Elisabeth Däumer: Muriel Rukeyser’s Presumptions

Muriel Rukeyser was presumptuous. Her presumptions were multifold and risky. They involved contentious claims for poetry’s many “uses”—emotional, intellectual, and cultural; for its kinship with science, particularly “abstract science”; and for its value as “meeting place,” capable of linking not only different people, but also highly specialized disciplines and epistemologies in a common imaginative pursuit (Life of Poetry 103,159, 20).[1]For those of us coming to her work today, Rukeyser’s presumptions are a blessing. For one, she insisted on the necessity of audacity for the kind of intellectual and emotional work that she thought poetry could, and needed, to do in a century of formidable technological progress, new wars, and new forms of industrial exploitation that such progress enabled. If the poem were to be the fecund meeting place that she imagined, daring would have to be part of the poet’s job description. For how is a poet to create meeting places, unless she pushes against the conventional boundaries that still to this day demarcate the proper realm of the poetic.

Rukeyser thought of presumption as an inherently American trait, manifest, for better and worse, in the nation’s political and geographic exploits, its technological ingenuity, its tradition of “axiom-breaking” (Willard Gibbs 9).[2] She reserved special admiration for acts of daring that drew on the human capacity for abstraction—the development of hypotheses, the construction of systems that have no immediate practical value but serve to advance knowledge about the “human condition,” as she writes in a letter to Albert Einstein during the 1930s. [3] In calling for more presumption in her introductory chapter of Willard Gibbs, aptly titled “On Presumption,” Rukeyser clearly had multiple meanings of the word in mind.[4] According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a descendant of Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, “presume” encompasses at least six different activities: 1. “to undertake without leave or clear justification: dare”; 2. “to expect or assume especially with confidence”; 3. “to suppose to be true without proof (presumed innocent until proved guilty)”; 4. “to take for granted; imply”; 5. “to act or proceed presumptuously or on a presumption”; and 6. “to go beyond what is right or proper.” The origin of the verb suggests the confluence of two distinct undertakings that define as well the nature of Rukeyser’s presumptions: “from Anglo-French presumer, from Late Latin praesumereto dare, from Latin, to anticipate, assume.” Indeed, if we linger for a minute on the word’s origin, “presume”—in the sense of both daring and anticipating—emerges as an essential cognitive activity, central to the sciences, the humanities, and the creation of poetry. Any inventive, creative endeavor, Rukeyser might say, cannot proceed without presuming—without venturing into uncharted or improper (from a disciplinary, ideological, ethical point of view) territory; without daring failure; without anticipating, or hoping; without, in other words, a utopian striving for new insights, new systems that cannot, as yet, be proved, but that can be thought, imagined, on the evidence of what Rukeyser termed “verifiable” and “unverifiable” facts as a number of contributors discuss in their chapter below. Rukeyser was keenly interested in the nature of facts—of what we can know and how; her disquisitions on the different kinds of facts were rigorous, subtle, and intimately linked to the activity of presuming, and its synonyms: “assume, conjecture, daresay, imagine, guess, speculate, suppose, surmise, suspect.” These synonyms, moreover, inhere implicitly in the cluster of meanings that constitute “presumption”: “presumptuous attitude or conduct: audacity”; “an attitude or belief dictated by probability: assumption”; “the ground, reason, or evidence lending probability to a belief”; and “a legal inference as to the existence or truth of a fact not certainly known that is drawn from the known or proved existence of some other fact.”

This special issue of JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory marks the centenary of Rukeyser’s birth in 1913 (December 15), bringing together essays and poems that offer telling new evidence for Rukeyser’s nuanced presumptions. Drawing, in part, on tantalizing material from the substantial Rukeyser collections at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, many of the essays investigate key works of her oeuvre that have received little to no critical attention so far: Eric Keenaghan’s searching study, “Biocracy: Reading Poetic Politics through the Traces of Muriel Rukeyser’s Life-Writing,” takes on her iconoclastic prose biography of the 1940 Republican Presidential contender Wendell Willkie. One Life, as Keenaghan shows, seeks to follow the traces of Willkie’s inner life etched within the fabric of his public persona and the stunning ideological and political reversals that characterize his political career. Catherine Gander’s “Facing the Fact: Word and Image in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Worlds Alongside’” explores Rukeyser’s experimental sixteen-page photo-narrative, which, appearing in Coronet in 1937 and since then neglected by critics, offers vivid testimony for her innovative effort to insert a multi-perspectival, interrogative dimension into the genre of documentary photo essay.

