“Old Master’s Modern Heirs,” Life December 2, 1957, pp. 94-99.
“Fiery Peril in a Showcase of Modern Art,” Life April 28, 1958, 53-56.
“Old Master’s Modern Heirs,” Life December 2, 1957, pp. 94-99.
“Fiery Peril in a Showcase of Modern Art,” Life April 28, 1958, 53-56.
The time of this poem is the period in New York City from April, 1958, when I witnessed the destruction of Monet’s Waterlilies by fire at the Museum of Modern Art, to the present moment.
The two spans of time assumed are the history of Manhattan Island and my lifetime on the island. I was born in an apartment house that had as another of its tenants the notorious gangster Gyp the Blood. Nearby was Grant’s Tomb and the grave of the Amiable Child. This child died very young when this part of New York was open country. The place with its memory of amiability has been protected among all the rest. My father, in the building business, made us part of the building, tearing down, and rebuilding of the city, with all that that implies. Part II is based on that time, when building still meant the throwing of red-hot rivets, and only partly the pouring of concrete of the later episodes.
Part IV deals with an actual television interview with Suzuki, the Zen teacher, in which he answered a question about a most important moment in the teaching of Buddha.
The long body of Part V is an idea from India of one’s lifetime body as a ribbon of images, all our changes seen in process.
The “island of people” was the group who stayed out in the open in City Hall Park in April of 1961, while the rest of the city took shelter at the warning sound of the sirens. The protest against this nuclear-war practice drill was, in essence, a protest against war itself and an attempt to ask for some other way to deal with the emotions that make people make war.
Before the Museum of Modern Art was built, I worked for a while in the house that then occupied that place. On the day of the fire, I arrived to see it as a place in the air. I was coming to keep an appointment with my friend the Curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Richard Griffith, to whom this poem is dedicated.
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, ed. Janet Kaufman and Anne Herzog (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), p. 620
On April 10, 1964, Muriel Rukeyser participated, via telephone conferencing, in a course, “American Life as Seen by Contemporary Writers,” which was offered, simultaneously, in six colleges (Stephens College, Drury College, Langston University, Morehouse College, Southern Illinois University, and Tougaloo College). Offered at each college and co-taught by collaborating teachers at each institution, the course brought together students, teachers, and writers through the use of telephone networking, an innovative technology at the time.
During her telephone interview with students from the course, Rukeyser read and discussed three of her poems: “Gauley Bridge,” from Book of the Dead; “Double Dialogue: Homage to Robert Frost”; and “Waterlily Fire,” which had recently been published.
Responding to a student from Langston University about the meaning of “crooked faces” in the opening section of “Waterlily Fire,” Rukeyser said:
I have thought very often of the street full of people hoping for unity in themselves as being broken into pieces. It seems to me one of the crimes of our life, of the order we live in, is to require a partial response from people. If you look at their jobs, you know, you see how often they are partial responses to things that are demanded of people to make the jobs go. If you look at people in their professions, in the way they work, in the way they live, when they compromise, when they cut down on their fullness, when they destroy by forgetting, when they destroy by distorting, the fragmenting of the person–I meant it in that way, in the way of distorting–you see this very clearly on some streets. You see it, of course, as a projection of yourself in certain things. It was the setting up of this kind of distortion of a belief in some idea of security rather than the idea of living in change, living in movements, living in the procession of images that is the long body, that makes the main idea. I was interested in what is not so secure in life but necessary, to go on living, to go on moving and breathing as a living thing. (142)
Rukeyser’s responses to student questions about these three poems provide an excellent insight into her relationship to readers of her poems in general. For instance, when one student (again from Langston University) asked Rukeyser if she used “I am a city with bridges and tunnels/Rock, cloud, ships, voices,” as a metaphor or a symbol, she replied:
I would like to throw this right back. What do you think? I’m sorry, I apologize for that but I’m very interested in what you’re saying, the way it comes through. Unfair of me, I know.
When the student answered: “I’m not sure,” Rukeyser said: “It’s all right to be not sure. It’s all right” (146).
For more of this interview, see Talks with Authors, ed. Charles F. Madden (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), pp. 125-150.
