Thursday, May 26, 2022, 4:30–5:50pm, American Literature Association Conference, Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, Illinois
Organized by: Jacqueline Campbell, Princeton University
Chair: Vivian Pollak, Washington University
- “The Promise of the Night-Flowering Worlds,” Trudi Witonsky, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
- “‘Not even the bones of what I want to say’: On Muriel Rukeyser and Frances Wickes,” Casey Miller, Eastern Michigan University
- “Race, Place, and the Politics of Compassion in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Gates’,” Jacqueline Campbell, Princeton University
For decades, much of Muriel Rukeyser’s writing remained unpublished, unfinished, or lost in the archive. Thanks to the recovery work of scholars such as Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, Eric Keenaghan, and Catherine Gander we now know more than ever about Rukeyser’s work and life as well as the impact of misogyny and anti-communism on the reception of her work. More contemporary readers now recognize Rukeyser as a key political poet whose writing bears witness to the wars, crises, and social justice movements of the 20th century: the Great Depression, two world wars, the Scottsboro Trials, Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, Spanish Civil War, feminism’s second wave, and the Vietnam War.
The more we know, however, the more remains to be explored. Far from offering clear testimonies of these landmark political events, Rukeyser’s poems are often obscure, allusive, long, and downright difficult. Her work may be easy to paraphrase, but it can also be delightfully and maddeningly hard to read. Taking these recent discoveries in Rukeyser Studies as a starting point, this panel explores the persistent mysteries surrounding Rukeyser’s life and work. What is it about Rukeyser that continues to beguile, intrigue, enchant, frustrate, and confound old and new generations of scholars? This panel features the work of scholars exploring the aesthetic, ethical, and historical complexities that animate Rukeyser’s career, asking, “What’s difficultabout Muriel Rukeyser?”
Trudi Witonsky, “The Promise of the Night-Flowering Worlds”
For this conference paper, I’d like to discuss “Dream Singing Elegy” (1944) in order to explore a couple of things that make Rukeyser’s writing difficult and yet relevant. At a foundational level, part of what makes reading Rukeyser hard is that she resists the categorizations we’ve been taught. Her work and perceptions can’t be adequately captured by any one disciplinary or political lens. She’s not just a 1930’s Marxist documentarian, a modernist, a feminist, a bisexual poet. She works in multiple genres, visual as well as literary, prose as well as poetry, and conditioned as we are by our own training and specializations, we have to decompartmentalize our own understandings in order to adequately appreciate what she’s doing. But Rukeyser’s resistance to closed borders and to reified categories is one reason her work remains relevant and still generates imaginative possibilities for understanding our lives and options.
The Elegies are particularly difficult with their abstractions, allusions, and processes that grapple with how to survive psychically in the horrifying context of World War II. In “Dream Elegy,” in addition to earlier influences on her work (Marxism, documentaries, modernism, and activism), Rukeyser takes inspiration from surrealism, the beginnings of the Spanish Civil War, her Jewish identity, anthropology and multicultural sources (the 1870s ghost dancing of the Klamath Tribes as reported in an academic chapter by anthropologist, Philleo Nash). For this presentation, I’d like to explore the nature of these influences (How does Rukeyser imagine psychic survival? Does the poem represent a kind of romanticizing primitivism? To what degree does she rely on Nash and was his assessment “accurate”? Does the poem make facile connections or does it represent something like what Ralph Ellison called “the Jazz impulse,” groping toward a more positive “meeting place”?). This presentation will explore the nature of the “charisma” of the influence, to use a term put forth by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, in light of both the World War II context and more recent anti-racist work. Rukeyser always understood herself as embedded in history, acted upon but also capable of efficacious action. Her interest in art that transcended the museum, that incorporated the body and emotional life as well as intellect, that spoke to political and aesthetic innovations, makes her a useful ancestor as we recenter our literary traditions (thinking about the impact of sexism, racism, class, and sexual orientation). How might this Elegy be valuable in our current historical moment, given current impasses, despair, and resignation?
Trudi Witonsky is an associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She formerly coordinated the First Year English program and currently teaches introductory composition as well as upper division American Literature courses. Her research interests include Muriel Rukeyser’s development in the 1930s, Adrienne Rich’s activism, multicultural literature, and pedagogy.