The essays by Craig Morehead and Stefania Heim, as well as the two poems from Stephanie Strickland’s True North (1997), ponder the significance of the reclusive scientist and mathematician Willard Gibbs to Rukeyser’s philosophy of poetry. For all three contributors, Rukeyser’s biography—“a strange undertaking,” as Heim notes—serves as a crucial, anticipatory counterpart to her poetic manifesto The Life of Poetry. It is in Willard Gibbs where Rukeyser elaborates her conviction that “The world of the poet … is the scientist’s world. Their claim on systems is the same claim. Their writings anticipate each other; welcome each other; indeed embrace” (11). In “Negative Entropy and the Energy of Utopian Potential in Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead,” Morehead proposes that Gibbs’s theories of thermodynamics and entropy “provided a theoretical model for Rukeyser’s artistic aspiration: to seek a process for effecting material change through poetry.” Strickland’s two poems, “Striving All My Life” and “Articulate Among Us,” invoke the reclusive scientist in the company of other scientists—James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt)—and poets, the equally reclusive Emily Dickinson and Rukeyser herself, to dramatize the latter’s insight into the kinship between scientific and poetic enterprises. Strickland, asked in an interview if she meant to juxtapose Gibb’s scientific theories, esoteric even to colleagues in the field, with the (relative) accessibility of Dickinson’s poetry, insists: “To me, Gibbs and Dickinson were equal, in courage, in creativity, in isolation. They were both exemplary language-makers.” Heim’s essay “‘Another form of life’: Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs, and Analogy” confirms Strickland’s remarks, showing that Rukeyser, in writing about Gibbs, discovered the power—and the danger—of analogy as a way of moving between disciplines, epistemologies, and languages, as “communicative action … rooted in profound humanity.”

The special issue concludes with two pieces—an essay and a poem—on Rukeyser as a witness to history. In “‘Whose fires would not stop’: Muriel Rukeyser and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1976,” Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, editor of Rukeyser’s recently published “lost” novel, Savage Coast, peruses Rukeyser’s life-long pursuit to “tell of what she saw” in Barcelona, in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Rukeyser’s evolving poetics of history, Kennedy-Epstein maintains, required writing in multiple genres, and extending these genres—from reportage to fiction, from memoir, poetry, and documentary to the epic, among others—to enable the understanding of history as an open system, “reaching backward and forward in history, illuminating all time” (Rukeyser, Life of Poetry 35). History becomes a cluster of multiple, inter-related tracks, allowing for both endless repetition (of violence, war, nationalism) and ever new forms of resistance. Finally, Alicia Ostriker’s poem “The Runner,” about a runner who “runs of necessity, who runs possibly for love, / For truth, for death,” leaves us with a powerful homage to Rukeyser’s indefatigable and principled optimism, manifest in the commitment to witnessing the past and the present, for a better future. The image of running, a motif pervasive in Rukeyser’s own poetry as well, encapsulates such optimism: “How shall we speak to the infant beginning to run? / All those beginning to run?” (Rukeyser, Collected 570).

