording that was used in line 5. The following lines expand upon the idea that the poem is perhaps talking about cockroaches but is perhaps also talking about people. While the three words used to describe the cockroach in line 11 do describe insects, Rukeyser also indulges in humanizing them. The personification is even more pronounced in line 12, in which the poet draws a comparison between the physique of the cockroach and her own build. The fact that a person is built differently than a cockroach is obvious, but the perceived differences between members of one ethnic or racial group and another are worth giving some consideration. The poet's awareness of how she differs from her subject is only significant if her subject is another human being.
In the poem's center lines (lines 13 through 19), the personification of the cockroach is made unequivocally clear. Insects do not have poems, sayings, or language, but Rukeyser attributes all of these to the poem's subject. By this point, then, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that Rukeyser is actually writing about people. What is not made explicitly clear, however, is the identity of the people she is writing about. They are presumably a social group, a culture that would share the same language, sayings, and songs. As line 11 explains, they are dark, slender, and fast on their feet. These characteristics can describe many different peoples around the globe, and the poet does nothing to pinpoint any in particular. By leaving the identity of the group vague, Rukeyser indicates that the target of this poem is prejudice in general.
- Rukeyser reads from The Gates and talks about her life in a 1978 film called Muriel Rukeyser, produced by Perspective Films and available from Coronet/MTI Film and Video.
- "St. Roach" is read by Rukeyser on The Poetry and Voice of Muriel Rukeyser. Originally released in 1977 by Caedmon on an LP album, it is also available on audio cassette.
The question of how prejudice continues is brought up in lines 17 through 20. Previously, the speaker has focused on the fact that she was not taught to understand or appreciate the cultures of others. In line 17, she notes that she passes along the same insular worldview to children of the next generation. In noting what she fails to expose children to from the subject's culture, the speaker uses examples from the preceding lines—poems, from line 13, and songs, from line 16—but also adds a new, more essential element in talking about the food of the other culture.
In the last two lines of the first stanza, the speaker changes to using the first-person plural. She herself is thus presented more as an innocent party, a victim of her culture who was raised to know no better than the common prejudices, from earlier lines. However, her use of the pronoun we indicates that she has internalized the narrow-mindedness. This is particularly significant when line 21 is compared to line 2: In the earlier line, the speaker says that she was told of the filthiness of the people being discussed, while in line 21 she is one of those who is saying these derogatory things.
In the second stanza, Rukeyser shows how the prejudice that was drilled into her finally began to dissolve. What is more important is that she is putting aside the habit of seeing others, whether they are humans or insects, as a group, to instead pay particular attention to individual members of the group. In this instance, rather than approaching the subject with the preconceived notions that she was taught from her childhood, she let the evidence of her own senses tell her about the person she was observing. The high significance of this act is emphasized by the way Rukeyser says almost the same thing in two lines close together, lines 23 and 26.
In lines 24 and 25, the poem focuses on the issue of color in relation to prejudice. Having mentioned in line 11 that the other, the mysterious one that she had been trained to fear and loathe, was dark, she notes upon observing one particular example of cockroach or person that this one is not as dark as those that have been observed from afar. Line 25 makes a point of noting that this lightness is meaningless. A point of this poem is to show how distinctions such as those made by color or race are arbitrary; to say that darkness is better or that darkness is worse would contradict that point.
Line 26 repeats the same idea that was expressed three lines earlier, in line 23, giving emphasis to the speaker's amazement at how unaware of this aspect of her world she has been up to this point. In line 27, the speaker attributes complex mental processes to the one she is observing, far beyond the capabilities of a cockroach. If this poem were read as speaking strictly about cockroaches, as the title indicates it is, then it would be projecting human attributes onto a creature with an insect's intellectual capacity. If it is read as a metaphor for human relations, then the recognition that the subject is troubled and witty represents a willingness to accept the truth of other people's humanity.
While much prejudice is overcome by looking at the other, there is still much more progress to be made through actual physical contact, an act of intimacy. These things happen in stages in the poem. For the poem's speaker, who has been taught that the other cockroach or person carries filth and disease, touching the thing she has been taught to hate is a bold step.
After physical contact is made, the associations are all positive; the other is compared to a dancer. Rukeyser admits to a sense of wonderment that overwhelms the fears that dominated the earlier part of the poem. As the poem says in its last line, this represents the beginning of a relationship. Though it took much for the poet to get herself to initiate this contact with an other, there is still much more understanding to be gained before she will really know that other.
