Pho­to: Cour­tesy of UNC Greens­boro Spe­cial Col­lec­tions and Uni­ver­si­ty Archives. Back­ground: Cour­tesy of the British Library. Design: Natal­ie Aflalo

Twen­ty Notes on Muriel Rukeyser’s To be Jew in the twen­ti­eth century”

1. It can be intim­i­dat­ing to read an icon­ic poem, because it appears with the sense of already hav­ing been read cor­rect­ly, or bet­ter, more thor­ough­ly, like mov­ing into a house that the pre­vi­ous own­ers real­ly knew how to han­dle. Which is why I’ll start with the first stan­za of To be Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry,” rather than the whole thing:

To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth century

Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,

Wish­ing to be invis­i­ble, you choose

Death of the spir­it, the stone insanity.

Accept­ing, take full life. Full agonies:

Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood

Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God

Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

2. But this poem isn’t even a poem — it’s part of a poem. And one that has gone by many titles and been used for a vari­ety of pur­pos­es. In the 1975 edi­tion of Gates of Prayer, for exam­ple, it appears as Israel’s Mission.”

3. The orig­i­nal title of To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry” is 7.” At least, that’s how it’s labeled in Rukeyser’s fourth book, Beast in View (1944), part of a long poem titled Let­ter to the Front.”

4. Rukeyser is a clas­sic poet-vision­ary. But unlike your stan­dard-issue vision­ary, Rukeyser’s vision is root­ed in the bru­tal speci­fici­ty of the here-and-now — even as it dares to see more, bet­ter, beyond … to the impos­si­ble. Like here, in the final lines of Part 2 in Let­ter to the Front”: I have seen a ship lying upon the water / Rise like a great bird, like a lift­ed promise.”

5. It would be against Rukeyser’s ethos to refrain from con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry,” or 7,” or what­ev­er you want to call it. Rukeyser wasn’t about the uni­ver­sal”; her poems take place—in spe­cif­ic years, loca­tions, polit­i­cal and social settings.

6. So please allow me to con­tex­tu­al­ize. To be a Jew” appears in Beast of View, along­side poems like Bub­ble of Air,” in which Rukeyser evokes Wal­ter Benjamin’s back­ward-fac­ing, for­ward mov­ing Angel of History:

The angel of the century

stood on the night and would be heard;

turned to my dreams of tears and sang:

Woman, Amer­i­can, and Jew,

three guardians watch over you,

three lions of heritage

resist the evil of your age

Woman, Amer­i­can, Jew: our poet.

7. To con­tex­tu­al­ize some more, Let­ter to the Front,” con­tain­er of To be a Jew,” is a fas­ci­nat­ing long poem in ten parts, includ­ing a wide vari­ety of verse forms. Part I begins with anoth­er icon­ic Rukeyser line, Women and poets see the truth arrive.”

8. But I’m on my eighth note already, and it’s time to home in on the poem/­part-of-a-poem at hand.

9. To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry” — there are many moves here that are char­ac­ter­is­tic of Rukeyser’s poetics:

10. E.g., a short sen­tence slic­ing up a line, like at the begin­ning of the sec­ond stan­za, which we had bet­ter get to:

The gift is tor­ment. Not alone the still

Tor­ture, iso­la­tion; or tor­ture of the flesh.

That may come also. But the accept­ing wish,

The whole and fer­tile spir­it as guarantee

For every human free­dom, suf­fer­ing to be free,

Dar­ing to live for the impossible.

With the choice it offers between refus­ing the gift of one’s Jew­ish­ness and accept­ing it,

the poem twists against itself, those short sen­tences break­ing in two the lines in which

they appear.

11. And, e.g., the weird rhymes and the rhyme schemes that threat­en to just dis­ap­pear entire­ly. What does that soar­ing and sur­pris­ing final word, impos­si­ble,” rhyme with in this son­net? The only rea­son­able can­di­date is still,” as from the line The gift is tor­ment. Not alone the still.”

