February 19-20, 2021, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Gratitude: Many people contributed to the success of this webinar–the presenters, co-hosts, moderators, participants, the sponsors (Eastern Michigan University’s Center for Jewish Studies, the English Department, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department), and the many students with whom I had the pleasure to read Rukeyser’s poetry over the years. I’d like to express special thanks to Bill Rukeyser, the poet’s son, who has supported so many of Eastern Michigan University’s Rukeyser initiatives; to the College of Arts and Sciences for financing the event; and to Casey Miller, my assistant, for her admirable resourcefulness and competent handling of every detail of this webinar, from start to finish. Ronan Sampson offered his beautiful acrylic painting of “Rotten Lake” for our flyer. My heartfelt thanks to all of you. Elisabeth Daumer
Friday, February 19, 2021
11:00am–Bill Rukeyser, Opening Remarks
11:15–Louise Kertesz, Keynote Address, introduced by Trudi Witonsky
“My Untamable Need”: Reading Rukeyser’s Elegies in Light of Some of Her Later Poems
12:30-1:30pm– Zoom Coffee Break: Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies in Different Voices– Reading Poems with People
2:00-3:30pm-Panel 1 (Moderator: Meg Dobbins )
Vivian Pollak: Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies: The Contemporary Reviews 1950
Meryl Altman: Rukeyser’s Elegies: Between Rilke and Rich
Lukas Moe: The Radical Elegies: Macha Rosenthal and Rukeyser’s Symbolic Confession
4:00-5:00pm— Dennis Bernstein–Multimedia Presentation
“How Can I Help You”: Poet and public radio producer, Dennis J Bernstein, reflects on his joy documenting Muriel’s work, during her final years.
5:00-6:00pm– Zoom Happy Hour!
Saturday, February 20, 2021
11:00am– Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, Keynote Address, introduced by Catherine Gander
Muriel Rukeyser’s Unfinished Modernism
12:15-12:45pm: Zoom Coffee Break–New Directions in Rukeyser Scholarship, facilitated by Stefania Heim
1:00-2:00pm– Panel 2 (Moderator: Daniel Patrick)
Eleanor Careless: Usable Elegies: Muriel Rukeyser’s Third Elegy and the Legacy of the Spanish Civil War
Trudi Witonsky: “The living will be giving you your meanings”
2:30-3:30pm– Panel 3 (Moderator: Casey Miller)
Eric Keenaghan: Writing-in-Crisis: Antifascism, 1940s Radicalism, and the Resistance to (Muriel Rukeyser’s) Poetry
Adam Mitts: Of Us, What We?: Rukeyser’s Elegies and the Poetics of Solidarity
4:00-5:15pm– “Nourish Beginnings”–A Conversation with Sam Buczeksmith, Modina Jackson, Lily Pratt, Chloe Ross, and Ronan Sampson
5:30pm– Zoom Happy Hour and Informal Conversation with Louise Kertesz
Louise Kertesz is the author of The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). After receiving her doctorate and teaching for several years, she became a business journalist, reporting from Detroit on the auto industry and from Los Angeles and Chicago, covering developments in health insurance and health care delivery. More recently, she was a freelance copy editor for the University of Chicago Press. She has two daughters and three grandchildren and lives in a suburb of Detroit. For more information about Louise Kertesz read our blog post: A Visit with Louise Kertesz–Pioneer of Rukeyser Studies
Rowena Kennedy Epstein
Rowena Kennedy-Epstein is Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies and 20th/21st-Century Women’s Writing at the University of Bristol. She recovered and edited Muriel Rukeyser’s novel, Savage Coast (Feminist Press, 2013) and is the author of My Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser between Archive and Authorship forthcoming from Cornell University Press. She is currently working on an edition and exhibition of Rukeyser’s photo-text collaboration with Berenice Abbott and is co-editing Rukeyser’s Selected Prose.
Dennis J Bernstein lives in San Francisco. He is the award-winning host/producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on public and community radio stations across the United States. Bernstein is the recipient of many awards for his work, including most recently the 2015 Pillar Award in Broadcast Journalism. Bernstein’s articles and essays have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Denver Post, Philadelphia Enquirer, Newsday, The Nation, Dallas Times Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mother Jones, Village Voice, The Progressive, Vibe Magazine, Spin Magazine, Toronto Globe, Kyoto Journal, Der Spiegel, and many more. Bernstein is the author of Henry Hyde’s Moral Universe, and the co-author of two decks of political trading cards, Friendly Dictators and The S&L Scandal Trading Cards. He founded The Muriel Rukeyser Reading Series in Park Slope Brooklyn, and broadcast it over public and community radio in New York City; the series was named after his friend and mentor, the late poet and biographer, Muriel Rukeyser. Bernstein also produced the first complete live, 35 hour broadcast of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the U.S. at New York’s Bloomsday Bookstore. He is author of the poetry collection Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom, which won the 2012 Artists Embassy International Literary Cultural Award. His poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, The Chimaera, Bat City Review, The Progressive, Texas Observer, ZYZZYVA, Red River Review, and numerous other journals. Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, writes that Special Ed “is art turned to us through the eyes of love.”
Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies: The Contemporary Reviews 1950
Shortly after Elegies was published, it was reviewed in The Nation on January 28, 1950, by Rolfe Humphries, a poet, educator, and classicist. It was off to a bad start. Humphries began his survey of recent poetry by announcing “good tidings to begin with,” but when he came to Rukeyser, he lamented, “The indefatigable Muriel Rukeyser has appeared recently with two volumes,” as though her productivity should be held against her. He dismissed Elegies with the line, “Schloss Duino, soll leben,” which can be roughly translated as “I’d rather be reading Rilke.” My talk will discuss Humphries’s condescending review in the context of the book’s contemporary reception and will reflect on Rukeyser’s contribution to the 1937 anthology of Spanish Civil War poems that Humphries edited.
Rukeyser’s Elegies: Between Rilke and Rich
At first glance, it is hard to think of two poets whose sensibilities were farther apart than Rilke, who seems to demand aesthetic purification and separation, and Rukeyser, the documentarian of injustice whose deepest convictions involve connection. But looking at Rukeyser’s gut-wrenchingly acute series, something in the emotional rhythm sent me back to Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” and yes, there is a shared language, a shared approach. The characteristic vocatives, so many invocations … am I the “you” being addressed (again and again), and what am I called to do? why are love and death inseparable companions? (What is an elegy, anyway? only “a long poem including loss”? Or?) And then there are the children, the animals, the angels. Rilke’s angels we know, and Wallace Stevens’s cold and sterile ones, but do angels belong in Rukeyser’s indictment of the unspeakable things humans do to one another? Angels are embarrassing in an age of irony. And as Rukeyser shows, it’s hard to tell the prophets from the mere magicians who are leading us into hell. Yet even Adrienne Rich, as she turned from aesthetics to feminist politics — “a whole new poetry beginning here” — even she said of the woman poet (in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”) that she “heard the angels chiding” … and Benjamin’s “angel of history” comes back and back in critical/ political writing, perhaps as a placeholder for what we cannot say. I’d like to trace some of these connections, to think about what’s lost when we lose these ways to call each other into speech, these ways to grieve.
The Radical Elegies: Macha Rosenthal and Rukeyser’s Symbolic Confession
My paper considers Muriel Rukeyser’s elegiac practice from the Spanish Civil War through mid-century as an overlooked chapter in Left literary history. I highlight Rukeyser’s first scholarly critic, Macha Rosenthal, who traced a departure from the documentary realism of U.S. 1 in the “mystic materialism” of A Turning Wind. “Rejection of false traditions, rediscovery of vital ones,” according to Rosenthal, was the dialectical work of the “depression poets” treated in his 1949 dissertation. The formal mediation of liberation and repression that Rosenthal detected in Rukeyser’s elegies–their intimacy and opacity–anticipated what he would later dub “confession poetry.” The stakes of Rukeyser’s Elegies, however, couldn’t have been less domestic. The tide had turned with a persecutory vengeance against American communism. Tracing Rukeyser’s “sensibility” along psycho-biographical lines into 1930s culture while distinguishing her poetics from its propaganda, Rosenthal not only offered the most developed political analysis of Rukeyser yet, but accounted for “her own difficult and tortuous idioms” in ways that help understand the ambivalence of, on one hand, the rehabilitation of Rukeyser’s legacy in second-wave feminism, and on the other, her tendency to be marginalized in establishment American poetry canons. I will foreground Rosenthal’s analysis as a way of distinguishing Rukeyser from contemporary male poets on the Left; in particular the Audenesque tradition of radical voyagers, which, for Rosenthal, re-appears “in the multiple form of the child-refugees” in the Elegies, “sacrificial victims who may yet return from their horrid and bloody journey, once they have shaken off the universal shame of knowledge without struggle.”