The relationship between the speaker of this poem and the cockroach being discussed is the same one that many people have with people of other cultures. The poet identifies ways in which she was taught to fear the cockroach: she had no firsthand knowledge of it, having grown up in a place kept free of insects, but was told by others of its dangers. Her experience with cockroaches has been limited to seeing them killed, leaving the impression that their deaths are necessary. Her hatred of cockroaches, like all prejudices, is allowed by a lack of familiarity.
The fact that Rukeyser is dealing with human prejudice here is not in the least hidden. Although she identifies her subject as a cockroach in the poem's title, she does not use that word in the poem itself. What she does do is talk about human elements, such as the songs and the language of the subject. Very few readers would miss the point that the things she says about cockroaches echo the things that people say about other races and cultures.
To make the comparison to human prejudice complete, Rukeyser brings up the issue of color in a few places. In line 11, she says that her ignorance of the other is limited to recognizing its darkness. Most cockroaches are in fact dark, but heightened awareness of skin tone is also a standard of racial prejudice around the world; thus, the darkness together with the fear and anger that she was taught to view the cockroach match elements of racial prejudice perfectly. In line 24 she says that upon paying attention to individual cockroaches for the first time in her life, she notes a difference in skin tone from one to another. She is overcoming the tendencies to group all members of a race or culture together and to assume that they will all act the same and all have the same wants and needs, which are at the core of prejudice.
Mysteriousness of the Unknown
Perhaps the fact that the poet grew up in a place without cockroaches, or without people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds, enables her to push on beyond the prejudices she has been taught simply in expanding her world. While other people raised in the same circumstances might remain in place, carry on with the same narrow views, and pass them along to their children, this poem shows a person who views something or someone unfamiliar to her as a mystery to be explored.
The poem begins with the speaker's admission that she does not know the subject that she is talking about, and for about three-fourths of its length she lists things about this other that are not familiar to her. The climax of this catalog of mysteries occurs when, in line 21, she expands her ignorance to include all of those in her social class by switching the subject to we, the plural. As soon as she acknowledges that her whole group, not just herself, finds the others a mystery, she sets about in line 23 to correct the situation by demystifying the cockroach. For the most part, this is a poem about a speaker who recognizes what she does not know and feels drawn to what is unfamiliar, even though she has been told it is dangerous.
By the end of the poem, Rukeyser's speaker has not gained any real insight into the life of the cockroach that has captured her attention. The insight that she has gained by the last line is about how much knowledge she lacks. Having been fooled by her prejudices for most of her life into believing that she knew all that she needed to know about others, she is just beginning the process of breaking through the wall of ignorance that surrounds her.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Choose an insect or animal that you do not like and research it. Afterwards, identify the attributes that you find admirable, and write a poem about the creature.
- Research the Catholic Church's criteria for sainthood. In a class presentation, explain how the standards that must be met could be applied to the cockroach.
- This poem references the cockroach's songs and language. Present a diagram of cockroach anatomy to your class and explain how cockroaches communicate.
- According to legend, cockroaches will survive long after mankind is destroyed by atomic radiation. Write a report that explains how this myth started and its basis in reality.
- Make a list of the strange things that people from outside your culture, race, or gender believe or might believe about the people in your culture, race, or gender. If possible, note why and how these beliefs could have come into being.
Just as the speaker of the poem starts to pay serious attention to others, the poem ends. Readers are not told anything about the specific observations she makes regarding cockroaches or regarding people from different races or cultures. The insight is not about what she learns: it is about the need to learn. Over the course of the poem she has gained enough insight to know better than to view the world the way she has all her life.
Anthropomorphism is the practice in literature of giving human qualities to nonhuman objects. It is often used in children's tales, as in familiar animated films about talking lions or dancing brooms. In this poem, anthropomorphism is seen in the way that Rukeyser talks about the language, songs, and food of what are understood to be cockroaches and in the way that she describes the cockroach as humorous and compares its movements to those of a dancer. Of course, cockroaches have not developed any of these aspects of culture, but speaking as if they have allows the poem to make readers draw certain conclusions. Just as an anthropomorphized car might invite its audience to think about the ways in which a car's grille is like a human's teeth and its headlights are like eyes, so, too, does the anthropomorphic cockroach draw attention to the ways that a person might dismiss another category of people as if they were bugs.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that uses one idea to bring another to mind. The comparison made by a metaphor is implied and not stated. In "St. Roach," for instance, Rukeyser does not state that she looked upon people of other cultures as if they were cockroaches; instead, she talks about cockroaches and lets her readers imagine how much the things said about cockroaches match the things people say about cultures they do not know.
