I’m thrilled to introduce Louise Kertesz to you. I first came to read Muriel Rukeyser through Adrienne Rich’s poetry, and you get used to reading one sensibility, even as it evolves and breaks and innovates. But when you start reading someone new, someone as complicated as Rukeyser, it’s bewildering at first, and you need a guide. So, as many of you have done, I turned to Louise’s 1980 monograph, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, where as I read, I could see the patterns of the themes and images and processes come into coherent shape. Louise had had to rely mostly on the book reviews, because there was so little scholarship available at the time, and her discussions of eras and deft placement of Rukeyser among ancestors was immensely clarifying. Several qualities stood out. The determined assertion of the worth and uniqueness of Muriel Rukeyser’s work and vision. The disentangling of assumptions, often sexist. Here are some examples. Early on, Louise notes that
Rukeyser, . . . though reviewers have labeled her a ‘pythoness’ and a ‘sybil’ because she emphasizes the deep insights poetry affords us into reality, does not write as a visionary of Crane’s type. . . . (8)
Or, she mentions how “Rukeyser is assumed to have been influenced by Auden, to have taken her philosophical, political, and artistic cues from him and his group.” Then she proceeds to demolish that case, comparing Auden to Rukeyser. She observes that his
early poems are not at all like the poems in Theory of Flight. Nor is the verse in his plays, burlesques, and travel book like Rukeyser’s poetry in her second volume, U.S. 1. Auden’s first work was not a grappling with the emerging self in the context of a society in turmoil about which he cared intensely and specifically. Auden said, “Before 1930, I never opened a newspaper.” That would have made him twenty-four by the time he presumably opened a newspaper on a fairly regular basis. But by the time she was twenty-four Rukeyser had already tried to cover the Scottsboro trials for a student newspaper, and contracted typhoid in an Alabama jail, given streetcorner speeches in New York, made her investigative journey to Gauley, WV, and studied congressional reports of the miners’ deaths there for her long poem in US 1, and witnessed the first fighting of the Spanish Civil War. (50)
You get the idea of how Louise was able to rectify slipshod judgments and articulate new terms and contexts for understanding Rukeyser’s work, as, Rukeyser, a visionary ahead of her time, suffered even from her supporters’ judgments.
What also makes Louise’s work so admirable, is that she did it all on her own, without benefit of others’ shared interest, without the internet, so that to find a source meant to physically travel to the library or to the archive or to contact an individual by mail. In an era of typewriters this meant a different kind of writing process.
As I was reading the monograph, I started to wonder where Louise was, and I searched online. When I couldn’t find her at any universities, she became something of a mystery herself. I started imagining her from her prose. Fiercely intelligent, logical, able to synthesize and contextualize in such a clear way, firmly making the case for the seriousness of Rukeyser’s work. Louise seemed to have disappeared herself. Every now and then, I would try another search, and finally, I happened to see her name on Linked In. I wrote and asked – are you THE Louise Kertesz who wrote the book on Muriel?
Later, with Elisabeth, we found out what Louise had been doing for all those years. She had had interviews in academia, but the male committees had not recognized the worth of Louise’s or Rukeyser’s work. A practical person, Louise had to go on. Divorcing, with two young children to support, she found editorial work and eventually became a writer for Automotive News, traveling in the Midwest and South, covering United Auto Worker activities as well as new Japanese plants. Later she became an editor on topics such as business insurance and healthcare, and finally, as an independent, took on copy editing (of scholarly books!) and ghostwriting.
When we met, Louise hadn’t realized what an impact her book had had. How for almost all of us it was the first gateway into understanding Muriel’s poetry, the only full-length study, a needed foundation for the current efflorescence of ideas and angles and connections.
So you can understand how deeply satisfying it is now, to at least begin to try to give Louise her due, to introduce her to all of you, who can appreciate what she has done and how remarkable it is.