"American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict. . . .
We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of
hope; at another level, the economy of the nation, the
empire of business within the republic, both include in
their basic premise the idea of perpetual warfare."
— Muriel Rukeyser: The Life of Poetry (1949)
"The impulse to enter, with other humans, through
language, into the order and disorder of the world, is
poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root."
—Adrienne Rich: What Is Found There (2002)
Muriel Rukeyser began an untitled poem of the 1960s: "I lived in the first century of world wars." I suspect many people now fear that we live in the second. Sometimes a column by an astute political journalist seems more necessary than poetry and effaces the desire for it. Still, it is not the journalism of the past that, at the bleakest or most hopeful moments, calls for rereading. I return to the poetry of Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Adrienne Rich, or Mahmoud Darwish, poets variously engaged in and part of the largest human world, because their writing convinces me that poetry remains necessary, intrinsic to more than one kind of understanding.
I think of this in the context of the work of three poets, American women, confronted with seismic change, moral and physical danger, injustice, and with a consequent devaluation of the poet's work, even as that work seems, to the writer, most urgent. All three responded not with lyric exclamation or dithyrambic indictment but with long, complex poems in discrete sections that inscribe themselves in the epic tradition: book-length poems narrating the destiny of a people, recognizing the significance of contemporary events in relation to the past.
H. D., christened Hilda Doolittle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1886, lived as an expatriate in England and Switzerland after 1911. She had many reasons to engage with an epic tradition: the most obvious, lifelong, largely autodidactic commitment to classical and pre-classical Greek poetry and drama. Poems written in the 1920s and 1930s utilize self-translated fragments from Sappho and lines by obscure poets, often women, in the Greek Anthology, upon which she constructed narratives and dramatic monologues. But the poem I would call epic, the Trilogy, composed in London during the Blitz from 1942 to 1944, is more complex in its collage of past and present, in its attempted synthesis of diverse myths and bodies of knowledge, and particularly in its simultaneous confrontation with contemporaneity and interiority. Might that be a characteristic of the "woman's epic"—a recognition of the seamlessness of the private and the public life, of how "the personal is political," as the women's movement put it, and how the political is also personal?
H. D.’s friend, patron, sometime lover, and forty-year companion Winifred Bryher wrote adventure novels and memoirs, not poetry; her own life had epic (and adventurous) resonance. When World War II broke out in Europe, Bryher was doing rescue work with the Red Cross in neutral Switzerland. H. D. was in London. Bryher tried to persuade H. D., who had been traumatized by the first war in London, to join her. H. D. refused. So Bryher, in September of 1940, made a difficult journey into the besieged city and stayed with H. D. in London for the remainder of the war, organizing the practical side of their lives.
Trilogy breaks with H. D.’s early work and with the restrictive label of "Imagist." Alongside her modernist colleagues Pound, Eliot, and Williams, she composed a poem encompassing the major themes of twentieth-century poetry: the World War, experienced firsthand by civilians as well as soldiers; the recovery of an idea of self and society in social fragmentation; the confusion and liberation arising from changing gender relations; the desire to synthesize plural religious and mythic traditions into a plausible faith; a redefinition of the nature and uses of the arts and the imagination.
Each of the three books has its own focus. The Walls Do Not Fall moves cinematically from views of London during the Blitz with houses cut open like dioramas in a museum to intense close-ups of humble creatures, the mollusk enclosed in its shell creating a "pearl of great price," the despised worm revealed as a caterpillar that will "weave its own shroud" and emerge transformed. Iconic images of Egyptian rulers and deities, and their relation to Judeo-Christian and Hellenic tradition, inform the poems of Trilogy, in counterpoint to the destruction visited on London by the German bombing, enriching and complicating a narrative palimpsest. In Tribute to the Angels, a series of hieratic portraits of angelic figures culminates in a persistent dream-vision of a Lady who corresponds to many and yet to none of the images of saints, the Virgin or pagan goddesses, bearing a blank book that will contain "the still-unwritten pages of the new." The Flowering of the Rod tells an apocryphal tale embroidering on Scripture in which Kaspar, one of the Magi (associated by the poet with Freud—whose analysand and student H. D. had been in 1933 and 1934) is inspired to a vision of universal order by an encounter with Mary Magdalene, herself identified with pre-Adamic goddesses.