The power of the metaphor lies in its transferring some of the thought process to the reader. When the comparison is not stated explicitly, readers are forced to look beneath the surface of the words to determine why the writer is talking about two things at once. An example might be if someone referred to another person as "a rock": the person hearing this expression is forced to determine which qualities of a rock—density? steadfastness? weight?—might apply to the person called one. They would have to think about the context in which the word was used, and they would therefore be active in making meaning of an expression that might not otherwise make sense.
The implied comparison used in "St. Roach" is an extended metaphor. Rukeyser does not just imply the relationship between how one treats unfamiliar races and how one treats cockroaches once, but further she repeats the comparison in several different places. She refers in one place to color, in another to food, in another to language, in another to songs, and so on. This range of implied comparisons makes readers look at the metaphor from different angles. With the many associations that are implied here, Rukeyser is able to show that the problem of seeing other people in unjust ways is deeply ingrained in social attitudes.
Lines 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, and 13 start with the same two words. This pattern is repeated with a slight variation in lines 14 through 17 and then with yet another slight variation in lines 21 and 22. Starting so many of the poem's lines with one of these three similar phrases gives "St. Roach" the feel of an incantation, as if the speaker is trying to summon mysterious forces, when in fact she is trying to understand her own conflicting emotions—often a mysterious process. The repetition also lends coherence to a poem that does not use traditional poetic devices such as rhyme or meter to give structure to its ideas.
Rukeyser begins this poem by phrasing her observations in a stilted, unnatural way, using a style of inverted sentences that she repeats in line after line. Her diction resembles the sort of grandiloquence that readers might associate with a royal pronouncement or even a passage of biblical verse. By addressing the subject, understood to be a common cockroach, this way, the poem elevates the terms of the discussion. The speaker uses language that shows her awareness that her ignorance and prejudice are as significant in scale as the most serious observations ever set down in poetry. Readers may feel uplifted, even though the details given in the poem are fairly mundane, because the burgeoning revelation at the end of the poem thus framed by the archaic diction is indeed a grand one.
Shifting Cultural Awareness from the 1950s through the 1970s
In the 1970s, American culture was at the height of a movement away from established preconceptions toward a recognition of the diversity in society. The roots of this shift can be traced back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With nearly a century having passed since the end of the Civil War, it became more and more difficult to justify the "separate but equal" doctrine that the U.S. Supreme Court had established in 1896. Under this standard, blacks and whites could be kept separated in social situations because they would, at least in theory, be given equal opportunities in their own areas. This resulted in segregated housing, travel accommodations, and educational facilities, down to separate movie theaters and drinking fountains for "whites" and for "coloreds." What this policy did not establish was a standard for equality; usually, the opportunities for African Americans were far below those available for their white counterparts. The unfairness of this situation was brought to the nation's attention in the 1950s, when several factors converged: Southern blacks who had served in Europe in World War II had seen the balance of racial equality in other countries; young whites, unhampered by the economic depression and war that had occupied the country for decades, traveled to the southern states to challenge the fairness of separatist doctrines; television brought awareness of the fight for civil rights to those who lived in areas where there was no racial diversity; and civil rights groups such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference pursued the problem with diligence. The result was heightened awareness of the nation's racial differences and of the racial inequality of American society that grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, the civil rights movement had made tremendous gains, from Rosa Parks's refusal to vacate her seat for a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 to the Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1957, 1964, and 1968.
As the country grew to recognize the ways in which African American rights had been suppressed, increased awareness spread to other social groups. The late 1960s saw the rise of the women's rights movement, culminating in the passage in Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. This proposed amendment to the Constitution, which had been introduced to every session of Congress since 1923, was intended to guarantee gender equality, but it failed to become law when only thirty-five of the needed thirty-eight state legislatures agreed to ratify it.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1970s: The traditional literature taught in schools is mostly written by Caucasian men.
Today: School reading lists reflect greater cultural diversity.
- 1970s: The foods of many different cultures are considered exotic and may only be available, if at all, in specialty restaurants.
Today: Advanced transportation and refrigeration techniques have made exotic foods and ingredients readily available. Magazines and television shows frequently feature recipes from a variety of cultures.
- 1970s: Cockroaches are thought to carry germs and spread disease.
Today: It has been shown that cockroaches give off an allergen that is one of the most severe triggers of asthma in children.
From these two pillars of social awareness arose other struggles for social recognition among those traditionally excluded from American society. Native American, Hispanic, and Asian American groups fought the stereotypes that had been assigned to them over the centuries by the dominant culture. Homosexuals fought for their right to be recognized, as did persons with disabilities. While the 1980s would witness a backlash from people who resented what they saw as enforced "political correctness," the changes that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s helped many Americans feel, for the first time, that they were truly a part of the society in which they lived.
