Enjoy hearing–and viewing–various Muriel Rukeyser poems read, and in one case performed, in the 21st century to celebrate her 108th birthday on December 15, 2021. Submitted readings are from friends, scholars, and admirers of Rukeyser. Thank you to everyone who submitted a reading.
Dennis: It’s a pleasure and an honor to welcome William L. Rukeyser, son of the late poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser, who we are honoring, studying, remembering, during this extended two-day webinar at Eastern Michigan University. Eastern Michigan University is creating an archive for the great work of the biographer and poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. And her son, William, has agreed to talk a little bit about his mom and what it’s like to grow up as the son of a great poet and a visionary.
Dennis: So, welcome, William Rukeyser, to “Flashpoints”, and it is very good to have you with us. And we should let people know that you are the William L. Rukeyser. There is another William Rukeyser, who was very close to your mom, but we are glad to have you with us. So, welcome.
Bill: Well, I’m glad to be here with you, Dennis.
Dennis: All right. Well, why don’t we begin at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about how you came to understand that your mom was a poet, a famous poet, that a great many people cared about, many loved, and some weren’t crazy about. Give us some background there.
Bill: Yeah. That’s absolutely true. And obviously, as a kid, as a little kid, I first understood that books were incredibly important in her life, in our lives. This was – when I was quite young, like three, four, before I understood her relationships with books, I saw them all around. And I remember, shortly after we moved back to New York City, that we were in a small basement apartment, and it was small enough that she had to, very reluctantly, get rid of many of her books, simply to make space. And I remember piles of books on the floor, when she was sorting them, and the fact that it was with a good deal of reluctance that she was selling them. So, that was my first introduction.
And then, in the next apartment, when we moved out of the basement and were on the first floor in a New York brownstone, what I remember is the huge table, worktable that she had, made out of a door on a couple of sawhorses, and the fact that she spent a lot of time writing. And back then, a lot of her writing was done in longhand, with an old pen. I’m not talking about a quill pen, dipping it in ink, but a fountain pen, which, even in the early ‘50s, was something that was going out of style. But she used a fountain pen with a very distinctive color of ink that she would seek out at stationery stores. And she would spend a lot of time, working, revising, crossing things out, trying to get the writing just right.
As far as the fame, that was something that I understood much, much later. And you have to understand that over the course of her career, she was kinda like Sergeant Pepper’s Band. She kept going in and out of style. And frankly, the early ‘50s were not a high point in terms of her public acceptance. That really was much earlier, when she was in her early 20s. For a few years, she was like a shooting star. Then, styles of criticism, currents in politics, wending in other directions, and so, I understood that the writing was important. I understood that there were vast disappointments in terms of her dealings with publishers.
And later on, in the ’60s, in the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, as the Women’s Movement gained steam, her career ascended again, in terms of an appreciative audience. But it was very, very cyclical. It was something that she dealt with, and she got – like many poets, she wrote from an inner need. She certainly didn’t write poetry to earn a living.
Dennis: And talk a little bit about the way in which she considered herself. You were – it was – she was a single-parent mom. I’m wondering how that made its way into your life and how that impacted on her writing.
Bill: Well, I think that the first thing to recognize is that, in the late ‘40s, in even a place like the Bay Area, being a single-parent mom was not a popular choice. It was not a socially acceptable choice. She told stories about life during her pregnancy and how very supportive friends of hers – and I’m not talking about people who disapproved of her choice to get pregnant and take it to term, I’m talking about people who were supportive – warned her about the challenges ahead, said, ‘You know, if you decide that this is not the choice for you, we will take care of your baby. We will adopt your baby, if necessary.’ So, this was not a choice made at one, single time. It was a choice that was repeatedly made.
And she had a difficult delivery in Berkeley. This was a time when mortality among mothers and babies was not unheard of. It was certainly a lot more common back then, than it is now. So, these were realities that she dealt with. The financial realities, I think came as a bit of a shock to her. And the long hours that a parent would have to put in, especially a single parent, in the years of cloth diapers and formula that you mixed by hand, I think that that was definitely a real challenge, more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
Luckily, she had good friends in San Francisco, who helped with my upbringing and then, admirers who helped her financially. And that made a huge difference to her and made a – obviously, an important difference in my life.
Dennis: How did – were you aware of perhaps how this might have affected not just her work but her relationships, say her relationships with her family and her parents? Was this a part of it? Did you, at a certain point, become aware of this as perhaps both a problem and an interesting situation? [laughs]
Bill: Absolutely. She came from a family which had been quite prosperous when she was young, that was hit by the crash of 1929 and some economic ups and downs that preceded that, in the construction business and the real estate business of New York City, which is what her father was involved in. And if people take a look at her literary style or her politics or both and don’t know about her upbringing, it may come as quite a surprise, but her parents were both politically and culturally quite conservative. She thought of them as very unsupportive, although in retrospect their choices of where to send her to school, their choices in terms of helping out at difficult points in her early life, may not support that view entirely.
Dennis: You know, there’s a – I’m blanking on the name. It has ‘Quarry’ in it, but the – in the first – in the first book of poems that won the Yale Younger Poets Series, there’s this incredible poem about her, with her father, at —
Bill: And her father, at a Long Island quarry, I believe you’re referring to [crosstalk]
Dennis: — can you tell me the story of that? Yes.
Bill: Sure. Her father, my grandfather, came from Milwaukee, and, like a lot of people in the late 19th century and very early 20th century, moved to New York to seek their fortune, if not their fame. And he ran into an Italian immigrant, and between them, with some ideas of business and with a few resources, like a horse-drawn wagon and connections to quarrying men, got into the sand and gravel business and later expanded to get into the ready-mix concrete business. And the company was Colonial Stone and Gravel. And this was the time when New York was shooting skyward, and concrete was a very important part of the construction business.
It was also a time of a lot of municipal projects. And one of the business skills that these two guys had was knowing exactly who to bribe in the New York City government and how much it would take to keep them bribed. And that led to all sorts of municipal contracts. One of the benefits was that if you altered the mix of the ready-mix concrete, just a little bit, you could build on – you can bid on the same job three or five years later, because you’d assure the – yourself that the concrete would crumble during that time, and they would have to rebuild whatever street or dock you had bid on originally.
So, in terms of money, things were very good for the Rukeyser family in the 19-teens and ‘20s. A cousin of ours, who was the father of Louis Rukeyser and the – really, the Louis Rukeyser of American media in the 1930s, his name was Merryle Rukeyser, once said, ‘The only thing that surprised me about your grandfather was that he died in bed.’ His partner was, if not a made man, at least had a lot of associates in the Mob. And so, the combination of knowing who to bribe, knowing enforcers if bribes didn’t work, made them very successful economically.
One day, my grandfather went into work, and his partner said to him, ‘We’re buying you out.’ And it was not an offer. It was not a question. It was a statement, and he was smart enough to simply pick up the box that had been left on his desk, walk out of the office, and never look back. Things could’ve ended up quite differently.
But in any case, getting back to – that’s a long digression. Getting back to your question about single parenthood and how it affected her relations with her family, not well. She made up stories about why there wasn’t a father on the scene. I don’t think that her parents believed her. Things were quite frosty, for years. And things were different with her younger sister, who – they had a quite interesting relationship. They in some ways resembled each other, in some ways were quite different and quite competitive and chose different vectors in their lives.
But what interested me and my cousin, my mother’s sister’s daughter, was the fact that my mother decided to get pregnant almost at the same time that her sister had her first child. So, you know, in terms of whether this was sisterly competition or simply emulation, we couldn’t speculate on that. But it was certainly a factor. And her sister was on Manhattan, and when we moved to New York, they were much more important in each other’s lives than my grandparents were in my mother’s life.
Dennis: And you’re listening to an interview with William L. Rukeyser. That’s the son of the late poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser. He is a part of this beautiful webinar being organized at Eastern Michigan University. And they are creating an archive to the late and great poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser, and this is a part of that honoring of her work. Let me ask you this. Did she consider herself a feminist, a political poet? What was her response when people sort of wanted to – like myself, wanted that — for me, she was at first a political poet, an activist. But how did she think about that, in terms of her own life?
Bill: Yeah. And of course, you knew her in her last years. Obviously, the Civil Rights experience was fresh in people’s minds. The Vietnam War experience was very fresh as well. So, I think, in a lot of ways, she was viewed through a political lens. She had just been the head of the PEN American Center and in that role had gone to South Korea, because of a political prisoner, who was also a poet or a poet who was also a prisoner, because of his political writing. And of course, she wrote about politics or politically related things during her entire career, some decades more so than others, and she was active politically.
But in terms of how she thought of herself, she definitely resisted labels and resisted categorization. And I think even more than she actually felt, she would verbally resist or downplay categorization. Was she a feminist writer? Clearly, she was a feminist writer. Was she political? Absolutely. You know, she broke ground in terms of writing about personal life and sexuality, things that were startling in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But she absolutely resisted categorization.
And she also resisted what I think of as ‘office politics’, within the poetry world. And she did so to such an extent that it probably cost her, in terms of the associations that a lot of creative people depend on, if not emotionally and intellectually, at least to get their careers on a smooth track. Her career was not one that followed a smooth track.
Dennis: I remember I [laughs] – I asked her the question once, right after – I guess it was right after she came back from Korea, and she was working on “The Gates” or had just finished “The Gates”. And I said, ‘Are you a political poet?’ [laughs] And she said something [laughs] I’m not sure I still understand. She said, ‘Well, let me ask you this, Dennis. When the athletes in 1968 raised their fists above their heads in the Black Power salute, were they athletes or political people?’ [laughs]
Bill: Yeah. That – that sounds like a very typical answer from her. I’m not surprised.
Dennis: Let me jump ahead a little bit here. You mentioned the politics and the other things. I wanna – a core at the center of her life was went down to join the Republicans and stand against the Fascists in Spain. Did she ever talk about that to you? What – from your perspective, what did that mean to her, that journey?