Rukeyser’s fearless experimentation with a wide range of genres besides poetry, as well as her persistent ventures into highly specialized fields like science as a poet (and as a woman and a Jew), are clearly her most egregious presumptions. Other presumptions, as the works assembled in this issue attest, bolster that audacity, among them the claim that poetry, like science, is a medium and place for imagining, in the sense of speculating, anticipating, theorizing, and discovering. Such acts of presuming are especially apparent in Rukeyser’s life-writing, which she undertook with full awareness of the intricate and intimate—and political—process of connecting to the life of another. In writing a biography, Keenaghan points out, Rukeyser did not claim to know what her subjects felt or set out to excavate the hidden facts of their lives; instead, she sought to make visible the process of writing a life—the ways in which the biographer connects to her subject emotionally—and invite readers to participate in that process. Rukeyser, as Keenaghan observes, “found the truth of anyone’s emotional life not in the disclosure of identity-related content about what that person felt, but instead in the discovery of how that person felt” (emphasis original). Produced through empathetic intuition about the mysteries of another’s affective life, such discoveries, Rukeyser believed, merited the status of evidence, what she termed “non-verifiable” facts related to “dreams,” “sex,” and “everything that can be given to other people only through the skill and strength by which it is given” (“The Education of the Poet” 282-83).

Rukeyser’s experimental photo-narrative “Worlds Alongside” extends the concern of her life-writing projects in that it challenges the reader/viewer to connect with others in ways that actively engage with the visual traces of their emotional lives. By “foregrounding,” in Gander’s words, “the ultimately unknowable nature of … separate subjectivities,” Rukeyser’s text-image pairings implode, from within, the conservative genre of the magazine photo essay and its presumption to know and speak for the impoverished, such as the voiceless migrant workers whose plight motivated many of the well-meaning—but, as Rukeyser suggests, flawed—documentary efforts of the time. Drawing on Emmanuel Levinas’s contemplations of the ethics of the face, Gander notes that Rukeyser reached for word-image forms that would produce a variety of perspectives and questions, eliciting the connective, meaning-making work of the reader/viewer: “Instead of providing an indexical series of images of the dispossessed and privileged, accompanied by an explanatory text, Rukeyser demonstrates that pictures make us think—make us question our own ways of reading, or looking at, pictures and the people whom they apparently represent.” Such questioning, undertaken by author and reader/viewer alike, prompts self-reflexive modes of presuming—not in the sense of advancing undue claims about another’s interiority based on unconscious pre-conceptions or explanatory captions, but in the sense of speculating about, imagining, intuiting, and simply attending to the mysterious existence both of the represented other and the viewing/reading self. Exploring, as Gander writers, “dual aspects of modern life—the separate yet parallel social spheres of wealth and poverty,” Rukeyser’s innovative photo-narrative activates the presumption of unknowability as an individual right crucial to genuinely democratic communities that value multiplicity, empathy, and difference.

Rukeyser’s autobiographical novel Savage Coast, one of her earliest life-writing projects,  and her subsequent writings about the Spanish Civil War, explored in Kennedy-Epstein’s essay, each suggest incendiary presumptions related to gender: these include not only her nervy assertion in Savage Coast of her equality with “the most prominent male literary figures of her time”(xix), whose texts she referenced and critiqued in her own, but also her insistence that individual female experience is central to our collective understanding of history. Rukeyser was only twenty-two years old when she began writing her autobiographical bildungsroman of the Spanish Civil War, which chronicles the political radicalization and sexual liberation of a young woman, suggestively named “Helen.” Rukeyser’s linking of subjective and historical experience, in particular her decision to endow an incisive historical event like the Spanish Civil War with the personal symbolism of a young woman’s struggles for liberation and self-determination, is, in many ways, no less scandalous than Plath’s later refusal to separate female depression and rage from the psycho-sexual impact of cold-war attitudes toward fascism and the Holocaust. In Rukeyser’s case, such integrative, interconnected poetics of history fueled, as Kennedy-Epstein shows, the development of “a radical, avant-garde literary project, one that subverts the perceived separation between political and aesthetic poetry inculcated in mid-twentieth-century literary culture, while expanding the boundaries of gender and genre through formal experimentation.”

