One of the fun things about writing a blog is being able to write about whatever I want to write about ;). Today it’s poetry. Specifically the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980).
She’s one of my favorite poets. Her most famous poem ended up creating a rallying cry for feminist scholars and women writers.
The Poem as Mask
When I wrote of the women in their dances and
wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.
No more masks! No more mythologies!
Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.
Once, Rukeyser wrote about herself under the mask of myth. But now Rukeyser was throwing off the mask. She (and by extension, all women) could now show herself in print and in real life without masks.
Women no longer had to pretend to be what they were not.
Unfortunately, I think people are still wearing masks.
Today, it might be easier to have masks. We lurk behind social media, cell phones, and, yes, blogs, never fully showing ourselves without masks.
I will say that I think some masks are necessary, and that we have to protect ourselves.
But the masks Rukeyser is referring to are masks that deny who we truly are. For instance, she was a lesbian, and in a time when it was considered abnormal to be gay, homosexuality was one identity that many people felt forced to deny. A good mask to abandon.
In trying to figure out what masks I’ve worn, I think too often I have been in social settings where I didn’t feel comfortable being the nerd that I really am and have pretended to be more conventional and modulated, hiding my passions for nerdy pursuits like scholarship, writing, and poetry.
45 responses to “All Our Masks”
Hoo boy, Luanne. That is one LARGE can of worms I think I’ll leave closed for now at least. I know I wear masks and they are most certainly for self-preservation and to fit in. Awesome, awesome post. Driving a lot today and this will be on my mind.
S, so glad to hear that it will be on your mind ;). The masks for self-preservation are one thing, but even so, it’s like the one that I’ve used for social settings for so many years, while it does protect me from ridicule, it also probably keeps like-minded others out! Safe travels!
I just decided to take off the ‘serious artist’ mask I tried to put on for my blog…I am not a serious artist, I make art for fun, and I do other things that I have always been a little embarrassed about like shopping and liking makeup. A serious artist/woman isn’t supposed to be into those girly things, right? But just this weekend I decided to embrace who I am and changed up my blog to include categories about makeup and hair because I end up writing about them all the time anyway!
CC, loving! your new blog design. I want to spend more time over there, but let me ask you a question first: you know how you have, for instance, your poetry in a separate category from “blog”? Is it also available through the blog portal? Does that make sense? Are post categorized in more than one way? Seriously, I am really loving it. I guess the perm inspired your “frivolous” side ;)!
Poems are just in the “poem” category. At this point I consider the ‘blog’ category simply stuff that fits nowhere else…I thought about totally getting rid of it, but there are things I post that don’t fit anywhere, like the stuff about the carpet. Maybe there’s a better title for that section than ‘blog’? I mean, the whole thing is a blog really. “miscellaneous’ sounds lame, but that’s kind of what it is.
I’m sure you can come up with something fun. Now which category is correct for the masseuse?
mareymercy, I am a serious artist. I wear an engagement/wedding ring and I LOVE to shop. The boho dance can be done by non artists. And frequently when you see the goofball clothes etc, they can’t walk the walk.
It’s the art we do. We are the artists. We decide how we should look and how we act!
Thanks Hollis 🙂
Reblogged this on The Wait Poetry Anthology and commented:
Something to think about for all people, especially creative writers!
Thank you so much for the reblog!
Lots of food for thought here!
Should be consumed with a cup of coffee or tea, your choice ;). Have a great week, Anneli!
My biggest mask is my ‘work’ mask – the one that I wear for the ‘9 to 5’ – when I come home and I create, that’s when I’m truly me, so the me on my blog is (with a little bit of distance, the protection you talk about) probably the truest me.
Ugh, yes, the work mask! Andrea, what a good point. That is a mask I wear, especially on the phone where I do a lot of my business interactions. Maybe they think I’m a very efficient business person. Wink wink. That’s how I feel about the blog, too. I write about stuff I rarely ever talk to anyone about!! I mean, how am I going to say to an accountant I deal with for business, “Hey, have you read any Muriel Rukeyser poetry?” hahaha
Sometimes I wear a mask; it is protective to shield me. I strive for authenticity in all aspects of my life and believe I live “true.” Beautiful words and thought provoking post, Luanne!