The collection that "St. Roach" comes from, The Gates, was written after Rukeyser traveled to South Korea to protest the imprisonment and scheduled execution of the poet Kim Chi-Ha. In 1974, Kim was arrested after the publication of his collection Cry of the People, and Other Poems. The poems constituted an angry tirade against the government, calling upon students to stand up and fight against the existing order. The government of President Park Chung Hee detained Kim with sedation and sentenced him to death.
South Korea had declared itself an independent nation in 1948. During the Korean War (1950-1953), it fought for its independence from North Korea, a struggle which left the two nations as separate political entities but which also left South Korea suffering, with a damaged economy. The corrupt government was overthrown in a coup led by Park Chung Hee in 1961, and in 1963 Park assumed the powers of a civilian president. His policies helped stabilize the economy and made South Korea competitive on the world stage, but domestically he relied on strong-arm, repressive tactics to control citizens.
Rukeyser became involved in the case of the poet Kim as the president of International PEN, an organization devoted to supporting writers and their rights to freedom of expression. When she traveled to South Korea in 1975, Kim had been accused of infiltrating the Catholic Church for the Communist party and had signed a confession that he later explained was coerced. After pressure from International PEN and other groups, his execution was commuted, though he was sentenced to life in prison in 1976.
In 1979, Park Chung Hee was assassinated during a coup in which the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Committee assumed power. Kim Chi-Ha's sentence was commuted, and he was released from prison in 1980.
Muriel Rukeyser's poetry has always been closely associated with her political activism. While most critics have lauded her writing for its heartfelt passion, some have questioned whether that passion is matched with technical skill. Although the poet was recognized early in her career, she was never grouped with the highest ranks of her peers in literature. Critical acclaim for her work has tended to vary, often depending on how much a particular reviewer felt Rukeyser's social conscience to be an integral part of her literary accomplishments.
In a 1995 Ploughshares article, the famed literary critic M. L. Rosenthal addresses the issue of Rukeyser's reputation as a writer. After making it clear that he is delighted over the reissue of her work in A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, Rosenthal explains how the poet's particular skills "have a special place in our poetry," going on to explain that she "was a driven artistic experimenter." He later declares that "Rukeyser was, indeed, a true poet." David Orr, discussing the 2004 release of Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems in Poetry magazine, makes the same point about critical handling of Rukeyser's reputation. Indeed, Orr's own assessment is split: "At its best, Rukeyser's work can be open, energetic, and well constructed, if a little enamored of its own goody-goodness." He goes on to note, "At its worst, her work has the campy, creepy tone of someone soliciting for the International Union of Absolutely Good People."
Kelly is a writer and an instructor of creative writing and literature at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay on "St. Roach," Kelly explains that even if the poem's social impact has diminished over the years, its understated structural control makes it worth continuing study.
Muriel Rukeyser's "St. Roach" is the sort of poem that is likely to be described by readers as straightforward. As a description, this is often meant as a positive critique, indicating that the poet has allowed the poem's message to speak for itself, plainly and simply. The straightforwardness of this poem is twofold. First, there is its lack of poetic technique. "St Roach" is predominantly written in free verse. It does not follow any standard poetic form, and it does not create a standard for itself by sticking to any consistent rhyme scheme, meter, line length, or stanza structure.
In the absence of any stylistic flourishes, the poem's message becomes central. There is nothing too mysterious about what "St. Roach" wants to tell readers. Starting with the title, it is fairly clear that what she is saying isn't meant to be taken literally: though she might make a case for being more attentive to what the cockroach has to offer, no one would seriously imagine that she is nominating the insect for sainthood. With a tendency for exaggeration established, readers can hardly fail to see how the references to human culture that are attributed to cockroaches eventually stop being applicable to any creatures but humans. The cultural aspects that she talks about, specifically songs, poems, and food, imply that she is talking about human beings. References to darkness further indicate that the poem is about the feelings that separate the races, not really the distrust between humans and insects at all. This message resides fairly close to the surface of the poem, so that few could fail to understand it after sufficient study.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Marion Copeland's book Cockroach (2004) includes an examination of artistic works that, like this poem, present the insect as a symbol of different things, all having to do with revulsion and endurance.
- The Invisible Elephant: Exploring Cultural Awareness (2006), by Tom Verghese—a Malaysian writer living in Australia, gives readers an idea of how to experience unfamiliar cultures with respect and attention.
