How to read Rukeyser?

It seems right to begin this blog on the new Rukeyser website by exploring the different ways of reading that Rukeyser’s poetry invites or compels us to engage in.

This semester, I am guiding an independent study on Rukeyser with Chelsea Lonsdale, a student who will join EMU’s graduate program in Written Communication in the fall (2012) and who is currently completing an undergraduate thesis on craft–the “craft” of composition and “craft” if I understand her correctly in general.
So part of what we’ll do together is to “read” individual poems by Rukeyser; in fact, since Chelsea expressed her dissatisfaction with the practice of “close reading,” as defined and practiced by the New Critics, we are trying to figure out what reading Rukeyser’s poems “closely” might imply–and how else to read her poems, with an emphasis on “closely.”

Does it mean, for instance, that we assume the poem as “fixed” object? and if not, if, for instance, we think, like Rukeyser herself did, of poetry as a process, an event, a meeting place, what does that mean for our attention to the formal elements of her poems–line breaks, line indentations, punctuation. Should we treat them as “fixed” as “fluid” as subject to change or intervention by the reader?

If, as Rukeyser affirmed in The Life of Poetry,”Punctuation is biological and it is the physical indication of the body-rhythms which the reader is to acknowledge,” then, it seems to me, we need to pay close attention, not only to how she uses, but, equally importantly, to how she conceives of “punctuation” in her poetry:

…punctuation in poetry needs several inventions. Not least of all, we need a measured rest. Space on the page, as E.E. Cummings uses it, can provide roughly for a relationship in emphasis through the eye’s discernment of pattern; but we need a system of pauses which will be related to the time-pattern of the poem. I suggest a method of signs equivalating the metric foot and long and short rests within that unit. For spoken poetry, for poems approaching song, and indeed for the reading of any of these–since we are never without the reflection of sound which exists when we imagine words–a code of pauses would be valuable.

6 Responses to How to read Rukeyser?

  1. Hava Levitt-Phillips says:

    Reading you and Chelsea thinking about ways of reading that are NOT ‘close reading’ in the New Critical sense, I’m thinking about embodied reading. In fact, I’m thinking now about a thing out of a children’s novel I loved when I was a kid, Ballet Shoes.

    One of the characters is a little girl with an extraordinary gift for dance, but for little else. When she has to “do her lessons,” thus, she “dances them out.” The text doesn’t provide a particularly complete description of what that means, but it has always captivated my imagination, not least because I was also a dancer when I was little. I try to do this with students all the time, in different ways. Maybe there’s a way to read Rukeyser while moving the body that would be exciting/interesting/rewarding?

  2. Elisabeth Däumer says:

    Hava, I absolutely agree with you about the role–and importance–of “embodied reading” practices. Lately I have asked students to perform gestural interpretations of poems; I ask them to enact gestures that they see depicted in a poem but also gestures that the poem invokes in them (and that’s not always the same). A session on “embodied reading” and Rukeyser’s idea of total response would work nicely at the Symposium! I’d love for you to be part of it! Or to put it together!

  3. Pat Mullarkey says:

    I come late to Muriel Rukeyser’s work yet her convergence of history, physicality, and social and political issues make me feel as if she has opened multiple doors to her poetry and welcomed me in. I’ve listened to history lectures that should have been provoking and inspiring, instead they evaporate in the air. I think about how Muriel would have changed the words, reached out and grabbed the audience…pauses, fierce emotions, words that bind us to her and the moment (“Mediterranean”). As a former journalist I so envy her ability to transform witnessing to words. I look forward to the symposium.

  4. I have ordered a copy of The Life of Poetry.
    I would like to live my life as poetry and am grateful I have met and am learning about this wonderful poet.
    Christine Tracy

  5. Leonore says:

    The comments of Elisabeth and Hava on gesture are interesting; however:
    Gesture and movement enhance my experience of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry in a metaphorical sense only.
    I explain: when I read MR, as with most modern poets, I feel that I am asked to flex my imagination, enter the groove of each line with a desire to conform to the new “arabesque” created by the poet’s words. Every new image and idea, the sound play, the metaphors, require inner lithness and a willingness to follow. If gestures help you to understand Muriel’s poetry, it is because your imagination has been there first.

  6. walter hogan says:

    Regarding “Punctuation is biological and it is the physical indication of the body-rhythms…” — “Diving Into the Wreck” offers a strong, literal example of this notion because as the diver/narrator initially descends, she seems to speak in quick, clipped bursts between gulps through her mouthpiece. Later, she relaxes and “you breathe differently down here” — her phrasing becomes more rhythmic, and her language flows with more description and less self-absorption than during the preparations for the dive.

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