Lynne, you and I have discussed the necessity for some masks in writing nonfiction, but authenticity is so important or our writing won’t be “true.” Thank you so much xo.
Oh wonderful post Luanne (love Rukeyser) 🙂 I know what you mean when you say you tried to come across as ‘conventional’ LOL, all my attempts to come across as ‘conventional’ have failed miserably. About the same time I started my own business in my early thirties is when I decided to stay true to myself and my dreams and embraced my ‘special’ traits (Quirky, Zany and the team).
Yolanda, there is a long poem Rukeyser wrote that I can’t remember now, but there is a silly line in it that I can’t ever forget, “You with your red hair.” Isn’t that strange that I always think of that? It seems so meaningful in the poem! So funny about “Quirky, Zany and the team”!!! Yes, conventional is so absolutely boring. But it’s kind of fun to let people think that sometimes and then . . . surprise the heck out of them!
funny you should mention that line with ‘red’ for some reason too Plath’s perfect line “The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me” (from the poem “Tulips”) always pops into my head when I see tulips, as does “explosions” every time I walk past bright poppies – all thanks to Plath. Plath was very fond of the colour red.
“Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.” Hooks and red are both so memorable to me. “Ariel” has red and hook, too.
Hey Luanne! I am your new follower! I am one of those people who crosses a lot of boundaries (gets along with a lot of different types of people) but gets in trouble for being too honest! However, when I am with folks I find dull ( rarely ), I put on a mask and hide my honesty. A good thing huh? But I end up having a bad time. As everyone does when they cannot be themselves.
I think it is a tendency for all women to feel they need to please. I rebel against that a little. Which is not shedding a mask, it’s being contrary. And again I don’t like myself when I do that.
Perhaps the best thing, is for me, is, to be pleasant, true to myself, but say little in those situations!
Yes yes yes, the need to please! It’s one of the most unifying characteristics in women. Not all, but so many have that tendency. I am not immune to it at all! And neither is my daughter, and I worry I made her that way. I get very contrary with authority figures, oftentimes. It’s a protection, more than a rebellion for me, I think. Maybe. Or not. Hmm. Yes, re your last sentence! I love your comments, Hollis!
Thanks, Luanne for introducing Rukeyser’s poetry. My affinity for poetry is blooming in recent years and I’ve devoured stanzas from Oliver, Whyte & Collins.
I love how you connected the idea of the mask with self. As individuals, writers and the other roles we play in life, I believe “masking” is ever present. To be authentic requires a certain amount of vulnerability. I am not certain how many of us are equipped to reveal our true selves.
Rudri, I’m thrilled to hear that about you and poetry! Reading poetry is so good for the prose writing, I think, and you seem like a good fit for poetry because you are a sensitive person. Yes re the vulnerability!!!! Well put, Ms HuffPo :)! Congrats to you!!!!
I have always thought of that MR photo as having the caption, “My girdle is killing me.” I unmasked myself to write that.
Thank you for this hilarious comment! As IF Rukeyser would wear a girdle! Oh, do you think she had to? Would she have been arrested in those days without a girdle on? Good grief, I remember girdles. And garter belts. Torture implements.
I had never heard of this poet until reading your post. I so agree with rudrip that “to be authentic requires a certain amount of vulnerability.” I would also add that it requires trust. I think I most wear a mask when I don’t disclose my true feelings so as not to hurt a person (yes, your new hair cut looks nice…) or more often so as not to be rejected…but then I reject my true self.
Carol, definitely check her out. She is following in the footsteps of Walt Whitman, I think, but completely of her own time and heralding the future for women.
Trust yes. Have you ever played that game where everyone stands in a circle and one person in the middle, blindfolded or eyes closed, has to fall backwards and believe he/she will be caught? I could never do that!!!
I have played this game when I was an adolescent and nothing bad happened…I would still do it again but only with certain people catching me. 🙂
I have to go with Andrea’s answer, the work mask. I’m a completely different person during those day job hours than I am on the night and the weekend.
Jill, I agree! I had forgotten about that one!!! I feel like such a phony sometimes!! Thank goodness I can be myself here with my blogger buddies!!! xoxo
I feel the same! We don’t have to hide our red necks! xo
I used to wear a ‘corporate’ mask when I worked in that world. I’m so glad I’ve left there now and discarded that mask. It’s so enlightening! 😀
Dianne, even that word “corporate” is enough to make my skin crawl. And I do work in business, but my own, and even am involved in a corporation, but that word corporate is just so . . . descriptive. You must feel so relieved and free!!!