Formally, each of the three long poems consists of forty-three individual numbered lyrics, most no longer than a page. All but one are in short-lined couplets. Each is a single sentence composed of multiple linked segments: full stops occur only at the end of individual numbered poems. In this unity, Trilogy resembles pre-modernist epics, which rely on continuous form, and differs from poems of its own era like the Cantos or The Waste Land, notable for deliberate irregularity. It is also unlike H. D.’s earlier lyrics, whose stanzas are typically of uneven length and unpredictable shape. There is a consistent weaving of the contemporary and the mythical, of Christian and pagan images. The ruins of bombed London are viewed on a palimpsest of the ruins of Pompeii and Egypt. The discredited writer is reinstated as "the scribe." Multiple mythologies of female gods and icons are resurrected, not to overthrow but to interact with and enrich the masculine panoply. In contrast to the "verse paragraph" of poetic authority, H. D.’s couplet/paragraphs in Trilogy include more space, more silence around the words and elicit, often explicitly, a response from the reader. Trilogy is much more concerned with internal struggle than the traditional epic, yet it aspires to represent not an individual's experiences, but a generation's. Trilogy opens a plural dialogue—with Freud, with Bryher, with the reader—in quest of some wisdom at work in the world during "the days of Mars,"—as Bryher was to title her own war memoir.
H. D. was one of a generation of American expatriates: Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes. In contrast, most of the American poets born just before and during World War I did most of their work within the borders of the United States, however much they travelled. (Elizabeth Bishop, from her Canadian childhood on, was an exception.)
Gwendolyn Brooks, though born in Kansas in 1917, lived in Chicago through the eight decades of her life. If the purpose of the epic is "to give meaning to the destiny of a people, recognizing the significance of contemporary events in relation to the past," one might say that all of Brooks's work had epic intentions: Its focus was always, above all, a community, her own African American community in Chicago. Her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945, when she was 27, vividly portrayed the lives of working-class black women and men coping with poverty and racism—sometimes with gallantry and wit, sometimes succumbing to the pressures. It also dealt with the effects of World War II on Brooks's neighbors. "Negro Hero" is based on an incident in the Pacific theater where a seaman, forbidden because of his race to bear arms, nonetheless picked up a machine gun and saved the lives of his fellow crewmen. "Gay Chaps at the Bar" provides an understated view (in sonnet-monologues) of the war's effect on young black enlisted men and officers.
Brooks's second book, Annie Allen, was published in 1949. Its focus is clearly on African American women. One narrative in discrete parts, it is the bildungsroman of a fairly sheltered, lower-middle-class, dark-skinned teenage girl given to romantic fantasies. Like Trilogy, this is a narrative in which the poet/narrator is largely absent except as an observer. But this narrative has a protagonist, who changes as a result of experience. The longest, central section of the poem depicts, at an ironic distance, her love affair and marriage with a man idealized beyond his possibilities. He departs as a soldier for World War II (which, given the date of the poem, did not have to be named). He returns—but not to Annie—to a more flamboyant woman with lighter skin. He comes back to Annie when he is dying of a war-related disease, probably tuberculosis, leaving her a widow at "tweaked and twenty-four." This section's title, "The Anniad"—recalls The Iliad or The Aeneid, implicitly comparing their subjects: heroes who go to war, women who stay at home and wait for them. It is written in seven-line rhymed stanzas of trochaic trimeter, in elaborate polysyllables. This is an obvious contrast with the expansiveness of an "epic" line: hexameters, the alexandrine, or iambic pentameter, which Brooks had and would use magisterially. It also recalls, in a different linguistic mode, H. D.’s short, "open" lines in Trilogy. But Brooks's language creates a distance between narrator and narrative, between the "knowing" speaker (and readers) and the naive protagonist and her story. Still, it also invests the story with a kind of heraldic dignity, as well as a distinctly modernist distortion and exaggeration of quotidian events. One poem of which this section of Annie Allen is, to me, reminiscent, is Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in which a young socialite's dressing-table rites are described, in rhymed couplets, analogous to a knight's preparations for battle, and exaggeration leads to a diction prefiguring the surreal: a mock-epic. The events chronicled in "The Anniad" are not trivial: The sexual passion and union are, in the poem's world, real, the betrayal is real, and the shadowed death is real as well. But Brooks's choice of a tightly metered and pyrotechnically rhymed form in constant tension with her verbal exuberance adds both irony and constant musical tension to the poem.