Bill: It was an incredibly important experience that stuck with her in her entire life. And she actually had gone to Spain on assignment from an English magazine. She was dispatched before the Civil War began, and the reason that she was sent to Barcelona was because this was the summer of ’36, when the Nazis were hosting the Olympics in Berlin. And a number of countries, including this one, had talked about boycotting the Nazi Olympics. Unfortunately, we did not, but a number of individual athletes, primarily Leftists, were not going to Berlin. They went to join what was referred to as the Popular Olympiad in Barcelona, organized by the Catalan government that year.
So, she was going to report on this Olympiad, which was gonna include athletics, cultural events, a number of things, which would be all over Barcelona that summer. Well, the Popular Olympics never occurred, because the Fascists attempted a coup, which was resisted. And that resulted in the Spanish Civil War. So, she was actually in far Northern Catalonia, the day that the Civil War began. She got to observe some of the initial combat in what was then the countryside, now really the suburbs of Barcelona. She got stuck there with this train that had had its locomotive taken away from it for several days. Finally, a Leftist group organized a convoy of trucks and took the passengers into Barcelona, and she got to observe the first days of the fighting there.
And one story that she always told was going to the U.S. Consulate and asking for assistance, because, you know, that’s what the foreigners were doing. The British people on the train went to the English Consulate, and they said, ‘Yeah. There will be a Royal Navy ship to take you out.’ And she told the story of going to the U.S. Consulate, and the Consul there said, ‘Well, I can give you a Letter of Safe Conduct.’ And she said, you know, ‘Well, what does that do?’ And she wasn’t the only American asking for help. It didn’t do anything. ‘We’ll give you a piece of paper.’
And luckily, she had met some Belgians on the train, and they said, ‘Our government is chartering a ship.’ It was the “Ciudad de Ibiza”. She never forgot the name of the ship. The Belgians had chartered this Spanish ship. They loaded all the Belgians who wanted to go. There was still room. She got on the “Ciudad de Ibiza”, and it went up the coast to the first French port north of the border. The six or seven days that she was there, at the beginning of the war, incredibly important, a life-changing experience for her. She wrote about it, a poem and a thinly disguised memoir, which was listed as a novel.
But it remained an important turning point for her life. It energized her politically. She clearly saw the Spanish Civil War as a dress rehearsal for World War II, and she – you know, it remained a major event for her. I can recall, in the early ‘60s, traveling with her. She went to that little port in Southern France called Sette [sounds like] and visited places she had seen in 1936. We drove down to the Spanish border. She refused to go across. It was still when Franco was ruling Spain.
She was friends with Spanish exiles. She collaborated on a book with an Austrian artist who fought in the Civil War. She knew a number of people who had fought on the Republican side. Coincidentally, one of my best friends in high school was the son of a minister from the Spanish Republican government, who went into exile in New York City. So, it was clearly a defining point for her that she carried with her for her entire life.
Dennis: Is that where she met and became friends with Pablo Neruda, or was that later on? Because this certainly was a part of his life as well.
Bill: No, I – I don’t believe so. And I really would have to check the records. I know that she was a great admirer of Neruda and wrote a poem about him. I don’t know about their meeting. I believe that there was a story about a conference, but not in Spain. A lot of the people who went to Spain because of the Civil War, as a matter of fact, all of them who went because of the Civil War got there after she left. The closest collaboration that I can remember was the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, who was in Spain for the Republicans. But they met in the Bay Area, during the ‘40s.
Dennis: We’re speaking with William Rukeyser. We’re talking in the context of this wonderful webinar being produced by Eastern Michigan University, where many of the archives and some of the archival work of Muriel is being collected and honored. And this is a part of that honoring. I – let me – I remember, I was interviewing Muriel. This was a promotion I was doing for Pacifica Radio, leading up to Muriel Rukeyser Day at Sarah Lawrence College. And as a part of the promotion, I actually showed up [laughs] – I think she was staying with a friend of hers, Monica McCall, up on the Upper East Side. And —
Bill: Yeah. Who was – who was actually her – both her literary agent and her partner for almost 30 years.
Dennis: — 30 years [laughs]. Yeah [laughs]. It seemed [laughs] like – and I remember the – you know, she had been using enlarged copies of her books, because she was having trouble with her eyes. But somehow, the books weren’t around. So, she sent me to the shelf, and she said, ‘You wanna do a little reading? Just grab whatever books you want. Sit in front of me.’ I tied her microphone to a broom, which she loved [laughs]. She said, ‘Invent! I love when we invent!’ I didn’t have a microphone, so I’m just holding the broom up, with the microphone. And I mention this because it was just before her collected poems were coming out, and she came to the poem, “Neruda the Wine”.
Dennis: And she read the – she read the poem about Neruda, and she comes to the end, and she’s looking for more poem, and she turns the pages, and she says to me [laughs], she says, ‘I swear this poem was a lot longer.’ And me being naïve and sort of silly and not knowing what to say, I said, ‘Well, maybe’ – in a little, peepish voice, ‘Maybe, Muriel, you haven’t written – finished writing this poem.’ And she comes [laughs] alive. She almost falls off her chair.
She says, ‘That’s – that’s it! I’ve been struggling. Here I am, a woman, about to have her collected poems published, and I – I don’t know where to go next, because for me, collected poems were always by men and by dead [with emphasis] men. And here I am, a woman about to have collected poems, and not knowing where that poem ends tells me where I should go and write next. I’ve been having a struggle, saying, “What poem do I write next? What one poem do I write next?” And now [laughs], seeing this tells me where [laughs] I have to go.’
Bill: Yeah. And of course, you knew her during a point that was very painful for her. You know, she had her first stroke when she was only 50, and then, a – as you know, a series after that, in the next 15 years. And it was – she made a remarkable comeback, after the first one. It had affected her speech very badly. And I can remember, I was in high school, she worked on recovering her speech, because she considered the oral presentation of poetry as an intrinsic part of what she did. And so, she was very concerned about losing her ability, first of all to speak intelligibly, and second of all to speak and convey art and emotion. So, she made a very thorough comeback from that. But the later strokes really diminished her, and that fact angered and saddened her.
Dennis: I bet. And anybody who goes and listens to the earlier work understands that she was clearly a visionary poet, but she was also an orator. And the delivery of those poems and of her work and of her very complicated, extraordinarily exquisite work and imagery required an orator to carry it off. Anybody who’s tried to read some of those poems, those earlier poems, those longer, more complicated poems, the “Ajanta” poems, knows that you have to [laughs] really have a lot going, to be able to deliver those poems publicly because of the exquisite nature of the writing.
Bill: Yeah. That’s absolutely – and one thing I should mention was that she, like you, believed in the power of radio. Back in the late ‘40s, when I was a toddler, she briefly had her own radio show on a local Bay Area station. And it was somewhat experimental at the time. She tried to combine poetry, talking about poetry, and music in ways that she felt the two things complemented and reinforced each other. So, definitely, she did not think of poetry as being static or solely on the printed page.
Dennis: Bill, did she ever tell you the story – I don’t know [laughs] if she made this up or I’m [laughs] making it up. But she told me a story about how she got fired or reprimanded for nudity on the radio? Did you ever hear that one?
Bill: Well, tell me that, because I know that the – the show didn’t last as long as it might have, but —
Bill: — I don’t know what happened to it.
Dennis: I think she was reading a D.H. Lawrence, very seductive story. Which one was it? “Son” or something like that, and the way I understood it, second, third hand, I think she told me this story, is that she just – you know, it – there was a very touching moment that was very seductive, and it got her in trouble with censors. Nudity on the radio.
Bill: Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, you know, one of the things about the ‘40s, especially after the end of the war, was that the U.S. took a sharp turn to the right, both politically and in terms of conformity. And that was something that weighted very heavily on her, and of course, back then, the FCC was much more restrictive. This was pre-Lenny Bruce, much more restrictive, in terms of what could be said on the air. And on top of that, this station, KDFC, was brand-new. It didn’t have a huge budget, and I don’t even know if they had a staff attorney. So, yeah. That does not surprise me.
Dennis: All right. I wanna – just one or two more questions. I appreciate your patience.
Dennis: And I’m sure everybody’s going to love hearing this. It’s gonna mean a lot to the folks participating in this webinar. I wanna ask you about the poem “Double Ode”.
Dennis: And if I remember correctly, it – the last verse ends – and she repeats it three times. It’s on the page. “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Pay attention to what they tell you to forget. Beware of the guardians. There are no guardians. It’s built into me. Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fear?” I believe this poem was devoted to you and your wife. What do you suppose she meant by that? “Do I move toward form? Do I use all my fear?”
Bill: Well, you know, I think that that is really reflective – clearly refined, but really reflective of things that she said my entire life as a kid and a teenager and into my 20s. She was both very appreciative and very resentful of formal education and the gatekeepers of our society. You know, she – she was able to see things from a variety of perspectives simultaneously. And so, on one hand, she would advocate an absolutely freewheeling, be-your-own-person type of attitude, and at the same time, recognize the importance of intellectual discipline that you acquired from some of the same cultural gatekeepers that she distrusted.
And let me just tell you one story that she may have told you, when you were interviewing her. This was a childhood memory of hers, and it was from the Ethical Culture School in New York. And that is one of the indications I take that her parents were really interested in her intellectual development, that they chose that school for her. But in any case, the story goes that in one of her classes, there was one boy who was known for being a cut-up and a kid who would not take orders. And so, one day, the teacher comes in and says, ‘Class, settle down.’ Little Danny or whatever his name was is being a cut-up, won’t settle down.
The teacher speaks sharply to him. Things escalate just surprisingly quickly, and all of a sudden, she grabs him by the collar and says, ‘You can’t do that. I’m taking you down to the Principal’s office.’ Hauls him out of the room, he’s kicking and screaming. She slams the door, two minutes later, comes back and says to the class, ‘Little Danny is going to be in a load of trouble, and the Principal is gonna be investigating this thoroughly. I need each and every one of you to write down exactly what happened, so that I’ve got the evidence to present to the teacher – to the Principal.’
And so, they all do that, and she says, ‘Now I wanna – a few of you to read to me what you wrote.’ And so, she calls on a couple of different students. They all saw the same thing, and they it down in different ways. “Little Danny started the argument.” “The teacher was mean to little Danny.” “Little Danny hit the teacher.” “The teacher hit little Danny.” All these varying recollections, and so, the teacher goes, knocks on the door, little Danny comes in smiling. The whole thing had been pre-rehearsed, and the teacher says, ‘We’re now gonna begin our study of the American Revolution, using firsthand original documents.’