Rukeyser’s innovative efforts did at times falter; Gander suggests, for instance, that Rukeyser did not always manage to resist objectifying the other (13), and some critics, such as Kyle Evans, indict her of  appropriating and manipulating the words of those to whom she sought to be an empathetic witness.[5] But as Stefania Heim notes, in Rukeyser’s mind, failure, especially what Heim calls “rich failure,” was always more interesting than “narrow success” (Rukeyser, Willard 429). And it is Rukeyser’s refreshing appreciation for failure—personal, professional, or political—that returns us to her astute observation on the perennial “crisis of the humanities”: the many “correspondences” between “art and science” (Life of Poetry 162): “The scientist,” she remarks, “has suffered before the general impoverishment of imagination in some of the same ways as the poet. The worker in applied science and the inventor might be thought of as the two crackpots. … The theoretical scientist, like the poet, could never ‘show’ his audience: they lacked language, and in another way, so did he” (160). The contributions by Morehead, Strickland, and Heim remind us that Rukeyser was truly unusual in her insistence on the kinship, not the dissimilarity, between poetry and science. Even today, after decades of attempting to defend poetry by insisting on its difference from the sciences—reducing the scope and complexity of both fields in the process—Rukeyser’s refusal to “cordon … off [poetry] from other modes of thinking or fields of thought” (as Heim expresses it in her essay) remains radical and new. For those of us alarmed by the shrinking place of the humanities in contemporary institutions of higher learning, Rukeyser’s critique of the presumptive duality of poetry and science models a way for theorizing poetics as meeting place of different kinds of imagination, different epistemologies, different disciplines. Rukeyser debunks the pervasive assumption that poetry has to do, exclusively, with feelings or that science concerns itself solely with fact. She likewise challenges the related tendency to seek the value of poetry in its refusal of “use” or, conversely, to seek the value of science in its practical application alone.[6]

The essays by Morehead and Heim are particularly timely by investigating how the perception of kinship between poetry and science shapes Rukeyser’s thematic and aesthetic choices, a perception that accounts for her concise sense of what poetry can and cannot do. While she posits art as “action,” Rukeyser is very clear in her insistence that it “does not cause action: rather it prepares us for thought” (Life of Poetry 25). Similarly, while art is “intellectual,” it does not “cause thought: rather it prepares us for thought” (25). What makes poetry, as a literary genre, singular in Rukeyser’s eyes is its proclivity toward system-building, a proclivity that it shares with science: “Poets and scientists give themselves closely to the creation and description of systems” (Rukeyser, “Josiah” 8). The great scientists like the great poets are inventors of new systems, discoverers of new ways of forging relations between disparate elements or fields. Both are concerned with unity and proceed from the assumption of interconnectedness, seeking to formulate laws by illuminating the web of relations. In the service of such connected or combinatory thinking, both scientist and poet turn to the language of analogy. Analogy, as Heim proposes, simultaneously forges relations of similarity and difference; it “is connection across rupture, similarity in dissimilarity”—essential for communicating new discoveries while also serving, as in the case of Rukeyser’s Willard Gibbs, as a key structural principal of the system. Building on Rukeyser, Heim invites us to understand a poet’s formal choices analogously by comparing them to choices within another field, such as, for instance, architecture or thermodynamics. Thinking by analogy engenders a constant exchange among disciplinary knowledges and practices, and a new appreciation for poetry as a laboratory for the analogical method. After all, as Heim reminds us, “Poetry traffics in leaps.”

In their pursuit of invention and systems analysis—ultimately utopian endeavors—both poet and scientist rely on verifiable and non-verifiable facts: the abstract scientist of Gibbs’s order is necessarily speculative, dealing in probabilities and potentialities, formulating laws that may never be empirically verified or replicated. “Truth,” as Rukeyser explains in reference to Gibbs, is “not a stream that flows from a source, but an agreement of components. In a poem, these components are, not the words or images, but the relation between the words and images” (Life of Poetry 167). Morehead notes that for Rukeyser, “science and poetry are two parts of a common process for discovering the relational aspects of many interconnected threads.” Hence, Rukeyser’s affirmation, “The search of man is a long process toward … the reality of relationships. One meaning of that search is love; one meaning is progress; one is science; and one is poetry” (165176). Poetry and science are disciplines of the “possible,” “preparing us for future growth, and progress,” as Morehead writes .