- In 1915, Franz Kafka published "The Metamorphosis," a work of short fiction about a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect (with most interpretations identifying the insect as a cockroach). The story is about what it feels like to be alienated in the modern world and is considered to be a part of the Western literary canon.
- In How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser (1999), the editors Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman bring together thoughts and reminiscences about Rukeyser and her works. Essays written by friends, critics, students, and other poets communicate the overall effect of Rukeyser's career.
- First published in 1949, Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry is a meditation on what poetry is, what it is good for, and what it should do. The poet's theories, though they did not fit in with the standards set by most literary critics, did not change much over time.
- The poet Anne Sexton, a friend of Rukeyser's, wrote her well-known antiwar poem "The Firebombers" (1968) under the influence of Rukeyser's strident views regarding poetry as political activism. It is available in The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton (2000).
Ironically, what may have once been the poem's chief virtue—that it confronts race relations directly, with very little artifice for readers to dig through—has come to be its downfall over the course of time, obscuring what is good about it. Readers of the twenty-first century still understand the message it offers, but times have changed. The children or even grandchildren of Rukeyser's original audience do not live in a world where there is racial equality, but nor do they live in a world where race relations are defined by mystery. Multiculturalism is an idea that has caught on. People of all backgrounds run for political offices, control the destinies of their employees, and are familiar to readers of magazines from Forbes to People. Of course, there are people who live in prejudice, who view others practically like cockroaches, but the wrongness of this is so universally accepted that a poem that stands up to that kind of prejudice can seem patronizing and self-congratulatory.
In the context of modern race relations, Rukeyser's poem actually serves to promote the sort of narrowed thinking that it is trying to fight. The problem stems from the poet's audacity in speaking up for the disenfranchised: in 1976, that might have been a good and necessary strategy, but more and more over the decades society has learned to let those who have been denied a voice tell their own fascinating stories and speak from their own perspectives. In fact, this can be read as a victory for the position taken in "St. Roach," since it is a sign that people have overcome fears of other races and are interested in paying attention to those who are unfamiliar. But now that the stranglehold of traditional white culture, which prevailed into the 1970s, has been broken, the obvious question arises: Who would approve of equating oppressed minorities with cockroaches? Certainly members of those oppressed minorities would not.
So it may seem that time has drained "St. Roach" of its relevance. It is indeed less culturally significant than it was when Rukeyser was calling for white culture to heed, not fear, the stories of others; her argument is already generally accepted. But there still is the structure to consider. "St. Roach" is a poem, and its argument is therefore put on the page in a specific form. Although the poem steers away from the formal elements already listed, that does not mean that it does not have a structure, only that it has a structure that is unique unto itself. As it lays on the page, the poem seems to lack order, with new ideas being introduced according to the author's whim. Looking at elements out of order, though, makes Rukeyser's design a little more evident.
The clearest shift in focus takes place in line 23. Up to this point, "St. Roach" has been an expression of a situation—an attitude, expressed in general terms with a few specific details tossed in here and there. As soon as Rukeyser mentions a specific point in time, however, the poem turns into a story of particular events happening in particular places at particular times. This story even has progression, as good stories do. First it talks about what happened yesterday, and then it tells about today. Instead of simply feeling sorry about the circumstances as they exist, as they have been made to do in the first part, readers are drawn into the narrative. They are invited to free themselves of their learned prejudices by watching what happens when the poet does just that. The poem ends on an uplifting note, with a triumphant act of self-liberation on the part of the speaker.
This last section, from line 23 to line 31, spans nine lines—just under one-third of the poem. This could just be the amount of space Rukeyser wished to devote to completing this train of thought, but it could also be a sign of the poem's overall structure. If this one-third is part of consistent design, then the remaining two-thirds should divide equally, or nearly equally, into sections of one-third each.
That in fact turns out to be the case. The first part of the poem, starting with the first line, maintains a consistency of style and theme until line 11. In this part, the lines are long, so much so that over half are divided by commas. The long lines are necessary because this introductory section deals with the complexities of the speaker's feelings. The tone is one of anger or resentment, set by the use of powerful words.
The second third of the poem, from lines 13 to 22, is marked by a different tone and a different style. The subject matter remains the speaker's dismay at having been made to think that those unlike her are her enemies, but the focus here is on what she has missed out on, the aspects of other cultures that she has been taught to ignore. The tone is one of sadness and regret. To show this, the lines are not nearly as complex; for the most part, they are short and direct. When Rukeyser does see fit to extend a thought, she breaks it apart so that each clause is a separate line, as in lines 17 through 20. This section of the poem, again roughly a third of its length, has its own identity, as much as the other two sections have.
