The First Century of These Wars

By Sean Carroll | February 2, 2011 8:00 am

An untitled poem by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). Here is Rukeyser’s FBI file.

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

  • Thomas

    I will be impressed when you write one yourself, haha.

  • Sean

    I have not shied away from putting my poetic stylings online.

  • Mike

    “capricious squirming turgid universe
    spurns our secret salient desire
    above an arid circle chaste and stiff
    the sky impugns my torpid poetry”

    I think that just about sums it up

  • bob

    She is best known to scientists, if at all, for her biography of Willard Gibbs. She had first learned about Gibbs from the electrochemist Theodore Shedlovsky and became fascinated enough to write a biography. Some reviewers pointed out technical errors that would have been avoided had she been a scientist, but the physicist and historian of physics Martin Klein wrote in his article on Gibbs for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography that the book is “valuable for period background and a poet’s insight.”

  • Dr. Louis Creed

    Why the f*ck are you posting poetry on the day the Kepler team announced its results????

  • Tim

    Another poem along the same lines:
    My Twentieth Century

    I played hopscotch at twilight in the twentieth century.
    I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.
    I saw the moon shipwrecked in the twentieth century.

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    I wore ridiculous clothes in the twentieth century.
    I danced like a sumac tree in the twentieth century.
    I went to a sensitivity workshop and had my umbrella stolen in the twentieth

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    I wasted three years on geometry in the twentieth century.
    I was anesthetized through most of the twentieth century.
    I loved Kawasaki in the twentieth century.

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    I ate sweet apples in the twentieth century.
    I ate my peck of dirt in the twentieth century.
    I ate my words in the twentieth century.

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    I wrote passionate letters in the twentieth century.
    I was incapable of keeping silent in the twentieth century.
    I shed pints of blood in the twentieth century.

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    I leaned like a lampshade over my life in the twentieth century.
    I prayed to the Son of Man in the twentieth century.
    It was nearly possible to live in the twentieth century.

    My brother died in the twentieth century.

    There was something very obvious in the twentieth century
    I could never see or understand.
    The dead knocked on the door of my life in the twentieth century.

    Who’s there? I said.
    — Tom Andrews
    (adapted by Martin Bresnick)

  • Ijon Tichy

    And thanks to nuclear weapons, invented by physicists, she also lived in the last century of world wars.

  • tudza

    I’ve known no war
    And if I ever do I won’t know for sure
    Who’ll be fighting whom
    For the soldiers lonely tomb
    Now opens as soon as the referee’s gun starts to roar
    I’ll know no war

  • here

    @7: Clearly, if we scientists could create even bigger weapons, we would enjoy even greater peace!

  • Suetonius

    I prefer Christopher Hart’s immortal “Bono, Irish Twit”:

    ‘Bono in your sunglasses, even when it rains,
    Bono in your private jet while the rest of us take trains,
    Bono with your tax affairs safely overseas,
    Bono, oh will you shut up, please.’

  • Thomas

    Here you have my try on a double limerick:

    From calculus and prose,
    a special kind of people arose,
    they unraveled the secrets,
    through the process of making gold nuggets,
    ignorance they strongly opposed.

    The stuff of matter were so discovered,
    the special parts they later altered,
    smashing many protons,
    observing up to six leptons,
    on these scales they pondered.

  • T. C. Mits

    Of World Wars:
    There may only be one such century after all.
    WWIII seems imminent enough that one may believe it will
    demarcate about one hundred Summers from the original —
    ‘War to End All Wars’.
    And this new one may just do the trick –
    there wouldn’t be enough left to fight with – or over –
    that man could again inflict
    that particular brand of inhumanity upon her brother –
    or herself.
    It is not so vain a thought
    that all together would take to heart
    the words so often heard and little heeded:
    “War is hell.”

  • S Halayka

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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