And the point was, you can see – everybody can see the same thing and yet, they all see different things. And this was a very important part of her outlook on life. And maybe it wasn’t the little Danny incident that gave her this perspective, but it was certainly something that she referred to a lot.
Dennis: All right. Well, we are gonna leave it right there for now. We have been speaking with William L. Rukeyser in the context of this webinar at Eastern Michigan University, being sponsored by Professor Elizabeth Dalma [sounds like]. This is going to be an archive of some of the Muriel Rukeyser papers, sound, and some of the great works she’s done. We thank you, Bill Rukeyser, if I can call you Bill —
Dennis: — as we say goodbye, for making this beautiful contribution. Anything else perhaps I forgot to ask, that you’d like to share with us, or —
Bill: No, I think that covers it very nicely. And I’ll see you on Friday.
Dennis: — sounds good. Looking forward to it. Please be careful. And we will see you soon. Bye-bye, now.
Bill: Okay. Take care. Bye.
Mike: All right. Let me hit save.
Posted by Katherine McLeod on February 12, 2021
On the night of January 24, 1969, Muriel Rukeyser read from Elegies at a reading that took place in Montreal, Canada. But she didn’t read all of Elegies. She only read “Elegy in Joy” and, before reading it, she commented on the fact that she had never “cut it up” but that she would that night:
Here’s one piece of a long poem, it’s the last of a group called Elegies which one hardly dares name anything anymore. It’s called “Elegy in Joy” and this is just a beginning piece, I wanted to do it tonight this way, I’ve never cut it up. – Muriel Rukeyser
She then proceeds to read “Elegy in Joy,” and she ends the poem after the first section (which explains why, even though she says that it is “the last of a group called Elegies,” it is “just a beginning piece”). As a result of ending the poem where she does – due to having “cut it up” – the audience hears these lines as though they were the end of the poem:
Every elegy is the present: freedom eating our hearts,
death and explosion, and the world unbegun.
We too can hear Rukeyser reading these lines because this reading of Rukeyser’s was recorded, and it has been digitized as part of SpokenWeb. We’ll hear more about SpokenWeb shortly, but let’s start with the sound of Rukeyser reading “Elegy in Joy”:
What was the occasion for Rukeyser’s reading and how was the recording archived? This blog post explains how we came to have this recording of “Elegy in Joy” and, as part of that explanation, I will tell you about the process that led to my “unarchiving” (Camlot and McLeod) of this recording through the making of ShortCuts (released monthly on The SpokenWeb Podcast feed). ShortCuts listens closely and carefully to short clips of audio from SpokenWeb’s audio collections. It launched in January 2020 (first as Audio of the Month) and it is produced by myself, Katherine McLeod, hosted by Hannah McGregor, and mixed and mastered by Stacey Copeland. When devising the concept of ShortCuts, I wanted the series to be informed by the analogue techniques of cutting and splicing tape, but to consider how these ‘cuts’ work in the digital format of the podcast as literary criticism.
When making a ShortCuts minisode in November 2020, I selected a clip from this 1969 Rukeyser reading, not knowing that it would lead to a connection with Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive and not knowing that it contained a rare recording of “Elegy in Joy.” I was not coming to the recording as a Rukeyser scholar, but I was coming to the recording as a scholar writing a book on recordings of Canadian women poets on the radio and having published on poetry and performance – and I was captivated by Rukeyser’s performance during this reading. Rukeyser begins the reading with a long, somewhat improvised, reflection upon what the poetry reading is as an event: a moment in time, with the listener encountering the sound of the poem as the speaker speaks it, and hearing that sound fully and through the body. It was compelling to hear how Rukeyser then enacted this concept of the reading through her poetry, and to consider what this recording could teach us about archival listening. I ended up creating three minisodes devoted to Rukeyser’s 1969 reading, with the third being released during the same week as the symposium Revisiting Rukeyser’s Elegies. My hope is that these ShortCuts minisodes, along with the sharing of the recording itself and the story of how the recording came to be, contribute to your listening to Rukeyser, for this symposium and for the future.
Sir George Williams University, The Poetry Series (1966-1974)
At Sir George Williams University, now Concordia University, in downtown Montreal, Canada, there was a poetry series held from 1966-1974 for which the recordings have now been digitized and made accessible by SpokenWeb. Here is the description of that series and audio collection:
SGW POETRY READING SERIES
Between 1965 and 1974 members of the Sir George Williams University (SGWU, now Concordia University) English Department in Montreal hosted a series of poetry readings that was conceived as an ongoing encounter between local poets and the avant-garde poetics of some of the most important writers from the United States and the rest of Canada. Sponsored by “The Poetry Committee” of the Faculty of Arts and the SGWU English Department—and organized primarily by English professors Howard Fink, Stanton Hoffman, Wynn Francis, Irving Layton, Roy Kiyooka, and (from 1967-71) George Bowering—these readings involved more than sixty poets from across North America.
Known simply as “The Poetry Series”, audio recordings of these readings were made on Mylar 1 mil. tape using mobile reel-to-reel tape machines. The Concordia University Archives received a grant in 2007 that has allowed all 65 reels of tape (more than 100 hours of audio) to be digitized. So, this sound from an interesting period of transformation in Canadian poetics, and of self-scrutiny for Montreal poetry, represents a rich and useable archive for scholarly research. (“SGW Poetry Series”)
Over 60 poets read in the SGW Poetry Series, with a mix of American and Canadian poets: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Ted Berrigan, Earle Birney, bpNichol, Robin Blaser, bill bissett, George Bowering, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Maxine Gadd, Allen Ginsberg, Maria Gladys Hindmarch, Daryl Hine, Barbara Howes, Kenneth Koch, Roy Kiyooka, Irving Layton, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daphne Marlatt, Jackson Mac Low, Al Purdy, Joe Rosenblatt, F.R. Scott, Charles Simic, Gary Snyder, Diane Wakoski, Phyllis Webb, James Wright, among many others, and – most pertinent to this blog post and as one of the 10 women to read in the series – Muriel Rukeyser.
Rukeyser read at the SGW Poetry Series in downtown Montreal on January 24, 1969. That reading was recorded. The recording sat with all of the other recordings of the series until they were deposited into the university archives in the early 2000s and then were digitized and made accessible through SpokenWeb as literary audio recordings.
The story of how these specific recordings came to be part of SpokenWeb and how they informed the valuing and conceptualizing of literary audio is best told by Jason Camlot, primary investigator of SpokenWeb as a SSHRC-funded partnership grant. You can read the story, as told by Camlot, in a transcribed conversation with Al Filreis and Steve Evans in “Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century” a piece that appears in an entire issue of Amodern devoted to the SGW Poetry Reading Series (Amodern 4, 2015). Or, you can listen to Camlot tell a similar version of this story to producers Cheryl Gladu and Katherine McLeod in the first episode of The SpokenWeb Podcast:
The story of finding the tapes of the SGW Poetry Series is part of the story of how the Rukeyser recording came to be here today. At the top of this blog post, you will see a photograph of the tape from 1969 that was digitized and made accessible in its entirety here, with comments between poems carefully transcribed by student research assistants. Making the tape accessible is one part of the story, and then listening to it is another. As a critical listening, Rukeyser’s reading in the SGW Poetry Series is examined at length in an attentive close-listening-as-article written by Jane Malcolm (and published in that previously mentioned issue of Amodern). I had not read Malcolm’s article when I first listened to the Rukeyser recording, but, having read it now, I agree with her that, on that January night, the reading provided a space for the poem to become a meeting place: “[T]he SGWU reading series presented Rukeyser with the ideal forum to create the ‘poetry of meeting-places’ she argued for in The Life of Poetry. From the moment Rukeyser asks the audience members (and recording auditors) to summon what we might call their inner poets, she works to destroy the illusion of hierarchy poetry readings tend to reinforce” (Malcolm). That dismantling of expectation is exactly what Rukeyser does at the start of this reading when she speaks at length about why we go to poetry readings – what are we going to listen to – and establishes a sense of shared community through the reading.
The way that Rukeyser began her 1969 reading in Montreal was what caught my attention while selecting an archival audio clip for ShortCuts, and I had to listen to this poet’s voice. Who was this voice? What was this voice? And how was this poet, Rukeyser, not only asking us to consider what a poetry reading can do but also how is she showing us what a recording of a poetry reading can do – then and now? These are the questions that I explore in three ShortCuts minisodes based on this recording.
What follows are transcribed excerpts from ShortCuts that aim to demonstrate how the minisodes have evolved through acts of listening to Rukeyser’s voice, and how connections through this listening have led to “Elegy in Joy.”
ShortCuts 2.2 The Poem Among Us
Welcome to ShortCuts – short stories about how literature sounds. Our ‘short cut’ this month is an archival recording that manages to transport us into the feeling of being at a live poetry reading. […] Poet Muriel Rukeyser puts it beautifully and inquisitively when she says that we go to poetry readings […] to experience something created in that space and and that time that we all share together: “something is what we call shared, something is arrived at – there.” […] Rukeyser’s opening statement [to her reading in 1969 in Montreal] helps us to understand what we are listening to when listening to an archival recording, one that is far removed from the event itself. Following Rukeyser’s line of thought, in archival listening, we listen to a recording of relationality unfolding, creating space for the poem to be among us, between us, there.
Listen to the full audio of this ShortCuts minisode here.
ShortCuts 2.4 You Are Here
In [Rukeyser’s 1969] reading, there are poems in which one is acutely aware of being together, listening, even while listening to the recording apart. So how did her reading create that effect? Let’s listen to one more short cut from that same reading – a poem called “Anemone.” It’s one that not only exemplifies the creation of connection between the poet and audience but it’s also one that expresses the ecological attention of her story: the ways in which we are bound to each other through the earth and, in this case, through the ocean. […] Listen to how she creates a relationality through this poem. Listen to the breath that the poem creates. Listen with your body as the poem breathes in and out. It is breathing. Hear it forge a connection with the audience, and ask yourself what it would feel like to hear it in 1969, and what it feels like to hear it now […] “Anemone” [is] a poem that creates a space of listening that is, at once, oceanic and intimate, and a poem that says to the listener: “You are here.”