This subtle three-part structure is significant for readers who might be inclined to think too little of Rukeyser's skill as an artist. The emphasis of her work has always been the message conveyed; the human aspect is given precedence over literary device or wordplay. A poet's being so often associated with the messages of her poems should be seen as a credit to her skills as a poet, such as with Rukeyser. But because of this, there is the temptation, when studying a poem like "St. Roach," to feel that the work's value is only in its faded, timeworn message. That Rukeyser uses such a deceptively simple yet effective structure to convey her message, however, points to an altogether different conclusion.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "St. Roach," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Michele S. Ware
In the following review, Ware critiques the representative poems from all periods of the poet's life and work.
The resurgence in the last decade of critical attention to Muriel Rukeyser and her important place in twentieth-century American poetry alone warrants the publication of this new annotated scholarly edition of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Yet this impressive collection makes Rukeyser's extensive body of work available and accessible, for the first time in years, to the general reader as well. Long out of print, the 1978 Collected Poems, published by McGraw-Hill, suffered from serious omissions and errors, which Kaufman and Herzog correct in this volume. The result is a welcome and necessary contribution to contemporary Rukeyser scholarship that reveals the poet's persistent, career-long dedication to the poetry of witness, her wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, and her powerful, inclusive, and generous vision.
Of particular interest are Rukeyser's numerous translations and the full text of Wake Island (1942), inexplicably omitted from the 1978 Collected Poems. By using Rukeyser's individual volumes of poetry as their copy texts, the editors have restored her important translations of Octavio Paz to the poems in The Green Wave (1948) and Body of Waking (1958). Rukeyser's affinity with Paz is obvious in these beautiful lyric poems, and the textual notes and annotations, including Rukeyser's original notes and commentary from 1978, offer a glimpse of the poet's process. Her passion for translation demonstrates the "vast reach" of her poetic explorations, extending to such disparate sources as Northern/Eskimo poems and rari love-chants, among many others. Kaufman and Herzog speculate in their "Editors' Notes" that limited space may have been the rationale for excluding such an integral part of Rukeyser's oeuvre, but the omission of Wake Island is more suspicious, especially since its critical reception was so negative and cruel. This long poem celebrating the heroism of embattled and doomed Marines in the Pacific was mistakenly perceived as Rukeyser's naïve and nationalistic endorsement of American military will during World War II, for which she was attacked both personally and professionally. The poem's significance, however, according to James Brock (in "The Perils of a ‘Poster Girl’: Muriel Rukeyser, Partisan Review, and Wake Island"), lies in its function as an early example of Rukeyser's global political preoccupations. Here again, the editors offer several plausible explanations for the poem's earlier exclusion (Rukeyser's failing health, self-censorship) and wisely include it. Wake Island is somewhat uneven, but as Kaufman and Herzog note, "it is consistent with her lifelong vision that poetry should respond to questions of social justice and freedom, as well as to the historical moment, not only within her own country but globally."
In many ways, the new Collected Poems is a sensitive and thoughtful work of restoration, a concerted effort on the editors' part to discern Rukeyser's artistic sensibilities and intentions and at the same time do justice to a complex and massive body of work, a difficult task when the poet's intentions are unclear or contradictory. For example, Rukeyser resisted breaking up One Life, her experimental biography of Wendell Willkie, to excerpt poems for the 1978 Collected Poems. "The arrangement is the life" (xxvi), she insisted. Yet the selections she made from One Life to include in that volume are "virtually inscrutable taken out of the context." To correct the problem, the editors have here reduced the excerpts to eighteen poems later chosen by Rukeyser for publication in Body of Waking, thus fulfilling their purpose (to collect all the poems) while respecting the integrity of Rukeyser's art. She was intensely vigilant about the order, spacing, and punctuation of her poems in their published forms, and Kaufman and Herzog have taken care to attend to these matters. For example, they based their decision to reorder into a single unit Rukeyser's elegies, a series of ten related poems that originally appeared in three different volumes of poetry, on her later publication of Elegies (1949) and the poet's own reordering of the elegies in subsequent collections. While they are rather too gentle in their criticism of the error-ridden 1978 Collected Poems, it is clear why Kaufman and Herzog returned to the original volumes of poems for their definitive texts. All corrections, deviations, and alternate versions are meticulously described in the "Annotations" and "Textual Notes." Such precision not only corrects the flaws of the earlier Collected Poems; it also takes into consideration Rukeyser's own later critical reassessment of her work.