Maxwell said: There is no more powerful way
to introduce knowledge to the mind than … as many different
ways as we can, wrenching the mind
from the symbols to the objects and from the objects
back to the symbols.
Maxwell said: I have been striving all my life to be free
of the yoke of Cartesian co-ordinates. I found
such an instrument in
quaternions. Do I need quaternions
to talk about light?
the square of quaternions
is negative. But Gibbs’s vectors, uncouth
well, in any dimension, with a very
great capability for
interpreting space relations.
Rukeyser said: Critical minds
that approach the world with love
have but one possible
defense—to build a system.
Rayleigh said, I protest
Gibbs: I myself concluded
that the paper was
Stephanie Strickland‘s “Striving All My Life” was first published in The Kenyon Review in 1995, then later in her collection True North (1997), available for purchase through the University of Notre Dame Press.
Performed by Victoria Emanuela Pozyczka, JT Garfield on guitar and Jon Walters on cello.
Victoria’s commentary:This was a poetry performance at Alexander Hall for Eastern Michigan’s Muriel Rukeyser Symposium (March 14, 2013). I was fortunate enough to create a sound poetry piece and perform during the music and poetry event. I’m currently taking the wonderful Christine Hume’s “Sound Poetry” graduate course to further my skills as a sound poet. It’s been a fantastic experience and I’m very thankful that Christine provided this opportunity for individuals in the class to perform, aka, my wonderful classmates!
My performance was in two parts:
A manipulation of Muriel’s actual voice during a very inspiring interview–layered over a collection of sound gathered from the radio waves of the sun–which to me is our origin of birth.
Link to sound piece: soundcloud.com/victoriaemanuela/muriel-rukeyser-performance
Reading and Musical Improve:
I created a collaged piece of Rukeyser’s poems including, Waterlily Fire, Birth, and one of my favorite novels of all time, The Orgy. In light of Rukeyser’s worldly introspection–I focused my piece around the human condition and change.
In other words:
Appreciating the fragility of life as a speck in an incredibly vast universe.
Human beings engage in a profoundly lucid simultaneity within an immense cosmic abyss–our existence as we know it is bewilderingly isolated and vulnerably unparalleled–we are the only (as currently evident) consciously embodied organisms in the universe with a self-referential disposition–making us both incredibly significant and utterly insignificant. Despite the connotative despair of this seemingly abstract dichotomy–humans possess the ability to empower their cosmically inscribed vulnerability by embracing it’s very uncertainty. In her work–Rukeyser often thematized this uncertainty in the form of change and burrowed deep into its impenetrable coercion. This notion of “uncertainty” also became the predominant emphasis in my piece and inspired a holistic approach to a deeply affective improvisational performance.
Essentially, without the understanding of our universal existence beyond the sphere of a socially constructed reality–humans are born to die–nothing more–nothing less–the insignificance of significance–the perversely beautiful human condition. But how does one fully come to terms with such a profound inevitability as they explore the human condition beyond the limitations of self-preservation?
Rukeyser often explored this process as an education–one that teaches us to fall in love with the uncertainty of life–the certainty of uncertainty. If all human beings were to accept the inevitability of change and empower uncertainty–their experiences would become deeply enriched and of greater significance than what’s deemed self-preserved. Together with others–they would experience the human condition on a spectrum without devaluing unity. Together they would struggle, advocate, and transcend as water does in its many forms–finding sacred the very changes they once found unbearable. Through Rukeyser’s journey of investigating many of these aspects of life–especially through the historical and socio-political sphere–I collaged and recontextualized various cherished moments in her work that were evocative of her life in change and synonymous to my own.
The experimental musical accompaniment by JT and Jon was a collaboration that came together much like in the ways that I favor–a beautiful cacophony! I knew quite immediately after finishing the collaging of the poem that I wanted JT and Jon to collaborate with me. They are some of the most spectacular human beings I’ve had the pleasure of meeting–both who deliver constant passion to introspection and what it is to exist in our form. Let me be honest as further–the sounds I’ve heard come out of these two also make my knees bend. This piece is musically experimental because aside from the cues and basic sound/structure of what we rehearsed–both musicians were improvising based on their connection to each other, the poem, and myself. The music was created to destabilize and mimic the uncertainty, flaw, and depths of human experience–which I thought they did a fantastic job portraying.
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.