I love Rukeyser — the Muriel Rukeyser Reader, edited by Jan Haller Levi, is one I take off the shelf often. The poem about Käthe Kollwitz is the one that’ll stay with me forever, the one that includes the much-quoted lines “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” It’s happening more and more, but it still isn’t easy, and it’s still dangerous. Do you know Adrienne Rich’s prose poem / essay “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”? It’s a fine companion to Rukeyser — who was a big influence on Rich, and just about every other feminist poet who came of age in the late 20th century.
Susanna, well put: “who was a big influence on Rich, and just about every other feminist poet who came of age in the late 20th century.” Yes! I’ve spent a great deal of time reading Rich as well. That’s (“Women and Honor”) such a fine piece. It always bothers me when I think about the part about lying with our bodies. I have such mixed feelings about it–probably because I’m such a product of the culture. Re Rukeyser, I so love that poem. Yes, I have the reader and used it for writing my dissertation years ago. I have a chapter devoted to Rukeyser and the performance of nationalism. Rich is another poet I wrote about. Also Plath, Hogan, Graham, Anzaldúa, and Lorde. I hope Rukeyser and Rich and these other poets (besides Plath who is always read) are still being read by young women.
What wonderful writers to write a dissertation about! I reread Anzaldúa and Lorde often — the nonfiction much more often than the poetry. With Rich and Judy Grahn it’s the poetry I keep going back to. “Women and Honor” is a lodestar for me, something I’m always aiming for but will never reach. Telling the truth is hard! I saw plenty of “horizontal hostility” (including trashing) in the feminist movement and the lesbian community. Rich helped me begin to recognize it, in myself as well as others. So did Joanna Russ. Most of what they wrote applies in the wider world too.
Oh, I forgot about Joanna Russ. How to Suppress Women’s Writing was such an eye-opening experience for me. I read it when I was just starting grad school. Sometimes I forget to read these poets for a long stretch and then I have to remind myself and go back and then I fall in love with them all over again.
I love literature, writing and reading. I also really enjoyed science and theatre, too. I was a marching band and science club ‘nerd.’
I have been a ‘soccer mom’ while I was never very athletic, as a teenager, my three children were. I felt a little different in my cheering and my behaviors in this social setting. (less driven, less vocal)
I have been a teacher, where I did not have to mold myself in most of my schools I taught in. Only once, was I ‘let down’ by administration, which is not the story, just that I did find myself not accepted for the ‘real me.’ Most of the time, I go brazenly, throwing my ‘mask’ out the window! Smiles, Robin
Robin, I love that you were a “marching band and science club ‘nerd.'” It’s so wonderful that you felt free to be who you wanted to be in high school. So many of us did not do that–and I include myself in that masked group. My kids were also better athletes than I was, but then when my daughter ended up (having to choose) choosing performing arts over athletics it was more my element. But I think I understand what you mean about the social setting. Sports is not our comfort zone. We don’t “speak the language,” so to speak.
I’m so sorry about what happened to you when you were teaching. That sounds like a sad experience for you.
Keep on throwing away your masks, Robin! xo
What a great topic! I actually first heard about Rukeyser during a Women’s Studies class that was on the waves of feminism. I agree with you — we all wear masks, and we usually wear them when we’re uncomfortable. The mask I wear – that I want to shed – is that everything’s okay. People can be downright rude or mean to me, but I’ll just smile + act like everything’s okay. But internally, it feels terrible! That’s a mask I’d love to throw away.
Caitlin, thank you for sharing that mask. Oh, I can’t help but think that is probably a common one with so many of us women! When people say how are you, I usually bounce right back with “I’m great, how about you?” even if I am having a lousy day/week! Then I immediately feel like a liar and as if I put up a barrier that I want to take down right away!
What would happen if you got rid of that mask? What would you lose, do you think? What would you gain? Ah, if only I could answer those questions for myself hahaha. Thanks so much! xo
Masks are indeed still a struggle for many in our society. That poem is so beautiful and so is your message.
Thanks for stopping by, Anna! Yes, they are and Rukeyser expresses it so eloquently!