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.