Like other women writers, Rukeyser has been re-discovered and re-forgotten time and again by critics and scholars. Her increasingly prominent and hopefully secure place among twentieth-century poets, especially among women poets, is evident in the poems of Stephanie Strickland and Alicia Ostriker, who pay homage to Rukeyser’s important presumptions as visionary innovator and poet of witness. That the scholars featured in this issue are still in the early parts of their careers bodes well for the future of Rukeyser studies, particularly in light of her hitherto uneven reception in academe. Their essays reflect the fearlessness of a younger generation of scholars interested in Rukeyser’s wide-ranging body of works, appreciative of the many genres in which she worked, and attuned to the multiple perspectives, multiple voices, and yet uniquely female experience conveyed in her writing. They also bring to bear a rich melee of theoretical frameworks—from queer studies, Levinasian ethics, image theory, and historical poetics to recent work in analogy, cognitive theory, and science. Rukeyser’s own prose works, especially her biography of Gibbs and The Life of Poetry, prove invaluable guideposts, what Heim describes as “the laboratory in which [Rukeyser’s] theories were developed and tested.” That laboratory is revisited, re-contextualized, and re-theorized within the essays and poems assembled in this issue. The authors, themselves, entered uncharted, unfamiliar realms by embarking on their extensive archival research. A wonderful daring. Rukeyser is not a safe subject.


1. These expressions, taken from Rukeyser’s Life of Poetry, recur throughout that book and in her poetry as well.

2. “America” is, in this sense, a mythic place, and “American” a mythic attribute—referring less to the physical parameters of theUnited States of America than to the mythology which that particular region presumes uniquely to possess.

3. See the correspondence that contributor Stefania Heim cites from the Muriel Rukeyser Collection of Papers, 1920-1976, in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

4. My discussion of Rukeyser’s presumptions was, in part, inspired by the percipient comments on the changing meaning of “definition” in Heim’s chapter.

5. Of course, over the years, Rukeyser has been accused of many failures—mostly failures of aesthetics—by critics who emphatically question or trivialize her poetic and cultural aspirations. David Orr’s recent dismissive review of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser is typical of these negative critical assessments: “Rich opines that Rukeyser ‘created a poetics of historical sensibility—not as nostalgia but as resource to express and interpret contemporary experience and imagine a different future.’ ‘Is she,’ you might ask, ‘really that boring?’” (242).

6. Rukeyser insisted on the utility of poetry while nonetheless re-envisioning what our understanding of utility might be in any context. Her appreciation for and advocacy of “pure” science counters the New Critical insistence on the autonomy of poetry—a marvelous rearrangement of the terms and ways in which New Critics attempted to use science itself to distinguish science from poetry.

 Works Cited

Evans, Kyle. “Muriel Rukeyser and Authorial Power in The Book of the Dead.” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive. <http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/essay/muriel-rukeyser-and-authorial-power-in-the-book-of-the-dead>.

Kennedy-Epstein, Rowena, ed. Savage Coast. New York: Feminist Press, 2013.

Orr, David. “Eight Takes.” Poetry Magazine. December 2005. 233-47. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/176088>.

“Presume.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/presume>.“Presumption.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/presumption>.

Ostriker, Alice. “The Runner.” A Woman under the Surface: Poems and Prose. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1982. 51-52.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.

_____. “The Education of the Poet.” Muriel Rukeyser Reader. Ed. Jan Heller Levi. New York: Norton, 1994. 277-85.

_____. “Josiah Willard Gibbs.” Physics Today 2.2 (1949): 6-13, 27.

_____. The Life of Poetry. 1949. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1996.

_____. Willard Gibbs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1942

Strickland, Stephanie. “Articulate Among Us.” True North. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1997. 48.

_____. Interview by Jaishree K. Odin. “Into the Space of Previously Undrawable Diagrams: An Interview with Stephanie Strickland.” <http://iowareview.uiowa.edu/TIRW/TIRW_Archive/tirweb/feature/strickland/interview.html>.

_____. “Striving All My Life.” True North. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1997. 42.


JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 43.3 (Fall 2013): 247-257. Copyright © 2013 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory





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