Why Do We Fear Poetry? Two Poets Answer: Muriel Rukeyser and Brenda Hillman



American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser


Two Years

Two years of my sister’s illness;
the wind whips the river of her last spring.
I have burned the beans again.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980) from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, McGraw Hill, 1982

Strange, for me, how poets and poems move like flotsam on a river. Is it current, is it wind, that sometimes, brings them together? Why now, I wonder, is it that Muriel Rukeyser and Brenda Hillman (1951 – ) seem to have gathered in my poetic back eddy? There they move easily, lazily, around each other even though at times their poetic styles are so different.


What do I make of this poetic dance between two celebrated American women poets – one dead one and one, by all evidence, in the prime of her career? What I make of this is to watch how in this movement they move the poet, the activist, the braver Richard inside me. How they call for an unadorned emotional honesty in poetry. How they let the images do the work! Like Rukeyser does in her three-line bombshell of a poem above. And the way Hillman does it in these mysterious and lyrical poems (presented in published form in two columns side by side, one in darker type than the other) from the Poetry.org website:

December Moon

Oak moon, reed moon—

our friend called;
she was telling the pain
what to think.

I said Look. If you
relax you’ll get better.

Better? who wants better,
said a moonbeam
under the wire,

the soul is light’s
hypotenuse; the lily’s
logic is frozen fire—

December Moon

Suppose you are the secret
of the shore—a strong wave
lying on its side—

you’d come to earth again

(as if joy’s understudy
would appear) & you
could live one more bold

day without meaning to,
afresh, on winter’s piney floor;

you say, I’ve been
to the door & wept;
it says, what door

Brenda Hillman from Practical Water, Wesleyan Press, 2010

Rukeyser, poet. teacher and social activist, was arrested many times, including in the rural south in 1933 during the trial of the Scotsboro Boys, nine black men accused of raping two white women; and later in protests during the Vietnam war. She went to Spain just before the civil war and supported the forces against Franco, and wrote about it; she protested working conditions during construction of hydro-electric project in the late 1930’s, and wrote about that, too.

American Poet Brenda Hillman

American Poet Brenda Hillman

Hillman, and her husband, the poet Robert Hass, were arrested during the Occupy Movement protests. She has written poems about being in the thick of the melee between protestors and cops in protests like that. She has written widely about social issues especially the on-going degradation of the planet through climate change and man-made disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf. For a link to my previous blog post on Hillman click here.

What I learn from these two poets is to write about the bigger issues without become strident or preachy, by not abandoning lyricism: the power of image and metaphor.

Thanks to the polymath and on-line phenomenon – Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, I was reminded of Rukeyser again in Popova’s article on Rukeyser’s book, The Life of Poetry, originally published in 1949 and republished in 1974 and 1996. To read the article click here. In her book Rukeyser begins by focusing on our (society’s) fear of poetry. Our resistances to it. That’s when I made the Hillman/Rukeyser connection. I remembered a poem I had quoted in an introduction for Hillman I gave at the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo in May. This what I said:

“In the early 1990’s a young writer was grief struck by the death of a dear mentor and friend. She poured that grief into a book of elegies. And somehow in her grief also addressed the very nature of poetics. How surprised I was to find these lines:


— And in the central valley,
people were dreaming of peaches.
Starlings ate the scalloped edges off new blossoms.
In the night orchards,
the dreamer walked over coals with the poems
and made creation seem effortless – there!

What do you fear in a poem?

(I fear the moment of excess, as in March,
when oxalis comes out all in one day.)

What do you fear in the poem?

(I fear the moment of withholding –
especially inside what I thought was free;
and I feared the poem was just like her,
that it would abandon me—)

Brenda Hillman from Death Tractates, Wesleyan University Press, 1992

That poet was the American Brenda Hillman. That was her third book of poems. Five more followed including the much recognized 2013 collection Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire , which among other honours won the Griffin Poetry Prize, now considered one of the most prestigious poetry prizes around. In all her work Hillman’s humanity shines through: this line from Seasonal Works floors me: Sometimes I am sick of humans except for babies, poets and the ones I love!”

Hillman’s line: What do you fear in a Poem, not only struck at the heart of the poetic experience as I know it, and struggle with, but also echoed Rukeyser so loudly I had to go back to her book and re-read her words on what, for her, is the essence of poetry:

A way to allow people to feel the meaning of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand, in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities…. There is an art which gives us that way; and it is, in our society, an outcast art.
I have tried to go behind the resistance [to poetry, which is often a fear of poetry…

A fear of poetry. Yes, I say! Even for poets, for the reasons Hillman touches on. The excess of feeling that come from reading and writing a poem. And the withholding. What a mysterious idea. Is it our withholding from what the poem wants us to say? Or the poem withholding from us because we are not ready for what it wants us to say? And then, for Hillman, to equate that withholding to a fear that the poem will abandon her as her friend did in death. Ouch But in spite of her fear of the poem, Hillman, gets real, becomes vulnerable, allows her pain at her friend’s death to show through.

Hillman’s does in her poem what Rukseyer thinks many of us fear to do, and so fear poetry:

I have found in working with people and poems, that this fear presents the symptoms of a psychic problem. A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response.

The response is total, but it is reached through the emotions. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually — that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but
the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.

Rukeyser practiced what she preached. Her great poem St. Roach  is no less true intellectually and emotionally than it was when it was published in 1976. Rukeyser is not afraid to go where this poem invites her and requires her, to go. To face her fear of the other!


For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
               to eat your food
               or know your poems
               or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.
Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.
I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

Muriel Rukeyser, ibid

What shocks me most in this poem is how Rukeyser’s words, written long before the Rwandan genocide in 1994,  echo words I read at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali in 2006:

If you knew me, and really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

This is why I trust poetry even when my own poems and the poems of others, terrify me. And Rukeyser’s poem terrifies me. For how it makes me realize deep down how I harbour my own fear of the other. How I wrestle with that fear so often. But her poem also gives me hope. The hope I know is real. That if I begin to know the other I am far less likely to do them, or myself, harm.


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted August 9, 2015 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    A very necessary piece Richard, thank you.

  2. Richard
    Posted August 22, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Liz!

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