Usable Elegies: Muriel Rukeyser’s Third Elegy and the Legacy of the Spanish Civil War
The living will be giving you your meanings
In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2001), Robin Kelly argues that “the map to a new world is in the imagination” (2), and he charts how black radical movements and writers developed new knowledge, questions, and strategies to help people survive present oppressions and reconceptualize their own capability. He asserts that “[T]he most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling” (11). This kind of artistic imagination is not untethered from real conditions, but is activated by and bears witness to them. Kelly makes an especially strong case for surrealism as a revolutionary movement that, like black conceptions of liberation, emphasizes freeing the mind. In defining surrealism, he draws on a statement from the Chicago Surrealist Group (1976), which asserts that “surrealist thought and action are intended not only to discredit and destroy the forces of repression, but also to emancipate desire and supply it with new poetic weapons. . . ”(158), directing these toward cultural and political ends. Both Rukeyser in Elegies (1939-1948) and Danez Smith in Don’t Call Us Dead (2017) employ surrealistic strategies to write themselves out of demoralizing historical circumstances. Rukeyser began writing the Elegies after Spain surrendered to fascist forces supported by German and Italian dictators, after the U.S. failed to understand what was at stake. Even as it entered into World War II, the U.S. refused to examine its own racism and anti-Semitism. Afterwards, McCarthyism and Cold War policies targeted many left-leaning political, labor, and civil rights activists, including Rukeyser herself. Smith (preferred pronoun “they”) contends with the decades-long pattern of police and others killing young black men. Despite the mobilization of massive marches and protest by black writers, artists, activists, politicians, and community members, the tragedies persist. Smith was brought up in a religious household but identified as queer and nonbinary, which complicated relationships and influence, as did contracting HIV. Their work makes clear the fear, the exhaustion, the toll both the physical and psychic, in trying to survive in our country as a black person. But out of that struggle, Smith envisions spaces for joy as well, and key to this is that, like Rukeyser, Smith insists we need to “bring our whole selves to a piece we are creating, to not attempt to segregate any part of our being from any other” (qtd in Miller). The surreal as both writers employ it reflects their experiences of daily living in a contradictory, compartmentalized, capitalist world, but it also provides a means to liberate the imagination by drawing on dream, the unconscious, and traditions created by “the buried, the wasted, and the lost” (Life of Poetry 85). Both writers show us how walking on the edge of what is and what can be, drawing on resources made available through surrealism, generates a hopeful kind of imagination for the reader. “The new world comes among the old one’s harms,” Rukeyser wrote in 1944. For her, those harms included a social order that had become captive to a fascistic imagination: “The children grown in authority and become/ Molitor, Dr. Passavant, powerful Dr. Falcon.” But if this wasteland was, as Rukeyser says, “the war imagination made,” then surrealism’s emphases enabled an alternative kind of imagination to recognize tragic experience and to experiment, to sever and reconnect, to reimagine relationships: “Picasso like an ass Picasso like a dragon Picasso like a/ Romantic movement/The moment is arrangement” (Elegies 16). Adrienne Rich, writing in 2002, worried about how in this historical moment “what might reanimate, rearticulate, becomes less and less available” (“USonian Journals” in Collected Poems 917) But the rise of spoken word poetry, a form that Smith fuses with a written literary tradition, remixes new responses. With pointed questioning, Smith simultaneously illuminates both the pain of the present and the possibility of a future. Imagining a place, an afterlife, for black boys killed by police and others, Smith asks them, “do you know what it’s like to live/ on land that loves you back?” The question bares the pain of the present, and that heartbreak intimates an alternative world where black people are cherished and nurtured. Both writers grapple with the tragic, bringing their whole selves to a repressed, oppressive world, finding in surrealism as world view that allows not only questioning but generation of material to reimagine the terms of our lives and create hope. By exploring what both writers share, we can better understand Rukeyser’s continuing relevance for our current moment, and, in the specific applications made by Smith, we find ways to forge a new tradition forward towards an anti-racist world. As Christian Haines notes, Smith’s work is “an exercise for the political imagination, a way of attuning to the subjective dimension of racial capitalism but also a training ground for expanding what we expect from the social.”
Writing-in-Crisis: Antifascism, 1940s Radicalism, and Resistance to (Muriel Rukeyser’s) Poetry
With her late collection Breaking Open (1973), Muriel Rukeyser invaluably contributed to the leftist political climate of the day, providing a poetic language and imaginary that inspired feminists, gay and lesbian liberationists, and antiwar and antinuclear activists. But of all the poems in that volume the one that ought to speak most to radicals today is “Waking This Morning.” There, Rukeyser does something rare in so much of her work: She makes a naked confession. And what she confesses is striking, her identification, “Waking this morning, / a violent woman in a violent day.” Her self-disclosure announces the start of the aspirational work she must begin that morning, as she must any other morning. “I will try to be non-violent / one more day.” Violence may be the basis for identity, as much a way of knowing and classifying self and others as it is a characteristic of selfhood. But nonviolence can be neither identity nor modifier, it is a process of working-on-self, a daily ethical practice, a condition of desire.