There is, though, a striking contrast between "The Anniad" and the parts of Annie Allen preceding and following it, chronicling, respectively, Annie's childhood—in a neighborhood that's clearly in Brooks's Chicago—and her life after the war. Like the poems of A Street in Bronzeville, these are "neighborhood" portraits: the meditations of a single woman raising a child, a plea for dignity in the eyes of her own community, her wavering faith in a post-war America whose new prosperity was not always shared by African Americans. There is also a restaurant frequented by working-class blacks after a hard day, a drive into the suburbs, a funeral parlor that can't contain the life force of a frequenter of bars, jazz clubs and Chicago streets. But the book's progression and this last section's title, "The Womanhood," key the reader to the fact that these poems share the same protagonist. The young woman who was observed (by a skeptical if not cynical narrator) in "The Anniad" has been transformed into an acute observer of the world around her; the girl who lived in "romantic thralldom" has entered the larger world. The poet abandons the baroque diction of "The Anniad" for quotidian speech and more expansive, less pyrotechnical metrics. A speaker of transparent complexity, implicated in the life surrounding her, has replaced the ironic narrator.
Annie Allen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950—the first book by an African American poet to be so honored. Wallace Stevens was said to have remarked when the 33-year-old Brooks arrived at the banquet, "Who let the coon in?"
Though one might speculate about how much the impact of World War II on these poets' lives moved them toward the broad canvas of the epic or mock-epic poem, both H. D. and Brooks had an enduring interest in expanded form that continued after the war. H. D.’s next major work was Helen in Egypt, whose premise is an apocryphal Greek myth in which the actual Helen, replaced by a double, spent the Trojan War years in Egypt. Brooks's 1963 multi-vocal narrative, "In the Mecca," is set within the confines of a huge decaying apartment building in Chicago during the search for a missing child. This enclosure is a distinctly more dystopic vision of "community" than the streets, backyards, churches and bars of Bronzeville.
I wonder if Brooks in Chicago, where she steeped herself in the work of white American modernists along with the Harlem Renaissance poets, read Trilogy when it appeared during the war, or if H. D., in Switzerland, was sent the black poet's Pulitzer Prize–winning book in 1950. It is probable that Brooks had read the work of another poet with both epic and populist aspirations: her contemporary, Muriel Rukeyser.
Rukeyser's project as a poet was as inclusive as H. D.’s was sometimes hermetic, and her communities of choice were numerous. From her first book, published in the Yale Younger Poets series when she was 21, she showed her desire to examine and widen her own implications in the contemporary world through poetry. For her, poetry could encompass both science and history, that of the past and of the present, from the Depression through the anti-war movements in which the poet was active at the end of her career.
The young Rukeyser was an engaged Socialist—"not Sappho, Sacco," was how she described the source of her poetic energy in an early poem. It was in the magazine New Masses in 1936 that she first read about Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where numerous miners hired to dig tunnels in the mountains were falling ill and quickly dying of silicosis. There was considerable evidence that the mine owners knew of the danger but, instead of providing adequate protection, had widened the scope of the mining operation. The 22-year-old Rukeyser drove to West Virginia with a woman photographer friend. She conducted and collected interviews with miners, white and black; with their wives, widows, and children; with mine employees. She collected documentary evidence—court transcripts and testimony, stock market reports, medical diagnoses. From this, Rukeyser constructed the multi-sectioned, multi-vocal The Book of the Dead, published in 1938. Here, an American poet attempts to deconstruct the contradictions of power and social justice, integrating implicating documents, scientific evidence, and the voices of ordinary people. The poet incorporates the documentary filmmaker's techniques. The eclipsed "I" of The Book of the Dead is more like a camera's eye than a poet-protagonist's.