By including a selection of Rukeyser's juvenilia—seventeen poems she wrote as an adolescent at Vassar and the Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools—Kaufman and Herzog make Rukeyser's earliest work available, revealing the poet's fledgling experimentation with form and development of an aesthetic and a voice that were remarkably consistent throughout Rukeyser's long career. The editors close the volume with the last known published poem that appeared after the 1978 Collected Poems and before Rukeyser's death in 1980. According to Rukeyser, "An Unborn Poet," written for Alice Walker (Rukeyser's student at Sarah Lawrence College), refers not to Walker but to Rukeyser herself. A meditation on teaching, the connections between the past and the present, between old poets and new, and the inspiration that comes from the questioning creativity of youth, this poem moves between memory and possibility and signals a rekindling of Rukeyser's poetic power: "Alice, landscaper of grief, love, anger, bring me to birth, / bring back my poems. No. Bring me my next poem!" It is comforting and satisfying to know that Rukeyser ended her life as a poet with the same generous and optimistic vision with which she began it.
For Rukeyser scholars, Kaufman and Herzog have opened another door, as they did with their 1999 critical collection, "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Their thorough and thought-provoking editorial annotations and explanations, drawing on biography with the help of Jan Heller Levi, literary criticism, interviews, and the fullness of Rukeyser's own genre-defying body of work, make The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser a rich mine of resources for future study of a poet of unquestionable importance and value to twentieth-century American literature.
Source: Michele S. Ware, Review of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, in College Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 2006, pp. 199-201.
In the following essay, written in memory of Rukeyser, Solotaroff calls "St. Roach" one of Rukeyser's best poems.
When I first and best knew Muriel, five or six years ago, she was a large, somewhat top-heavy woman in her early 60s with a broad, crafty Russian face—the kind you might see behind the counter of a Jewish deli—an infirm walk and a full heart. She was one of those people who come across immediately, which I remember thinking was surprising in a poet as famous as she was. Fame, at least literary fame, tends to make people cagey, not to mention the conflicts that maintain them as poets and make them, in person, usually wear a sleeve on their hearts.
Not Muriel. She arrived before you on a wave of feeling each time you saw her, a bit disheveled from the ride. At least that's how I remember our meetings. What brought us together was a matter of literary politics. A faction at P.E.N. needed someone to stand for president at the last moment. It doesn't pay to go into the reasons, which I'm not nearly as convinced of now as I was then, but anyway we felt we needed a writer who was not only renowned but also one whose career would immediately have a commanding appropriateness for the post: a veteran literary freedom fighter. Some of us were also hoping for an activist who might get American P.E.N. off the dime of a certain dated genteelness on which we felt it had been languishing and make it a center of literary community in New York.
For both jobs Muriel seemed a terrific choice. She was one of the few literary radicals from the 1930s who hadn't lost faith in her social conscience: that special blend of outrage and tenderness which was always on tap in her poetry—"the desperate music/poverty makes." Her radicalism still prompted her active engagement with the causes and movements of the 1960s and early 1970s as it had in Spain and in the coal-belt factory and mining towns and in the Deep South thirty years ago. At the same time, she was already a kind of one-woman center of energy and community for poetry. She was a mainstay of the Translation Center, an organization that was trying to reclaim this wasteland sector of American letters. She was also a force for good in the 92nd Street YMHA poetry program, which was in several ways a model for what we wanted to do with American P.E.N. Muriel had a special workshop going there; instead of teaching poetry writing, as her peers did, she taught poetry reading. When her friend, Louise Bernikow, once asked her what she did besides writing, Muriel said she was "mainly reading poems with people: undergraduates; 2 year olds; dropouts; the old; the blind, etc." She was also reading a lot of poems by young poets; she was a rarity in that way too, a "name" who took the manuscripts that were thrust at her at readings and meetings, who tried hard to get the good ones published. She was so approachable: that warm, steady look that took you in in the way you liked to be seen, that smile which gave you welcome, one which could easily be taken for the smile of Fortune.
At the time we approached her on the P.E.N. matter, Muriel was recovering from a heart attack, the latest of her cardiovascular problems, and looked it. Listening to her breathing, I wondered whether we were asking too much of her. Sitting there in her studio loft in the artists' housing project known as Westbeth (where else would she live?), surrounded and protected by the tools and arrangements and icons of a working literary life, what did she need us and our thorny issue and airy plans for? But she listened to us intently and then, I think, she held up her hand and said, "All right, I know what needs to be done now. I'll do it if you'll help me."