Coming of age as part of the radical Thirties, Rukeyser understood that, for most, violence is an inevitable part of the revolutionary vision. Such violence is reactive, not reactionary; it responds to, and seeks to hold in check, antidemocratic and dehumanizing violations and injustices. As such, such counter-violence might even be called responsible. When Rukeyser witnessed firsthand the start of the Spanish Civil War, she called that instigating violence by its rightful political name, fascism. And she adopted one of the few identifiers she, an antinomian at heart, freely elected. Rukeyser was an antifascist.
Though antifascism is a political term, it is nonpartisan, suitable for antinomians like Rukeyser. Like violence, it is more an identifier than a mere modifier. What the term antifascist identifies is a position, a stance, an attitude, an inclination, an orientation. It is both a form of desire, perhaps it’s even a queer desire, a longing-for-justice whose true nature disrupts the norms of identification and is thus marginalized and even criminalized while a lite version of “social justice” rhetoric is accepted and assimilated into a neo/liberal democratic discourse. Recent writing by anarchist, antifascist, and post-anarchist political activists and theorists have honestly taken up the unpopular idea that democracy is based on conflict. Unlike poststructuralists’ and academic Marxists’ tendency to cast democratic conflict as agonistic and ideational, a new wave of thinkers—living amidst various neo-fascist regimes—remind us that responsive and antifascist violence is enacted, lived, and felt. There is an ideational dimension, but antifascist violence is, first and foremost, experiential.
Antifascist violence, or what I will be calling antagonism, also is dramatic, or translatable to aesthetic realms. Such aesthetic renderings do not contain the violence but instead make them imaginable, so that they might be enacted more effectively on the political stage. Rukeyser understood that in a time of political crisis, especially one where fascism is in the ascendancy and social justice is on the line, the artist has the responsibility to imagine the uncomfortable, to put their political desire on full view and to render it a catalyst for others’ imagining. That catalyzing itself is a kind of violence, a violation of an aesthetic contract privileging the art object’s autonomy and the audience’s enjoyment by breaking both the fourth wall and the first, connecting the audience to the artist via the artform. To a certain extent, the antifascist artist must be antagonist, a provocateur who knows the stakes of the provocation are more than playing at avant-garde sensationalism. Antagonism is thus not only the theme and content but also part of the formal structure of the artwork and the work of creating art out of one’s full-throated and full-bodied desire for justice. As Rukeyser quietly complained in her review of Hester Norton’s translations of Rainer Marie Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, poetry written “in a great crisis,” as her predecessor’s project was, must go beyond “literalness” and the exposition of “the facts of war” (Rukeyser, “Nearer to the Well-Spring,” 452, 454). Instead, it must exemplify that quality Rilke admired in religion, its ability to show “the direction of [its] heart,” so as to name a desired “relationship” (454).
My presentation will meditate on the lessons for today supplied by Rukeyser’s aesthetic model of antifascist antagonism. I will be considering her decade-long project Elegies together with her antifascist speculative drama, once destined for Broadway, The Middle of the Air as exemplary products of this practice of writing-in-crisis. Read together, the play and the poetic series elucidate the limits and possibilities of an antagonistic poetics which moves through necessary violence toward the unrealized but nonetheless imaginable resolution of the creation of a desired new just and fully democratic world.
Of Us, What We?: Rukeyser’s Elegies and the Poetics of Solidarity
This paper reads the pronominal and temporal shifts of Muriel Rukeyser’s Elegies to analyze how Rukeyser is layering multiple histories of resistance and constructing a provisional community of solidarity and resistance against capitalism, fascism, and war. Rukeyser transforms the traditional dialectic of elegy and its obsession with grief and renewal, using the apostrophaic second-person of mourning to construct an indeterminate third-person singular which stands in for emergent communal relations which she foreshadows through the voicing of her elegies. By opening up the “meeting-place” of the poem to stage encounters between the living, the dead, and the unborn, and opening space for the difficult process of “peace-making” in the wreckage of war that separates these positions in political space, Rukeyser’s Elegies present a new way of thinking about how the construction of political coalitions are inflected by historical events. In our contemporary moment of global crisis and mourning, when the need to imagine alternatives to capitalism has become necessary to planetary survival, what can we learn from Rukeyser’s Elegies and how she imagines the grammar and narrative structure of solidarities and resistances to