Listen to the full audio of this ShortCuts minisode here.
ShortCuts 2.5 Connections
In this season of ShortCuts we’ve spent some time in a 1969 recording of poet Muriel Rukeyser, and we’re going to stay in that recording for this minisode, partly due to the depth of material within this single recording and partly as an opportunity to reflect upon what a minisode can do – through archival listening – to make connections. Rukeyser once said that poetry is “a meeting place” and this minisode suggests that, like poetry, a podcast is a meeting place. Listen to find out how we arrive at this meeting place through a recording of “Elegy in Joy” and listen again, now, to the words: “Every elegy is the present.”
Find this ShortCuts minisode here after its release on Feb 15, 2021.
Camlot, Jason. “The Sound of Canadian Modernisms: The Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, 1966-74.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 46 no. 3, 2012, p. 28-59.
Camlot, Jason and Katherine McLeod. “Introduction: Unarchiving the Literary Event.” CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2019.
Camlot, Jason, Al Filreis, and Steve Evans. “Literary Archives in the 21st Century.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), https://amodern.net/article/beyond-text/.
Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection. Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
Gladu, Cheryl and Katherine McLeod, producers. “Stories of SpokenWeb.” The SpokenWeb Podcast, https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/stories-of-spokenweb/.
Malcolm, Jane. “The Poem Among Us, Between Us, There: Muriel Rukeyser’s Meta-Poetics and the Communal Soundscape.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), http://amodern.net/article/poem-among-us/.
McLeod, Katherine. “Connections.” ShortCuts 2.5 (Feburary 2021), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/shortcuts/.
—. “The Poem Among Us.” ShortCuts 2.2 (November 2020), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/the-poem-among-us/.
—. “You Are Here.” ShortCuts 2.4 (January 2021), https://spokenweb.ca/podcast/episodes/you-are-here/.
Mitchell, Christine. “Again the Air Conditioners: Finding Poetry in the Institutional Archive.” Amodern 4 (March 2015), https://amodern.net/article/again-air-conditioners/.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Muriel Rukeyser at SGWU, 1969.” SpokenWeb, 24 January 1969, https://montreal.spokenweb.ca/sgw-poetry-readings/muriel-rukeyser-at-sgwu-1969/.
“SGW Poetry Series” SpokenWeb Montreal, https://montreal.spokenweb.ca/sgw-poetry-readings/.
Dr. Katherine McLeod (@kathmcleod) researches archives, performance, and poetry. She has co-edited the collection CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event (with Jason Camlot, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). She is writing a monograph (under contract with Wilfrid Laurier University Press) that is a feminist listening to recordings of women poets reading on CBC Radio. She produces monthly audio content for SpokenWeb’s ShortCuts as part of The SpokenWeb Podcast feed. She is the 2020-2021 Researcher-in-Residence at the Concordia University Library. http://katherinemcleod.ca/
When we told Louise she was a pioneer of Rukeyser Studies, she didn’t quite believe us. It took some time to convey to her just how influential her book, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, has been. Published in 1980, it has served as a touchstone for those of us who’d stumbled onto Rukeyser during our student days, and, wondering why no one had told or taught us about this remarkable poet, turned to Louise’s book, the first monograph devoted entirely to a serious discussion of Rukeyser’s sprawling oeuvre and its critical (mis)reception. After its publication, however, Louise disappeared from academic circles and became both the most consequential and least known of Rukeyser scholars.
We, two long-time Rukeyser aficionadas, were encouraged by Louise’s personable emails in response to our question about whether we could meet with her sometime. A bit shy, we were reassured by her warmth and self-deprecating candor when she welcomed us in her new home in Grosse Pointe, a leafy suburb of Detroit, where she lives with her daughter Nina, grandson Dominic, and Leo, the dog.
Our expectations of Louise had been shaped by the correspondence we had read between Louise and Muriel (available at the Library of Congress archives). The determination and confidence that manifested in her first letter to Muriel Rukeyser, prepared us for someone impressively capable and slightly formidable.
“Dear Miss Rukeyser”
“Dear Miss Rukeyser,” the first letter begins. “While preparing a talk on contemporary women writers a few months ago, I was surprised to find no substantial study of your work, which I admire very much.” She commenced to compile a bibliography of reviews of Muriel’s work, and to read the limited number of critical works that mentioned the poetry. “Wading through some of this material which is helpful but far from satisfying, I have decided to write a book-length study of your work.”
She asks Muriel if there are any other projects like this under way, and explains her qualifications and situation: “I am a former college English teacher at home with two small children. I hold the Ph.D. (1970) from Illinois. Contemporary poetry by American women is my main interest, and I would like to devote my scholarly energies to demonstrating its vitality and importance and its rightful though neglected place in literary history.”
The task I am setting myself is a great one: understanding the development of your work in its historical, political, and philosophical contexts and in a context of literary history in which the work of women poets is not slighted. I will learn a lot. I hope to teach it well.
How daunting a task! All of Muriel’s work? When one has two small children at home? In the pre-Internet era, lacking access to online journals, email, and sophisticated computers?
Subsequent letters to Muriel which included organized lists of questions and reports on progress further revealed Louise’s ability to analyze, organize, and to produce from almost nothing! There had been so little published on Muriel; Louise had been forced to rely on herself in completing this project.
In her living room, Louise had assembled her Rukeyser stash—copies of her many books of poems, articles, and reviews, and a folder of her own correspondence with the poet. She began at the beginning—by reading to us from her first letter to Rukeyser. And then there were the bad reviews! Louise read to us from the ones that had most galvanized her – the sexist ones that commented on Rukeyser’s appearance, the dismissive ones where the reviewer seemed merely to list topics – “there are planes” – without engaging the work itself. This sense of entitled disdain, it became clear, had motivated the book, Louise’s defense.
We found ourselves jumping from topic to topic – there was so much to ask, so much to say, so much to connect! At one point we asked about the number of times that Louise had met Muriel, and, in an offhand way, she mentioned that she had three tapes of conversations with the poet. Tapes??!! Cassettes, three of them, double-sided, not of very high quality, Louise explained, self-deprecatingly. Money was tight at the time. A vigorous discussion of digitization possibilities commenced!
“Maybe there should be a category called Book”
And then there was more — the genres, how Louise had read Willard Gibbs, the difficulty of coming to understand thermodynamics, scientists’ reactions to the book, the reception of The Traces of Thomas Hariot, and how, in the face of repeated questions about what these texts were, Muriel responded: “Maybe there should be a category called Book.”
During lunch preparations we talked about how each of us found her way to Rukeyser—or, more like it, how Rukeyser found us. Always, it seems by coincidence or serendipity, never as part of a course, or required university reading, but circuitously, by way of a sudden encounter, a friend’s comment, another poet’s remark, or a book we happened to pick up. Louise remembers her friend from college, Mary Philbin, discovering and reciting from “The Ballad of Orange and Grape” with infectious delight.
Eventually we asked what had happened–why she hadn’t pursued academia and teaching. How was it that she could write such a fine book and then leave? Louise had had an interview in the university English department where she was part-time teaching; she had brought her book, listed it on her CV. But the all-male committee clearly hadn’t read it. They asked questions about sixteenth-century authors; she did her job talk on Richard Eberhart. The committee ignored the book. Only one person—Charles Baxter–approached her after the interview and said, with what she recognized as a smile of sympathy, ‘They just didn’t get it.”
“That’s what Muriel gave me, though . . . a sense of possibility when the way seems blocked.”
A practical person, she had to go on. She was going through a divorce, she had two young children, she found editorial work and eventually became a writer for Automotive News. “That’s what Muriel gave me, though,” she said, “a sense of possibility when the way seems blocked.” So she found herself traveling in the Midwest and South, covering United Auto Worker activities as well as the new Japanese auto plants. Later she became an editor, took on topics such as business insurance and healthcare, and finally, as an independent, took on copy editing (of scholarly books!) and ghostwriting.
Repeatedly, throughout our lively conversation, Louise would halt and say—I haven’t talked like this in ages, with anyone! You both, she said looking at us, still belong to the “essay” generation. Having just moved from Chicago, she’s tried a couple of book groups for intellectual stimulation. She got blank stares at a reading group when she commented that she thought the writer under discussion needed a better editor: “‘Memories of the past’? What else are memories of?” A second group that stuck to searching out symbolism in “The Dead” wasn’t much more satisfying. Louise feels she created a meaningful life for herself working with words– although she has regrets about not pursuing a profession in literature and teaching.
And we began reading her poems together, marvelling at their continued–no!– renewed urgency. Lamenting the lack of appreciation for “creative disorder” in contemporary U.S. politics, Louise read from Rukeyser’s ninth elegy, “The Antagonists,” in which she celebrates the creative power of conflict:
The forms of incompleteness in our land
pass from the eastern and western mountains where
the seas meet the dark islands, where the light
glitters white series on the snowlands, pours its wine
of lenient evening to the center. Green
on shadows of Indiana, level yellow miles . . .
The prairie emblems and the slopes of the sky
and desert stars enlarging in the frost
redeem us like our love and will not die.
All origins are here, and in this range
the changing spirit can make itself again,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and form developing
American out of conflict. (qtd. Kertesz, Rukeyser’s Poetic Vision 215)
We read Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” grappling with the persistent ambiguity of its meanings and the question it raises about teaching “the young ones”:
How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? —
How can they write and believe what they’re writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE —?
(How are we going to believe what we read and we write
and we hear and we say and we do?). (Kaufman and Herzog, Collected Poems 492-93)
And, asked about Rukeyser’s time in Mexico, Louise read to us “A Charm for Cantinflas,” an homage to the Mexican comedian, actor, and filmmaker Maria Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes, known as “Cantinflas,” and to the power of dance, laughter, eros, art, ice cream, comedy, bourbon, and beer:
After the lights and after the rumba and after the bourbon
and after the beer
and after the drums and after the samba and after the
ice cream and not long after
failure, loss, despair, and loss and despair
There was the laughter and there was Cantinflas at last
and his polka
doing the bumps with a hot guitar
Louise repeated, with warm appreciation and wonder, Rukeyser’s final stanza, where
on this stage always the clown of our living
gives us our sunlight and our incantation
as sun does, laughing, shining, reciting dawn, noon, and down,
making all delight and healing all ills
like faraway words on jars, the labels in Protopapas’ window:
marshmallow, myrtle, peppermint, pumpkin, sesame, sesame, squills.