Casey Miller, “’Not even the bones of what I want to say’: On Muriel Rukeyser and Frances Wickes”
Muriel Rukeyser’s extensive archive has been a source of meaningful discovery for Rukeyser scholars. For every previously unpublished manuscript or illuminating connection, however, a new maze of fissures breaks open. Much like her poetry, Rukeyser’s sprawling archive feels expansive, infinite, packed with easter eggs and unanticipated cross-talk–difficult by scale alone. The boxes dedicated to Rukeyser’s relationship to Jungian psychologist Frances G. Wickes most thoroughly epitomize this ‘difficulty,’ where a decades-long relationship with implications at once intimate, clinical, intellectual, creative, and pecuniary manages stunning ambiguity considering the extensive variety of documents and mutual professional influence the two shared. The available correspondence at the Library of Congress offers a glimpse into what Clive Bush calls a “life-long friendship” in which Rukeyser and Wickes bond over shared interests in child development, Jungian symbolism, and–perhaps above all–the power of stories. However, the exact nature, extent, and timeline of their relationship is still a mystery. The archive introduces unanswered questions about the nature of Wickes and Rukeyser’s relationship–affectionate letters suggest a sexual or romantic dynamic, for example, and remarks from Rukeyser’s unfinished Wickes biography seem to confirm a period of clinical analytic work between them. Later, more fraught moments in their longstanding friendship, however, are recounted in excruciating detail. Committed to helping an aging Wickes with her memoirs and archives, Rukeyser toiled for years without compensation as Wickes wavered on unkept financial promises. Complicated questions around payment, finances, and transference rise up around Rukeyser’s documentation of their later professional relationship, and only increase in mystique against her poetry of the same era. I consider Body of Waking (1958) and its deeply psychoanalytic themes alongside The Life of Poetry, Elegies, and select other poems dedicated to Wickes against the history presented in the Rukeyser archive. Rukeyser references some psychoanalysts explicitly over the course of her life–we know from The Life of Poetry Rukeyser closely read Karen Horney and Otto Rank, found Jung’s ideas valuable for poetry, and directly appropriated and rearranged Anna Freud’s work in 1949’s Elegies–but her personal relationship, correspondences, and what I theorize as transference onto Frances Wickes penetrates a new dimension of our understanding of Rukeyser’s poetics and closes significant relational and emotional gaps in the current knowledge of Rukeyser’s biography and intimate relationships.
Casey Miller is an MA student in the Literature program at Eastern Michigan University. She is a graduate assistant for The Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive where she collaborates with Elisabeth Däumer on web updates, event planning, and educational resources. She is an instructor of first year writing at EMU, a recipient of the 2021 JNT Paul Bruss Scholarship, the Departmental Award for Outstanding Graduate Student, as well as a presenter at the Graduate Research Colloquium. She is currently also working on a theory of John Keats’ odes through the lens of disability theory and queer embodiment.
Jacqueline Campbell, “Race, Place, and the Politics of Compassion in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Gates’”
Remembering Muriel Rukeyser in 1981, Denise Levertov praises the poet’s commitment to joining poetry with political action: “From her presence as a protestor at the Scottsboro trial in 1931, when she was eighteen, to the lone journey to Seoul which she undertook in 1975 in the (alas unsuccessful) attempt––using her prestige as president of PEN––to obtain the release from jail of Kim Chi Ha, the Korean poet and activist, Muriel acted on her beliefs, rather than assuming that the ability to verbalize them somehow exempted her from further responsibility.” For Rukeyser’s readers, this 1975 journey to Seoul stands as unexamined evidence of the poet’s lifelong desire to wed poetry with protest, to act on the beliefs written in her poems. No existing scholarship, however, examines the historical details of Rukeyser’s relationship with Kim Chi-ha, the dissident South Korean poet accused of violating anti-communist laws by the military dictatorship under Park Chung Hee.
Using archival research as well as recent studies in affect and emotion, I will attempt to reconstruct the historical narrative of Rukeyser’s protest against the imprisonment of Kim Chi-ha, asking how racial politics and the legacies of U.S. imperialism shaped American writers’ sympathetic responses to this crisis abroad. My paper looks at archival records of Rukeyser’s tenure as President of the PEN American Center as well as the correspondence, drafts, and interviews preceding the publication of “The Gates,” the 1976 poem documenting her experience in Seoul. This compositional history of a single key poem will place Rukeyser within the cultural and political milieu of the New Left and will explore the ambiguous politics of sympathy and compassion shaping how poets respond to the suffering of others. My paper argues that “The Gates” self-consciously documents the poet’s struggle to identify with a poet she never met and could not ultimately help. Though the poem’s final stanzas insist on overcoming racial and cultural difference, I will offer a model of reading that dwells in the difficulty that precedes that overcoming, exploring the uses of both protest and poetry.
Jacqueline Campbell is a PhD candidate in English at Princeton University. Her dissertation, “Preparation for Action: The Poetry of Muriel Rukeyser,” explores the social function of poetry in the thought and writing of 20th century American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser.
Jacqueline (Jackie; she/hers) is the organizer of this panel. She can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or (610) 653-0321.
Vivian Pollak’s books include Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender, The Erotic Whitman, and Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference, which was nominated for the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. In 2020, she published Muriel Rukeyser: The Contemporary Reviews, 1935-1980, an open access bibliography with electronic links when available. Her essay on “Walt Whitman and Muriel Rukeyser Among the Jews” is forthcoming in the Oxford Walt Whitman Handbook, and she is putting finishing touches on an essay for the Cambridge History of Queer American Literature, titled “Queer Mythologies from Whitman to Frost.” Vivian Pollak is professor emerita at Washington University in St. Louis and a former president of the Emily Dickinson International Society.