What connections do we, in 21st century Hong Kong, have with a poem written by an American more than 50 years ago? An animation by the Poetry Foundation of Muriel Rukeyser’s “I Lived in the First Century of World Wars” (1968) illustrates this ingeniously by putting side by side images from 1968 and 2018, enabling us to see the similarities of the human condition across time.
Reading the poem now when conflicts abound and a pandemic rages, many lines still resonate. This is partly due to Rukeyser’s use of generalised words and expressions such as ‘more or less insane’ and ‘various devices’, and non-specific identities such as ‘others unseen and unborn’ which allow us to map the situations described in the poem onto our own time.
Halfway through the first stanza, the poet paints a more abstract picture with greater room for imagination. Reading the following lines, a picture came to mind:
Following the paradoxes of ‘lights’, ‘darkened’, ‘night’ and ‘brightened’, the pronoun of the narrative changes from ‘I’ to ‘we’, with a series of parallel imperatives suggesting the actions ‘we’ can take, despite the circumstances. The single-line refrain of the title / opening line which closes the poem is a resolute acknowledgment of reality which defiantly reaffirms Rukeyser’s vision for the world.
Notwithstanding the changing of times, humanity’s striving for emancipation, solidarity and peace remain the same. To me, this is a powerful poem of hope and enlightenment, which encourages us to persist in spite of difficulties in turbulent times.
Sarah Sze Wah Lee is a Lecturer at the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Goldsmiths, University of London, and has taught previously at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Education University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on Anglo-American and Continental European avant-gardes in the early twentieth century, in particular interdisciplinary arts and cross-cultural artistic exchanges. She has carried out archival research in the UK, the US and France, and held a Harry Ransom Center Research Fellowship in the Humanities in 2019-20. She has published in The International Yearbook of Futurism Studies with forthcoming work in Modernist Cultures, having won the Runner-Up of the British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS) Essay Competition 2018. Her research interest in twentieth century poetry has informed her teaching of various undergraduate poetry courses at HKBU.