(Collected Poems 263-64)
What an offering of riches! We tasted the words and, as Rukeyser might say, became whole again.
Finally one of us looked at a clock. Almost seven hours had passed as we talked, laughed, asked questions, petted Leo, had lunch, read and debated poetry together. There was still so much to discuss! We corralled Louise’s grandson, Dominic, on his way out the door, into taking photos of us. He took three snaps in a mere second. (Did you finish already? He smiled, yes.) We said goodbye to Leo, and Louise walked us out. It was hard to leave, hard to say goodbye after such an exhilarating day. Hours later we exchanged emails – we were still coming down from it all. Even days later, our elation persists.
We hope Louise will return to Rukeyser scholarship! We need her–especially now, when her insights and first-hand encounter with Rukeyser will prove invaluable for anyone taking on the daunting task of composing a biography of this twentieth-century maverick whose life, and work, defied compliance and “narrow success” for the adventure of uncharted roads and creative largesse.
Posted on December 15, 2016 by Arica Frisbey
When it comes to Sylvia Plath and her death, the creative response from fellow poets is so very different. Ted Hughes, her estranged husband, wrote an entire book of poems in regards to her (Birthday Letters). Meanwhile, her friend/rival, Anne Sexton, composed a two paged elegy in her honor (“Sylvia’s Death”).
Then there is Muriel Rukeyser, a female poet who does not make an appearance in Plath’s journals (though Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, who associated with and praised Rukeyser, did make it in), who wrote six lines between two poems, in concerns to Plath. These poems, which shall be discussed, are “Not to Printed, Not to be Said, Not to be Thought,” “The Power of Suicide.” Notably, she also wrote a poem called “Suicide Blues,” where Rukeyser’s speaker is reminiscent of Plath, though it was published about twenty-two years before Plath’s suicide. Due to this, the poem will also be discussed in this context.
Rukeyser was a matriarch of many things–a son, poetry, feminism, and the list continues. Yet, many do not know her name, let alone her work. When asked, “Who is the most influential feminist poet of the 20th century?,” you do not get a chorus of “Rukeyser, of course!” The answer is Plath, almost always Plath (with a bit of Sexton, and Rich thrown in for good measure). I feel that Rukeyser recognized that lack of recognition: that despite a career of almost forty-five years, with over ten volumes of poetry, a novel, and countless other pieces, she was going unnoticed.
Was it perhaps because she was not quite as willing to impart personal feelings and details in her writing, like Plath? That she instead wrote of social and political issues and spoke out against a woman’s lower position in society, and thus did not fit a mold, whereas Plath was a superwoman–mother, career-woman, good looking and tragic, right down to her sometimes blond, sometimes brown hair, curled just so? Or was it because Plath defected to suicide, and Rukeyser was still alive? The answer is most likely a combination of all of the above, the amounts differing and equaling, but I feel that of the above options, Rukeyser felt that it was mostly the last. Why else would she have written “Not to be Printed, Not to be Said, Not to be Thought”?
She was aware that the poem’s opinion was unpopular–the title reflects that the topic is “not” proper. Yet, as always, Rukeyser continues her thought: “I’d rather be Muriel/than be dead and be Ariel”(Rukeyser, 2005, p. 554). It’s a bold thought, and a thought that could be seen as blasphemous, especially by the feminist movement, who had crowned Plath as their literary martyr, with her fierce, feminine voice (Passin). (This was back in the days when Ted Hughes was violently disliked and misunderstood for his part in Plath’s demise, to the point of feminist fans desecrating their figurehead’s grave to remove “Hughes” from her name.)
Yet, this was Rukeyser quietly calling out the worship and mythologizing of Plath. By using the name of Plath’s last collection to reference the late poet, Rukeyser is, in effect, using synecdoche (substituting a part for the whole) to reflect exactly what happened to Plath– her dissolution as a person, now simply a past personality. Plath was no longer there to set any record straight. She wasn’t available to coax any interpretation of her work–and so it had outgrown the person, and thus, personified the poet (Passin). This is a sentiment that has been expressed by other writers analyzing the work, one of the more recent being Laura Passin in her essay, “The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology–Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser,” published on this website.
The “Ariel sensation” would probably not have occurred if Plath had been alive to see the book’s publication. In a way, Rukeyser recognized this with her line “I’d rather be Muriel/than be dead…” (lines 1-2, “Not to be Printed…”). This line is a way to say that, because she is alive, Rukeyser can call the shots on how she is perceived. She can correct rumors, or coax perceptions, but all around she is responsible for how her work and her person is received and perceived. She is herself, and not what others have painted of her, based on a few facts and a collection of poems.
This is not to say that Rukeyser disdained Plath–rather, I think the lines were written with sympathy, and sadness, for both herself and Plath for their conundrum. This enigma is rooted in that Plath died young and did not see her massive success, whereas Rukeyser would experience only short bursts of massive success throughout her longer life.
Rukeyser, when it came to Plath, seemed to wish for a new way to remember her. She wrote a few poems- not anguished and apologetic (like Hughes) or wistful for the past (like Sexton)–but deeply mournful, like a grandmother who lost a grandbaby too soon to the world. Her poem, “The Power of Suicide” isn’t a rant, an extended “I’m sorry,” or a reminiscence. It reminds me most of a vision sparked by intuition–a mother senses something is amiss with a child before she disappears. It is that, as well as a vision of inspiration, an urging of muses to produce and write:
The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves:
Flower flower flower flower
Today for the sake of all the dead Burst into flower.
(Rukeyser, 2005, p. 430)
If we read this poem as a memoriam to Plath, then we can also read it as Rukeyser taking on a crusade–it is as if Rukeyser declared that “Plath cannot write any more- but I will write to try to fill the void her words left.”
Rukeyser could have taken to writing after Plath’s death with the view of Plath as an enemy stealing the spotlight, but she did not because she could not. She recognized that they wrote on different topics–while Rukeyser wrote of love and work during the Spanish Civil War in her novel Savage Coast, Plath published an account of madness in an American Golden Girl via The Bell Jar. Their preferred pronouns even differed–Plath lived in a first-person singular world, Rukeyser in a first-person plural or a-third person world.
It is notable, however, to consider the poem, “Suicide Blues” (Rukeyser, 2005, p. 216). Based on the title alone, one may assume that Plath wrote it–but no, this is a Rukeyser work. However, she does seem to be speaking for Plath, echoing various sentiments and perhaps retelling the story of Plath’s death, despite the poem having appeared in 1941. She begins with the declaration “I want to speak in my voice!/I want to speak in my real voice!” (Lines One-Two, “Suicide Blues”).
This reminds me of Plath, both when she’s complaining about how her writing is only “lyrical sentimentality” (Plath, 2000, p. 38) and when she’s telling her mother that “these poems will make my name” (Plath, 1975, p. 468) because Plath’s main concern in both cases was her voice–the first was weak, and then it strengthened with Ariel. Then in lines four and five, Rukeyser seems to note Plath’s hesitation initially with adopting a harsh empowered voice: “I am not ready to go there./Not with my real voice.” (Lines four-five, “Suicide Blues”)
The “tall man” and “singing woman” in stanzas three and four could be read in two different ways. The man and woman could stand for other male and female poets with “his” and “her real voice” (line eight, and eleven, respectively). Or, specifically, they could stand for Hughes (a tall man who had no problem being rugged with his words) and either Anne Sexton (whom Plath considered a literary rival and friend) or Assia Wevill, who wished to be recognized as a poet, but after Plath’s death became known as only Hughes’s mistress.
Then there is a shift in the fifth stanza, that could be the speaker, as Plath, simply speaking to the audience, or perhaps it is Rukeyser speaking to Plath: “Are you able to imagine truth?/Evil has conspired a world of death,/ An unreal voice.” If read as Rukeyser speaking to Plath, then this stanza is a warning that has arrived too late. It reads, to me, as a warning of what will happen to a real voice “in a world of death” (line thirteen)- it will be misread, and therefore, become “unreal” (line fourteen).
And thus, when this “death-world” again appears in stanza six, it is to help tell of the world’s perception of Plath’s death “in front of the little children” (line sixteen), taking notable details and pumping them up for effect. Because of this, we get Plath “burning” (line seventeen), with the remainder of the line, “out of the window” bringing to mind reports of Frieda and Nicholas’s cries being heard out on the street. There are enemies calling friends (line eighteen)–or in this case, the Hughes, who were the primary informers of Plath’s death to the rest of the family and friends, and often are perceived as the enemy after Plath died. And of course, “my legs went running around that building/ dancing to the suicide blues” (lines nineteen- twenty) recalls Plath’s downstairs neighbor’s memory of Plath pacing in the flat above him on the night she died.
As for the second to last stanza, the sea imagery reminds me of Plath’s works “Full Fathom Five” and “Lorelei,” as well as “The Earthenware Head” being conjured up via “and my severed head swam around that ship/ three times around and it wouldn’t go down” (Lines twenty- four and twenty-five). Notably, these are all poems from Plath’s first book, The Colossus, which only had a modest reception compared to Ariel, which is when Plath was spotlighted.
Now, the last stanza reflects Rukeyser’s other mentioned work, “The Power of Suicide,” with its quatrain and the presence of flowers. However, in this instance, the flowers are not “for the sake of all the dead” (line four, “The Power of Suicide”). Now there is “too much life, my darling” (line twenty-six), evoking the grandmother image again at the use of pet-names; “too much life to kill” (line twenty-nine).
This line, I believe, sums up Rukeyser’s universal feeling among the poems. Yes, Plath was in part lost due to the Suicide Blonde myth. Yes, a great poet was lost before she could produce more, and another great poet is lost despite the production of more work. But, as Rukeyser asserts, there is “too much life to kill” in the voice of Sylvia Plath by the power vested to her by suicide, and Rukeyser seems more than proud to record memoriams and reminders of humanity for female poets, even for one who never met “Muriel, mother of everyone.”