And so she did and so we did. The bureaucracy of P.E.N. at the time didn't know what to make of her and gave her a hard time. She didn't go through channels and agendas very well; as Grace Paley says, "Muriel was like the ocean instead of a stream or a puddle." There was a poet, Kim Chi Ha, in prison in South Korea. Instead of sending letters and cables to Seoul, Muriel sent herself. She went to see the authorities and when they wouldn't let her visit Kim Chi Ha in his cell, she went to the prison anyway and stood outside in the mud and rain and bore witness. Back home at the executive board meetings, she also poured herself out. Somewhat indifferent to the housekeeping problems—to which her standard response was a wily "What is the board's pleasure?"—she pressed on to the heavy issues such as decentralizing P.E.N. through regional centers and creating programs for writers in the New York area. Her pet project was a conference on "the life of the writer," a topic that had a kind of numinous meaning for her but remained somewhat vague to the rest of us. Without much support, she persisted and brought it off in Washington, D.C. In her public actions, as in her poetry, she trusted her visionary gleam, a trust that made her, in the fullest sense of the word, undiscourageable.
Gallant Muriel. The final few years beggar description. Her health, which had always been precarious, was devastated by a serious stroke, by cataracts, and by her longtime nemesis, diabetes, "the Caligula of diseases," as Richard Selzer puts it. Still, as always, she did what she could, writing poetry and bringing out her Collected Poems, going her appointed rounds of literary panels and juries and conferences and keeping up her readings. As Grace Schulman tells it, "Whenever poetry was being celebrated, Muriel would somehow get there." At one such event, a group of poets was assembled on a stage; Muriel arrived and then, walker and all, virtually blind, she somehow hoisted herself up on that stage, for that was where she belonged.
In one of her late poems, "Facing Sentencing" (she was about to go to jail for protesting the war on the steps of the Senate), these lines appear:
But fear is not to be feared
Numbness is To stand before my judge
Not knowing what I mean
Muriel was not a measured poet. Like Whitman, a powerful early influence, she was a sayer rather than a maker. Her mind ranged and ranged, from aviation to zoology, from the mines of West Virginia to the sacred caves of India, from the writings of Akiba to the speeches of Wendell Willkie. In her Collected Poems, there is a series of portraits of the early physicist Willard Gibbs, the painter Albert Ryder, the aristocratic man of letters John Jay Chapman, the labor organizer Ann Burlack and the composer Charles Ives. Her verse is typically open, notational, even documentary; its rhythm comes from the onrushing movement in her mind of the experience, from the flow of her passion for the object. There are transcripts of trials in her poems, the minutes of Congressional hearings, detailed descriptions of silicosis. Her experiments tended to be on the side of plenitude rather than restriction, of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. For she had much to clarify, much to keep alive. In her body and in her mind, in her life and in her art, she fought against numbness.
Muriel had a peculiar habit. She never said goodbye. You would call her up, an animated conversation would ensue, reach a conclusion and then suddenly she would be gone. Now she's hung up for good, leaving her poems, as she hoped they would, to speak from her silence to ours. One of the best ones, "St. Roach," seems to me pure Muriel.
Source: Ted Solotaroff, "Rukeyser: Poet of Plenitude," in Nation, March 8, 1980, pp. 277-78.
Orr, David, Review of Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems, edited by Adrienne Rich, in Poetry, Vol. 187, No. 3, December 2005, pp. 242-43.
Rosenthal, M. L., Review of A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, in Ploughshares, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 198-200.
Rukeyser, Muriel, "St. Roach," in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 593.
Gordon, David G., The Compleat Cockroach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Despised (and Least Understood) Creature on Earth, Ten Speed Press, 1996.
Gordon's book provides all of the facts that a reader could want regarding the history and physical abilities of the cockroach. This book follows the spirit of Rukeyser's poem in taking an unflinching look at the feared and reviled insects.
Kertesz, Louise, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
This overview of Rukeyser's life and career is broken down by decades. Thusly, readers can see the historical context in which Rukeyser was writing.
Rukeyser, Muriel, "The Education of a Poet," in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg, Norton, 1980, pp. 217-30.
This essay is an adaptation of a talk that Rukeyser gave for the American Academy of Poets in 1976, the same year "St. Roach" was published. In the essay, Rukeyser addresses how she came to take up poetry as a profession.
Ware, Michele S., "Opening The Gates: Muriel Rukeyser and the Poetry of Witness," in Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, June 1993, pp. 297-309.
Ware gives a detailed examination of The Gates, focusing on the social context of Rukeyser's work.