The poem utilizes modern techniques, including long line breaks, caesura, and intentional confusion regarding who is speaking and who is listening. Readers are meant to find themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the speech patterns and strange behavior of the two speakers. But, their words should also be highly relatable as Rukeyser took her inspiration from contemporary life and everyday struggles between friends and couples.
Explore Effort at Speech Between Two People
‘Effort at Speech Between Two People’ by Muriel Rukeyser is a poem about communication between two people getting to know one another.
The poem shares a few important experiences in the lives of two people. It begins with a story about a birthday party, speaks about one person’s past relationship, explores one’s suicidal thoughts, and more. Throughout, the poet uses language that suggests that the two are struggling to get their words out. This includes long pauses between the phrases.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with the theme of communication. Specifically, communication between two people who are struggling with their personal traumas while attempting to get to know one another. The poet suggests that it takes a great deal of effort and time to break through another person’s barriers, and it may never happen at all.
Structure and Form
‘Effort at Speech Between Two People’ by Muriel Rukeyser is a seven-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are of different lengths, use a variety of line breaks, and have very different end sounds.
The structure of this piece is one of the more interesting things about it, in fact. When one takes a first glance at the text, it stanzas out, each stanza begins with a colon, then a space, and then the first word. This alludes to the title, and the poem’s overall message—how difficult true, honest communication can be between two people.
There are also some large spaces in the middle of the lines. These suggest pauses in someone’s speech or the transition between one speaker and the other. For example, someone says, “Speak to me,” then the poet inserts a large space before continuing with “Take my hand” in stanzas one and three.
Throughout ‘Effort at Speech Between Two People,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “: Speak to me” begins with stanzas one and three.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sore spot” in line six of the first stanza and “blowing” and “birds” in line three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward death.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza six and lines three and four of stanza seven.
: Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.
In the first stanza of the poem, Rukeyser begins by using a colon, signifying that something important is going to follow. The fact that this is repeated at the beginning of each stanza, as well as in the middle of some lines, lessens the reader’s suspense regarding what’s to follow. This technique helps emphasize efforts at and failures at communication.
The first stanza includes fractured language readers can expect in all seven. Two speakers are interacting and attempting to share something true about themselves. One begins by saying they will “tell you all” and relating the details of a birthday party gone wrong.
The speaker remembers beings traumatized by a story about a dead, pink rabbit and then burning their finger on their birthday candles. Rather than sympathy, they got “be happy” from their family. They were told to ignore what they were experiencing and put on a happy face, even if they didn’t feel that way.
Sharing this story and others that follow is a way of delving into the experiences that define and explain these two people. This youthful experience changed the speaker in some way.
: Oh, grow to know me. I am not happy. I will be open:
There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.
The second stanza begins similarly to the first with a declaration of openness and sharing. The speaker (whether they are the same or the second person is unclear) describes how they used to love someone who “wanted to live, sailing.” They remember being on the sea and the “white sails” that they compare (through a simile) to “glad horns blowing.”
This is an image of freedom that brings this speaker some amount of joy. But, it’s in the past, something that readers can assume brings about feelings of regret for the speaker.
: Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now?
link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.
The third stanza begins with a refrain, repeating the same two phrases that started the poem. It is followed by the line “What are you now?” This suggests that things have changed for one of the speakers, that life, and all its ups and downs, has transformed them integrally.
The speaker looks back on another member from their youth. When they were nine, they were sentimental and wept when their “widowed aunt played Chopin,” an allusion to Frédéric François Chopin, a Polish composer who passed away in 1848. The speaker was moved by the music and cried.
But, this isn’t who they are anymore, they suggest. Now, all they want is to “be close to you” and link the “minutes of [their] days close, somehow, to your days.” With this declaration, readers can assume that the two engaged in this conversation are close to one another, perhaps lovers.
: I am not happy. I will be open.
On what a tragedy his life was, really.
The fourth stanza is short, only three lines long, and repeats the phrase “I am not happy.” There is also the first example of a gendered pronoun in this stanza. The speaker refers to an unknown male figure, someone with a tragic life.
Before this, they contemplate the darker parts of their life as well as the quieter ones. They’ve not always been happy and have “fear” in their life. This leads them to consider the man someone with a tragic life. At this point, it’s unclear who they’re thinking of.
: Take my hand. Fist my mind in your hand. What are you now?
I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.
In the fifth stanza, readers hear from one of the speakers about dreams of suicide and “hoping toward death.” The poem turns this dark image into light as the speaker remembers standing at the window and deciding not to leap out because the darkness outside had turned into light.
: I will be open. I think he never loved me:
he said with a gay mouth: I love you. Grow to know me.
The mysterious male figure from stanza four is included again in stanza six. Here, the speaker recalls a relationship with a man, someone who “loved the bright beaches” and told them that he loved them. But, the speaker now thinks that this was probably untrue.
Likely, this experience changed this person’s understanding of other people and approach to relationships. It may be why they are so cautious now in their communication attempts.
: What are you now? If we could touch one another,
Everyone silent, moving. . . . Take my hand. Speak to me.
In the final stanza, the speaker notes that “we could touch one another, / if these our separate entities could come to grips.” The two are separate. They are separated by their life experiences and unwillingness or inability to truly communicate.
If they could break down this barrier, as they seem to be trying to do, they could fit together “like a Chinese puzzle,” another example of a simile.
The poem ends with an image of “a crowded street” and no one speaking, but the morning light was shining. There are positives and negatives to this image. While no one knew one another or attempted to get to know one another, there was light. This light, which can be interpreted as a symbol of hope, is important to the speaker. It was seen previously in the stanza where one of the two contemplated suicide and decided not to because the sun rose.
The poem’s final phrase is “Speak to me.” This suggests that they haven’t gotten to the point where they truly communicate openly with one another but that they are still trying.
The message is that open and honest communication between two people is a rare thing and that it can be a real struggle to attain. The two speakers, at this point, attempt to share memories from their youth and defining moments or images from their lives more generally. But, their language is still fractured and sometimes desperate-sounding as they try to communicate.
The theme is that meaningful communication or speech is difficult. The two spend these lines attempting to get to a place where they know one another better. But, it’s not an easy task.
The purpose is to explore the difficulties in truly knowing someone in the contemporary world. Past experiences, traumas, heartbreaks, and more get in the way of one’s willingness to share.
She is known for her poems that explore feminism, contemporary life, activism and social issues, and more. Her contemporary poems are sometimes complex but are studied worldwide in schools and by poetry lovers of all ages.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should consider reading some other Muriel Rukeyser poems. For example:
- ‘Then I Saw What the Calling Was’ – is a beautiful and complicated poem that speaks about life and experience.
- ‘The Poem as Mask’ – is a powerful, feminist poem that speaks to the poet’s experiences in life and with her poetry.
- ‘Who in One Lifetime‘ – a poem about resistance in the face of war and suffering. The speaker asserts that a woman referred to only as “she” is standing strong despite what she’s seen.