Passin, Laura. “Laura Passin: The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology–Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser.” Muriel Rukeyser. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Plath, Sylvia, and Aurelia Schober Plath. Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. 468. Print.
_____. The Colossus. London: Faber and Faber, 1972. Print.
_____. Ariel. London: Harper & Row, 1966.
_____. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Print.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog. Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. 216, 430, 554. Print.
Posted on September 8, 2014 by Laura Passin
On her 16th birthday, my best friend Jess received a copy of Out of Silence: Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser from her mother. Jess and I didn’t live in the same state, so we were avid letter writers; after that birthday, her letters always included at least a snippet of mesmerizing, spiky poetry:
The best way to describe my reaction to Rukeyser’s poetry is to say I got a raging crush on it, the kind of crush only teenagers get. I would turn lines over in my head and try to figure out how the unsettling oddness of the punctuation and spacing worked with the powerful emotions the poem created in me.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what
I started scouring bookstores and libraries for Rukeyser, eventually finding a copy of Out of Silence at a Borders, nestled into the tiny poetry section whose spines I had already memorized. Many of the poems in it were beyond my understanding, though they still captivated me with their unusual music and imagery. It was Kate Daniels’s introduction, though, that brought Rukeyser into my personal history. I was a budding feminist, an aspiring writer, and a semi-out queer girl living in the South, lonely as hell and wondering if there really was a world where I would get to be myself without apology. Here was an openly bisexual woman who lived life entirely on her own terms, even when the political and social costs to her career were staggering. I read Out of Silence until it started to fall apart. It was more than a book: it was proof. I could be a poet; I could be smart and political without being cruel; I could find a community; I could love women as well as men. I could choose my life.
Of course, not everything worked out exactly as planned — but those things I learned from Rukeyser were all true. I am a poet; in fact, I’m a professor of literature, and I teach Rukeyser whenever I get the chance. I am an out queer woman; I am part of a lively world of feminist writers online. I took off the masks and mythologies that seemed inevitable when I was a teenage girl, and I became myself.
Part of the joy of studying Rukeyser’s work is becoming part of an ad hoc community of scholars, all of whom arrive at her poetry and prose through different stories. Some, like me, stumbled onto her poems by accident; others find her name popping up again and again in the history of second wave feminists like Adrienne Rich, who reclaimed her as a kind of living patron saint for women writers. What continues to astonish me about Rukeyser’s writing is that it doesn’t feel dated; my college students, reading her for the first time a century after her birth, find her as revelatory as I did. As I wrote in an essay for The Toast, Rukeyser scholars also tend to be devotees:
I recently attended a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rukeyser’s birth, and let me tell you, you have not really experienced academia until you’ve found yourself at a conference where you realize that everyone is secretly a fangirl as well as a scholar. You let your guard down. You imagine extravagant, international galas celebrating your idol. You talk honestly about what a privilege it is to teach something this brilliant, and you enjoy your own humility. (My student, last quarter, on reading “The Book of the Dead“: “I’ve never read poetry like this. I’ve never read anything like this.”)
One of my former students, a poet himself, changed his cover photo on Facebook to a black and white photo of Rukeyser. She watched over his digital world.
Now that I’m no longer that misfit teenager, my relationship to the poems in Out of Silence (and, of course, the indispensable Collected Poems, edited by Anne Herzog and Janet Kaufman) has changed. Rukeyser’s writing about speech and silence has new meaning for me after watching my mother suffer from dementia—I can no longer read “The Speed of Darkness,” with its complex celebration of individual life in the midst of mass death and war, without thinking of my mother, born during WWII, losing her own singular voice. Rukeyser implores us to recognize that silence can also be a presence—“this same silence is become speech / With the speed of darkness.” Reading this poem for me now, as a 35-year-old woman, becomes a reminder that being fully present for another human being is to take a powerful stand against oblivion:
I read Rukeyser for many reasons, but I teach her to answer this call. She’s been an integral part of my personal history for twenty years; I owe it not to her, but to “the present of all I care for” to continue her legacy.
Posted on May 19, 2014 by Catherine Gander
In just a few days, I will have the pleasure of chairing a panel at the American Literature Association’s annual conference at Washington, DC. The panel, organised by Elisabeth Däumer (herself a force of intellectual connectivity of the sort Rukeyser celebrated) will bring together five established and emerging Rukeyser scholars including myself and Professor Däumer: Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, whose diligent scholarship recently brought Rukeyser’s ‘lost novel’ Savage Coast to light and publication; Laura Passin, whose work on the politico-aesthetic strains of contemporary American poetry traces valuable lines of influence to the lyrical, subjective voice of earlier confessional verse, and Stefania Heim, whose attention to Rukeyser’s mythic historicism has uncovered illuminating points of contact with the experimental hybrid writings of (to my mind) one of the greatest living literary innovators, Susan Howe.
As Däumer has explained, this wonderfully diverse and interconnected panel is assembled in response to Rukeyser’s own multivalence. Resisting classification into any strict subset of writer, scholar or activist, Rukeyser embodied and espoused a pluralism that at once related her to, and set her apart from, most of her peers. As the majority of scholarship on Rukeyser (including my own) addresses in some way the elements of her temporal and ideological dislocation – enforced most strongly by her being a lion-hearted, strong-voiced woman as well as a Jew – I will not linger on the matter here. The panel, and the work that runs into and out of it, intends to celebrate and explore the rhizomatic nature of Rukeyser’s work in all of its pragmatic inclusivity.
I use the word ‘pragmatic’ because it strikes me that Rukeyser’s legacy is one to be used. Rukeyser’s richly original and intellectually provocative text, The Life of Poetry, emerged in 1949 as a meeting-place (I employ Rukeyser’s term to avoid the word ‘collection’ due to the book’s overriding dialogic spirit) of ideas, lectures and essays previously gathered under the title ‘the usable truth: communication and poetry’. I have written elsewhere about Rukeyser’s commitment to the use-value of poetry, her tireless crusading for the overcoming of the fear of it, embedded in the conviction that the systems of the social can be addressed at root in the workings of the individual; that the failures of democracy can be located in the fears of the unconscious self. In a 1941 essay for Poetry magazine entitled ‘The Usable Truth’, Rukeyser bemoaned the fact that despite its pragmatic tradition, American education retained an attitude to poetry that located it as something ‘to be memorised and stored…[but] not to be used’:
There is just this one learning, this one branch of your heritage, left. It is very precious, it is to be preserved – in fact, it preserves us, whole ages are given to us by its grace alone… This, of course, is poetry. In a utilitarian culture, this one knowledge is to be taught as being Not for Use.[i]
Rukeyser’s words here connect strongly with Heim’s understanding of her living legacy in Howe. If ‘whole ages are given to us’ through poetry, we are, according to Rukeyser, able to live and learn through the biographies of our ancestors, absorbing and using their words and lives to educate and inform our own. As Heim rightly acknowledges, Rukeyser blends myth and history, shaping the lives of representative others into symbols and paths for present and future generations. Rukeyser’s poetic biographies – her series of ‘Lives’ that include Anne Burlak, Käthe Kollwitz, Akiba and Albert Pinkham Ryder – are such symbols and sign-posts; as are her prose biographies on Wendell Willkie, Willard Gibbs and Thomas Hariot. Heim connects Rukeyser’s aim towards ‘collecting the lives of the dead’ with Howe’s invocation, after Creon in Antigone, to ‘go to the dead and love them’; her approach sets Rukeyser’s neglected play Houdini alongside Howe’s The Liberties (1990) to explore the ways in which, in Heim’s words, ‘these two texts attest that biography has as much to do with the life of the communal imagination, myth, and mind, as it does with the lived lives of the individuals in question; as much to do with the stories we make up and tell each other, as with what has taken place.’ In this way, then, Rukeyser’s own exemplary life joins the host of known and anonymous dead, the ‘packed and leafdrift earth of centuries of falling lives, fallen under our feet’[ii] that constitutes the grounding of all future imaginative experience.
Currently working on a separate (albeit related) project involving pragmatism and intermedial artworks, I can see how Rukeyser’s deeply pragmatic stance to the life of poetry aligns with what Richard Shusterman, in the tradition of John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, has termed ‘somaesthetics’: ‘a critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation and creative self-fashioning’ that impacts on the self’s relation to society.[iii] Much of Rukeyser’s poetry stems from the memory or documentation of her on-site experience of social realities. As Jane Cooper has noted, ‘she wanted to be there. One way of witnessing was to write. Another was to put her body on the line, literally.’[iv] Forging a meeting place of practice and imagination, site and sight, Rukeyser dismantled traditional mind/body dualisms just as she demolished established binaries of art and science, poetry and prose, myth and history. Like the revisionary, feminist and repossessed voice of the poem ‘Absalom’, Rukeyser spoke an embodied and empowered poetry: ‘I have gained mastery over my heart/I have gained mastery over my two hands… I open out a way.’ Through her work, as Heim attests, Rukeyser reveals the ‘potential for enacting knowledge beyond the borders of the strictly aesthetic’; more than this, Rukeyser resituates poetry as a site and enactment of all human experience, understanding the inextricability of art from the practice of everyday life in a manner championed by Dewey as the key to individual and social improvement (Art as Experience, 1934).