Still / impos­si­ble is the kind of rhyme that is some­times called a near rhyme — as in close, but not exact­ly a rhyme. Dar­ing to live for the impos­si­ble”: Part of what makes the poem’s final line so soar­ing and sur­pris­ing is how far that near rhyme is.

12. To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry” is a son­net, and a son­net is a box. A son­net doesn’t need to be about love, but in order to be a son­net, it needs to be, on some lev­el, about chang­ing your mind. To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry” is trapped in the box of itself, with two dif­fer­ent options, exit and entrance, and that’s tor­ture.” It is strict­ly for­mal and suf­fer­ing to be free.”

13. My favorite part of the poem is the sec­ond half of the first stanza:

Accept­ing, take full life. Full agonies:

Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood

Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God

Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

I love the line Accept­ing, take full life. Full ago­nies:” After that relief, the accep­tance of

full life, the ago­nies rise up imme­di­ate­ly, promis­ing terror.

The phrase resist, fail, and resist” makes me think of anoth­er son­net, John Donne’s holy son­net Bat­ter my heart, three-person’d God” (prob­a­bly not its real” title, either): Come at me, God, Donne says (that’s a para­phrase), That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

A son­net, like pain, or faith, twists and turns inside itself—against itself.

14. Set­ting aside ques­tions of rhyme, meter, and length, why is To be a Jew” — or Bat­ter my heart,” for that mat­ter — a son­net? Not because it’s about love. Because it turns.

15. In her essay The Edu­ca­tion of a Poet,” writ­ten short­ly before her death, Rukeyser remem­bers her unique Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, hav­ing grown up in a house with no sto­ries, no songs, no spe­cial food.” Rukeyser’s moth­er, how­ev­er, told her

that we were descend­ed from Aki­ba, the mar­tyr who resist­ed the Romans in the 1st cen­tu­ry and who was tor­tured to death after the Bar Kokh­ba rebel­lion was defeat­ed. Aki­ba was flayed with iron rakes tear­ing his flesh until at the end he said, I know I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love him with all my life.” Now this is an extra­or­di­nary gift to give a child.

So the first lines of this poem To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry / Is to be offered a gift” are lit­er­al for the poet: Rukeyser was actu­al­ly offered a direct sense of belong­ing with­in Jew­ish his­to­ry, as a gift.” I notice how many words from To be a Jew” appear in this pas­sage: tor­ture, cen­tu­ry, flesh, life …

16. Same sto­ry, dif­fer­ent century.

17. The phrase To be” is so twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Peo­ple in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry are hun­gry for books, movies, poems, songs, titled How to be …” We want the answer along with the ques­tion. Just tell us what to do. Don’t let us strug­gle like a fish in a net, like oppos­ing ideas in a son­net, trapped in ambivalence.

18. There’s anoth­er inter­est­ing near rhyme in the poem: century/​insanity:

To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry

Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,

Wish­ing to be invis­i­ble, you choose

Death of the spir­it, the stone insan­i­ty.

In that rhyme is the poem’s ten­sion, its To be instead of How to be: the speci­fici­ty, the order­ing nature of time, this cen­tu­ry and no oth­er — rhymed with the chaos and ran­dom­ness of insanity.

19. To set a poem in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is a way of intro­duc­ing pol­i­tics into poet­ry. This isn’t just any time, a piece of death­less, time­less poet­ry; this is my now, wher­ev­er you, read­er, may find it.

20. In the intro­duc­tion to Flo­rence Howe’s clas­sic col­lec­tion, No More Masks!: An Anthol­o­gy of Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Women Poets (which is ded­i­cat­ed to Rukeyser and named in homage to her Poem as Mask”), Howe writes that Rukeyser’s poems are about events and their mean­ings for Jews and oth­ers who live aware of a dan­ger­ous world.”

21. *(Bonus thought): Per­haps this son­net is still stand­ing in our imag­i­na­tions and reli­gious lives because Twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry” can be swapped in so neat­ly, from a met­ri­cal stand­point, for Twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.” It almost sounds bet­ter than the original:

To be a Jew in the twen­ty-first century

Is to be offered a gift …

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.