As with Brooks's Bronzeville, the community of Gauley Bridge is itself the protagonist. The citizens' committee spearheading the investigation, made up of black and white miners and miners' widows, has both a choral and heroic role. Like Brooks, Rukeyser uses formal variety to individualize the voices and histories making up her mosaic: blank verse quatrains, modified terza rima, the blues stanza, eruptions of prose. The progression of fact and lyric; metered stanzas; dramatic monologue; and pastoral, seemingly unadulterated prose testimony, usually in dialogue form, creates a sequence operatic in its registers and in its arias. In her finale Rukeyser connects the local present with a panoramic view of the continent, the histories working beyond and behind it: The reference to the Egyptian Book of the Dead in the title was not incidental. The poem's subject—Union Carbide's ruthless mining practices at the Gauley Bridge hydroelectric project in West Virginia—had captured national attention. Rukeyser's experiment raised questions of poetics, documentary conventions, modernist representation, and poetry's audience. It is possible that James Agee's and Walker Evans's 1941 book of reportorial/poetic prose and photographs, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was influenced by Rukeyser's synthesis of lyric and documentary; her use of documents prefigures Williams’s Paterson.
Rukeyser, like Brooks and H. D., was to write work of ambitious scope throughout a life that epitomized the poet as witness. She was in Spain as a journalist at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Thirty-five years later, she was arrested for protesting the war in Vietnam. One of Rukeyser's last projects before her death in 1980 was "The Gates," a long poem written in South Korea where, representing American PEN, she protested the imprisonment of poet Kim Chi Ha. During the McCarthy years, the FBI kept a voluminous file on her. Her literary reputation, launched with prizes and acclaim in the 1930s, waned in the 1950s, victim of Red-baiting and a conservative or willfully apolitical "New Criticism." Although there is a resemblance between Ginsberg’s Whitmanian line and inclusive, lamenting outsider's voice in "Howl" and much of Rukeyser's project—and they were both New York leftist Jews—her work was not a reference, or not cited by the Beat poets as such, during that movement's prominence in the 1960s.
These three American poets, the Pennsylvania expatriate, the working-class black Chicagoan, the leftist-activist New York Jew, demonstrate radical and radically different strategies with which poetry can confront and represent extreme situations. Each of their careers also demonstrates the danger of erasure that faces dissenting and unfashionable poetic voices, women's voices in particular, though by no means exclusively.
H. D. is the only one of these poets whose work is known outside the United States, not surprisingly, as she spent much of her life, and two World Wars, in London. Still, she was for years anthologized and represented only by the Imagist poems of her youth, whose techniques inform her later work but give no idea of its scope.
Brooks became an icon of the American Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. As such, she was expected to remodel her preoccupations and her prosody, to "unlearn technique," suppress irony, and—though it was never thus stated—to shift her focus from ordinary working-class black women and men to young male race revolutionaries. Her principled decision to publish only with small black-owned presses after 1968 had the unfortunate effect of making books written after that date difficult to obtain.
Rukeyser's 600-page Collected Poems was published in 1979, a year before her death; it went out of print soon afterward. For more than a decade, her work was unavailable, except in anthologies coming from the American feminist movement. Feminism was one of Rukeyser's causes but neither the sole nor the primary one.
Today, the works of H. D., Rukeyser, and Brooks are the focus of important critical study and can be read in new or reprint editions. Without the rescue effort made by American feminist editors and anthologists, and by African American editors and anthologists, these poets' work might have remained in the limbo of out-of-print books: a response to those who deplore "focused" anthologies as segregationist and reductive of those included.
The poet is at once essentially of her time, place, culture, and language and yet must be enough apart from them to make them comprehensible to someone whose placement is different. These poets' work, I believe, becomes comprehensible through its very specificity while demonstrating innovative ways in which poetry responds to extreme situations. Specific though they are, the thematic and formal expansiveness of these books, their varied multi-vocal or exploded approach, inscribes them in that line of modernism redefining the long poem, the poem that reclaims the ground of narrative, social observation, character depiction, and developed thought from fiction and cinema, with a scope that could be called epic. Although one can never be sure what reading has informed a poet's work, I can imagine that more-recent long poem sequences like Suzanne Gardinier’s The New World, Sharon Doubiago's South America Mi Hija, Marilyn Nelson’s The Homeplace, and Louise Glück’s Averno were permitted some of their energy and invention by the books of H. D., Brooks, and Rukeyser.
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2008 by The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poet, become a member online.