Deweyan pragmatism (Rukeyser was an avid reader of both Dewey and William James) involves a blending of the immediate moment with past experience:
The process of living… is an everlastingly renewed process of acting upon the environment and being acted upon by it together with institution of relations between what is done and what is undergone. Hence experience is necessarily cumulative and its subject matter gains expressiveness because of cumulative continuity.[v]
Rukeyser’s approach to poetry, which is also her approach to being-in-the-world, is Deweyan at core. The reason for this is related to her strong conviction, also shared with Dewey, that our tendency to separate the experience of everyday human existence from the discourse of art and aesthetic experience creates a dangerous isolationism that locks art away in institutions, ossifies poetry, and disables us from treating life artistically. When I read Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics, steeped as they are in the importance of positive valence in emotive responses to the world, I am reminded always of Rukeyser’s imperative to strip the fear from the experience of poetry: ‘Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms.’[vi] Rukeyser’s life’s works are what Dewey calls ‘cumulative continuity’, continually enacting her dynamic interaction with her environment and others, and constituting a lesson in living and a celebration of it that extends to a renewed relation with the reader – or, to use Rukeyser’s preferred word, the witness. Her writing is profoundly informed by immediate and by past experience, and although she was, in her own words, an ‘axiom-breaker’, she was also profoundly concerned with the vitality of tradition, with the lives of the ‘many-born’ who ripple through oceans of time, and charge ‘our latest moment with their wave.’[vii]
Rukeyser argues in The Life of Poetry that freedom (a human right) involves the ability to ‘choose a tradition,’ and select representatives of that tradition.[viii] In an essay entitled ‘Under Forty’ (1944) for a Jewish publication, Rukeyser expounds on the idea: ‘if one is free, freedom can extend to a certain degree into the past, and one may choose one’s ancestors, to go with their wishes and their fight.’[ix] Her position chimes with Martin Buber’s, whose writings Rukeyser also read and absorbed. Buber argued that ‘tradition does not consist in letting contents and forms pass on, finished and inflexible,’ but that ‘a generation can only receive the teachings in the sense that it renews them.’[x] Rukeyser’s commitment to renewing and choosing a tradition – an ancestry – relates her in many ways to T.S. Eliot, with whose poetics she had a complex relationship. Elisabeth Däumer’s paper addresses Rukeyser’s readings of Eliot, tracing his rhythms and resonances in her writings, and exploring her reformulations of his criticism, including his attention to ‘the place of tradition, the limitations of art, and his theory of emotion.’ Däumer’s scrutiny falls particularly on this latter aspect, rethinking standard critical responses to Eliot’s objectivism by reading his interest in the affective agencies of poetry in the light of Rukeyser’s ‘concept of total response.’
Affective and somatic aesthetics in the context of tradition also provide pathways into Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s and Laura Passin’s papers. Kennedy-Epstein focuses on the cross-currents between the lives of Rukeyser and Virginia Woolf, tracing the lines of connection through shared fields of ‘textual, sexual and political radicalism’ and aligning both women’s treatments of the experimental novel as an arena for the espousal of new ways of thinking about war, nationalism and art in times of social upheaval. Rukeyser’s Savage Coast and Woolf’s The Pargiters – daring works of genre hybridity and radical thought, documenting ‘the lives of women in contexts of war, nationalism, education and sexual subjectivity’ – were both ultimately abandoned by their authors, their ideas unpicked and rewoven into the fabric of other, more publishable works (Woolf’s Three Guineas, Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry and several poems). Kennedy-Epstein explores the position of the female experimental writer as offering vital (yet largely ignored) perceptions of state violence and sexual hierarchies.
Passin’s perspective on Plath returns us to feminist revisions of mythology in which Rukeyser advocates a strong female voice arising out of the maternal body (see ‘Absalom’ in its entirety, for example). Critics have tended to position Plath and Rukeyser at opposite ends of the somatic spectrum when it comes to creative impulses, particularly in relation to motherhood. Louise Kertesz, for example, has noted how Rukeyser’s attentions to the subject are ‘quite different’ from the ‘horror’ and ‘lost belief in the value of living’ that accompanies the ‘motherhood poems’ of Plath and Anne Sexton, quoting a line from Rukeyser’s ‘Breaking Open’ to reinforce her point: ‘I’d rather be Muriel than be dead and be Ariel.’[xi] Passin, however, wishes to recontextualise Rukeyser’s responses, addressing her ‘suicide poems’ in particular, and arguing that through these poems, Rukeyser ‘frames and revises the cultural narratives around Plath.’
Both Kennedy-Epstein’s and Passin’s approaches can be said to examine Rukeyser’s Deweyan commitment to art as experiment and experience, her proclivity for embodying and questioning the multiplicity of social selves that one’s interaction with the world requires and enables. Reference to the act of suicide becomes, conversely, an act of creation for Rukeyser, for her reimagining connects to her wider understanding of the poem as a continually renewing process: as an ongoing event, not a finished object. The interconnected variety of the ALA panel brings me, therefore, to another unfinished project of Rukeyser’s, and one that – one day – I hope to be able to bring to light in a more accessible form. In the Rukeyser archives at the Library of Congress is a work, suitably in-progress, entitled In the Beginning. The proposed book is, according to Rukeyser, ‘an anthology of creation’, bringing together extracts of works from a wealth of writers, thinkers, scientists, filmmakers and artists. Rukeyser explains the importance of humankind’s ‘glimpses of understanding’ of the nature of creation:
Whether it is the root in fire or in word, in the lightning flash or the great dreaming and active cycle that springs out of central rest, whether we see it reflected in the act of love or the entrance of birth, it illuminates the world and ourselves to us.[xii]
In the end, In the Beginning allows us our own glimpse of what the ALA panel will no doubt bring into more sustained focus: that the way to understand and illuminate ‘the world and ourselves to us’ is not through aesthetic enclosure or the possessive grasping of knowledge, but through active, intersubjective experience, and the forging of new, creative paths that share our lives with the living words and images of others.
[i] Rukeyser, ‘The Usable Truth’, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 58 (July, 1941), 206-209, 206.
[iii] Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, second edition (Roman and Littlefield, 1992; 2000), 267.
[iv] Cooper, ‘And Everything a Witness of the Buried Life’, in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?, eds. Herzog and Kaufman (New York, 1999), 3-16, 7.
[v] John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934) (Perigee Books, 2005), 108
[vii] The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 182.
[viii] The Life of Poetry (1949) (Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996), x.
[ix] Ibid, x; Rukeyser, ‘Under Forty’, Contemporary Jewish Record, VII (February, 1944), 4-9, 8.
[x] Buber, ‘Teaching and Deed’, in Will Herberg, ed., The Writings of Martin Buber (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 317-324, 318.
[xi] Kertesz, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 225, 344.
[xii] MR Papers, Library of Congress, 1:21.
Posted on December 14, 2013 by Catherine Gander
This post, in celebration of the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth (15.12.13), is a more personal one than my last. I want to evoke, as far as I can, a feeling as well as an understanding of the enormous influence Rukeyser has had on the lives of those who knew her, and those who have read her. Encountering her work, whether it is her poetry, her prose biographies, her dramatic scripts, or her essays, is invariably an intellectually invigorating experience. The act of reading becomes, with a Rukeyser text, simultaneously an act of reception and response – an act of witness, as she termed it – that sends the mind flying in several directions; that instantly instigates curiosity; that generates a conversation between text, writer and reader, seemingly started eons ago and yet constantly fresh and exciting. If this sounds gushing, so be it. There are some things (admittedly, very few) I find in Rukeyser’s work that aren’t particularly ‘good’; there are some efforts that even fail (and this was seldom her fault; she was vastly undervalued and even feared; she was almost buried by the academy: she was significantly ahead of her time). But, aside from the fact that the overwhelming majority of Rukeyser’s oeuvre is exceptionally good and still strikingly resonant, I’m not sure she would have had it any other way. As her friend and student Laura Manuelidis noted to me, Rukeyser knew full well that to produce something good involved on occasion producing something ‘bad’: ‘Being bad is part of it’, she used to say to me, ‘don’t erase the bad; let it be’. The result renders Rukeyser’s writing a true gift to the world, because it communicates not only the deepest and sharpest and most vital (in both senses) messages of human life in all of its forms and motions, but that it also articulates the ‘coming into being’ processes of that life.
The effect of Rukeyser’s work, I am trying to argue, is in large part what it creates, and continues to create long after her books have been closed (only waiting to be reopened). I am reminded most, as Marian Evans and Christine White have been, of her much-quoted poem, ‘Islands’, the first short stanza of which is:
O for God’s sake
they are connected
Each piece of writing, each artistic endeavour of Rukeyser’s, encourages us – the ‘bathers’ in the sea surrounding the ‘islands’ – to plunge our heads under the water we are treading and see the truth. ‘The bathers think / islands are separate like them’, Rukeyser ends the poem, in two of the most simple yet eye-opening and heart-breaking lines in modern poetry. Her works are calls to connective conversation. ‘If we could touch one another, /if these our separate entities could come to grips’, wrote Rukeyser in the poem ‘Effort at Speech Between Two People’, when she was just 22 years old.
Her cumulative works are a life narrative in which we all have a role; in which every life is connected, from the lives of the Gauley Bridge miners and their families, from Thomas Hariot to Willard Gibbs, from Houdini to Wendell Willkie, from Käthe Kollwitz to Anne Burlak, to the life of the reader/witness. I am emphasising the vitality of connective stories here, not only because Rukeyser tirelessly did the same thing throughout her own life, but because this blog is in commemoration and celebration of that life. ‘The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms’, she wrote in ‘The Speed of Darkness’ in 1968.
The stories that Rukeyser lived, made, and continues to influence are innumerable, and they connect in ways that it would take more than several lifetimes to discover. I have found, however, that those people who take in Rukeyser’s works and words, and who live by the same standards of passionate curiosity, of openness, equality, and moral and intellectual fortitude, cross each other’s paths and connect with each other in extraordinary ways. The series of coincidences that have (so far) occurred in my life after I began to research Rukeyser is both remarkable and somehow naturally expected. I wrote in my last post that I was delighted to hear from Bill Rukeyser, Muriel’s son, that he had lived in the street next to mine in Belfast, when he was producing his excellent journalistic work on the Northern Irish conflict in the early 1970s. In direct relation to my work here, when I received news from Elisabeth Däumer (without whose insight, intelligence and industry this site would not exist) about my article in the Journal of Narrative Theory Rukeyser special issue, I was visiting a friend in Berlin, sitting in a café in Kollwitzplatz, having spent a good while looking at the statue of Kollwitz, and admiring several examples of her work. Elisabeth, of course, knows the place well. Those readers not familiar with Rukeyser’s biographical poem of Kollwitz will no doubt recognise its most famous lines: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open’.
The most wonderful set of coincidences happened this summer. Rukeyser’s insistence on ‘a poetry of meeting-places’ extended not only to the connection of mistakenly disparate disciplines such as the ‘two cultures’ of art and science, but to all forms of media, and her dedication to the dual and collaborative work of words and images has informed my academic writing since I first picked up The Life of Poetry as a Masters student. In August this year, I took a research trip to America; my route went from Dublin to New York, to New Haven, to Philadelphia to Mexico City, where I ended my excursion with a paper on William Carlos Williams, ekphrasis and cognitive perception at an ‘Aesthetics and Naturalism’ conference at UNAM.
On the Dublin-New York flight, I sat next to someone with whom I soon struck up a conversation. He saw I was reading a paper about visual poetry; he took from his bag a book of visual poems he had written and published. I told him I was researching a paper – an inquiry that involved consideration of the way the brain processes reading images and reading poems; he told me he had spent much of his life working as a professor of psychology, specialising in neurophysiology. He had then developed and directed the UNESCO Culture of Peace programme, and now spends his time as an advocate for world peace. I told him I would be visiting the Beinecke library at Yale in a week’s time; he told me he lived in New Haven. His name was David Adams. We discussed brain activity, perception, peace activism and poetry, and of course, I spoke of Muriel Rukeyser, whereupon he told me that one of his good friends, the Yale physician and neuropathologist Laura Manuelidis, used to be a student of Rukeyser’s and knew her well. Laura, who is also an excellent poet, was unfortunately out of town the next week, and could not take advantage of David’s generous offer of dinner (it was delicious Peking Duck and lasted me for most of the week). David’s indefatigable campaigning for a better world can be accessed here: http://cpnn-world.org/
When I was able to speak with Laura (and speaking with her is as enriching an experience as speaking with David), I discovered not only that we shared a common ground of poetic and political preferences, but that we also shared a friend: Professor Clive Bush, a tutor of mine when I was at King’s College London, and the person who had introduced me to the work of Muriel Rukeyser. How apt that it was Rukeyser who had brought our paths to meet. I was immediately put in mind of the symbol of the spiral, a motif of extreme importance for Rukeyser; ‘the life-giver and carrier, the whirlpool, the vortex of atoms, and the sacred circuit’:
The history of a symbol, traced in this way, will show the history of human passion for a relationship – in this instance, between growth and form. Passion it is, deeper, more eager to use and be used, and in its love and play making art, games, talismans, out of an expression of the most deep connection.
I’d like to give the last part of this post to a few recollections of Rukeyser, by Laura and by Clive. I’d also, in keeping with Rukeyser’s spirit of openness, generosity and exposure, like to share their poems, infused with and inspired by the voice of their friend.
Laura met Muriel Rukeyser in 1960, when she took her class at Sarah Lawrence. She remembers the impressive and commanding presence of the poet: ‘the building hardly seemed large enough to fit her inside of it.’ That several students seemed at first afraid of her, but that Laura was not, was perhaps one of the reasons that Muriel was immediately taken with Laura. ‘I remember her saying to me, “I like you – we’re going for a walk”, and we walked and talked for two hours, leaving all the other students waiting.’ From that moment, a close and mutually rewarding friendship began, and Muriel would cook for Laura (‘she gave me my first mixed grill!’), read and critique her poems non-prescriptively (‘never anything like “we do this, we don’t do that”’), and spend countless hours discussing the need and the power of poetry.
Muriel’s unceasing curiosity for all aspects and elements of life left a deep imprint in Laura’s memory of her. ‘She worked all the time,’ Laura recalls, ‘she was always interested in things. She was always reading, and getting me to read things too. She said during our first meeting: “I think you will like Lorca.” I went to the library directly afterwards, found all the Lorca I could read, and of course, I loved it. But she knew that when I was a poetry student of hers, I never read her work, and she understood. She knew I needed to find my own voice.’ Later, when Muriel offered to help Laura, who was now in her second year of medical school, publish her book of poems, she asked whether Laura had come up with a title. ‘I replied “Poems for the Matriarchy”. “Oh no!” she said. I was surprised but understood later. No confinement.’
The poem I am posting below is one that Laura worries slightly does not communicate the strength, passion and resilience of Muriel Rukeyser. It might not. It does, however, apart from demonstrating what an excellent student she had in Laura, communicate Rukeyser’s grace and humanity. Laura wrote it in response to seeing her friend and mentor in a hospital bed after a stroke; she pulled the curtains around her and was thanked with the remark that she was a ‘real lady’.
Sunday hat (for Muriel Rukeyser, 1980)
(in Out of Order, 2007)
And now, at last, to remove this Sunday hat
Wilted with flowers, and circa
And loose the stiffened neck of lace
Down until the shoulders are not hemmed
And the chest is also not embraced.
Then slowly, to unsnap the cuffs—
But do not glance upon the veins or brown
The skin is not the soul
(The sermon master told me so);
And then the bodice, like a brick
And then the belt
And then the skirt.
Oh I will kick my feet as I once did!
But first, I must undo the crush
Of garters and of mesh
Upon my hips,
Hooks and buttons that make a lady straight
Down to the crimp of stockings
On my toes.
At night, would that I could
The dye upon my hair
And in this fallen condition be
And drown into my bed and sleep.
And if I dream
And then undo my skin
Am I a lady underneath?
My joints are hard
My heart is small and weak.
Will they love me laid upon these sheets?
I am gay, I am dancing
And those who care are laughing
Unlatch my jokes
—Here I am!
Able to flirt with nothing on.
My inelastic corset laced with pain
Yes, I promise I will
My used and mottled hat
Place on my head
This one last time;
Arrange my dress—and let my face be rouged—
Compose my hands across my waist
Before I’m cramped within this narrow space.
My eyes alone
Behind a veil of light
Caress you with all my freedom, and my might.
Rukeyser used to ‘send’ people to Laura, and one of them was Clive Bush. A great and lasting friendship began between the two ‘disciples’, when in 1973, Clive, on a research fellowship at Yale, was despatched by Rukeyser to Laura, her husband and children for intellectual companionship and general ‘looking after’. Muriel had a sharp sense for compatible personalities.
Clive’s seven-year friendship with Muriel (ending in her death in 1980, but of course in many ways extending far beyond it) began via the American Studies scholar and writer, Eric Mottram. Having dinner with Clive, Eric mentioned that the author of The Traces of Thomas Hariot was coming to London for its launch. When the British press thrashed the book – still misunderstood, but one of the most intriguing, clever and well-researched biographies I’ve read – Clive was incandescent with anger. He obtained the number of Monica McCall, Rukeyser’s agent (and partner), called it, and released a torrent of heated opinion on the state of literary journalism in the UK into the ear of the person who picked up. When he had finished, there was a pause, and a low voice chuckled and replied, ‘Do you think you could write all that down and send it to me?’ Realising that Muriel, not Monica, had answered the phone, Clive agreed, on the proviso that she gave a reading to his students at Warwick University, where he was then teaching. The favour was returned.
When I ask Clive what he learnt most from his friend, his reply is very similar to Laura’s. ‘Her emphasis on combination was extraordinary’, he asserts. ‘She had such an openness to all knowledge, and not out of some intellectual objective, but out of the understanding that it is absolutely vital to all human beings.’ Muriel’s capacity to recognise and open paths of connection between forms, disciplines and people was aided by her ability to enjoy life to the full. ‘She was very humorous’, Clive remarks, ‘and she loved to tease and be teased. She was playful, too. I remember when she discovered I knew Wiltshire (England) well, she boasted to me that she had stopped on the way to Corsham Court to play darts in the Methuen Arms, a pub with which I was also very familiar.’
Muriel introduced Clive to numerous artists, academics and writers, as well as a variety of Jewish food – a particular favourite in New York being lox and bagels – and whiskey. The description of a delight in sensual pleasures fits: Rukeyser enjoyed the give-and-take of all types of pleasure, whether intellectual, emotional or sensorial. The poem I am reproducing of Clive’s is one that evokes this synaesthesia, allowing at once glimpses of the interests he and Rukeyser shared, and echoes of her own strong voice.
(from Pictures after Poussin, 2003)
they ran through her hands like water
but in this exchange money was no object
and she of a relative profit
an illusion of the public good
rioted in Roman columns
she kissed his feet as if the proportion of services
did not belong to the costs of consumption
he said if debt could be figured then small debts
were small terrors
she had come out in a board room of ironic men on their sides
who were about to eat perfect bread with arranged knives
memory became memorials between their eyes
there were tears on bare feet
the letter of the law was bespoke
so that they could all look up to themselves in telling
the yellow and white
of their oldest professions
fell off her shoulder
became a source of light
she had received and suffered what came from the noise of meteors
her breasts and hair touched his feet outside a table whose still life kept its nourishment as vertical
depth in an unvarying centre of groping arms
the boy on his knees
poured wine under the open eyes
of the only man who could extinguish
that forgiveness of the shroud’s fold
through which he never saw
I will finish this post, however, with poetry from Rukeyser. The themes of birth, rebirth and life are prevalent throughout Rukeyser’s entire oeuvre; lest we forget, one of the greatest gifts she gave to literature is entitled The Life of Poetry. In the connections I have traced along this post, however, I thread my own life, touched not only by hers, but by the lives of those she knew and loved, and who loved her in return. In some ways, the recently emerging scholarship on Rukeyser is a thankful bringing back to life – a reawakening, if only in some small parts of the world (that, we know, are not discrete) of witness to Rukeyser’s writings. The following poem is entitled ‘Born in December’, written by Rukeyser for a friend, but pertinent to herself, born on the 15th December, and also, gratifyingly, to me, born on the 20th.
Born in December for Nancy Marshall
(in Body of Waking, 1958)
You are like me born at the end of the year;
When in our city day closes blueness comes
We see a beginning in the ritual end.
Never mind: I know it is never what it seems,
That ending: for we are born, we are born there,
There is an entrance we may always find.
They reckon by the wheel of the year. Our birth’s before.
From the dark birthday to the young year’s first stay
We are the ones who wait and look for ways:
Ways of beginning, ways to be born, ways for
Solvings, turnings, wakings, we are always
A little younger than they think we are.
Muriel Rukeyser, born 100 years ago, always a little younger than they think, yet always ahead of her time. Her legacy stretches onward in the memories of those she touched, in the lives and works of those who continue to be touched by her presence and her words. I shall leave, therefore, the last word to her:
(The Gates, 1976)
When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will still be making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.