Re/Considering Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry

(The panel will convene Thursday, January 7, 2016, 12-1:15pm, at the MLA Convention in Austin, Texas)

Abstract

The Life of Poetry (1949) is Muriel Rukeyser’s most influential and challenging contribution to 20th-C. American literary culture and criticism. This roundtable will consider various approaches to reading this interdisciplinary work, including archival theory, eco-criticism, pragmatism, human rights, war studies, digital humanities, gender studies, and committed writing, with particular attention to how the work continues to resonate in the present.

Proposal

Following the success of the MLA 2013 Muriel Rukeyser Centennial Roundtable, and in light of the newly awakened field of Rukeyser studies, this roundtable will consider one of Rukeyser’s most influential and challenging contributions to twentieth-century American literary culture, her seminal work of criticism The Life of Poetry. Based on lectures Rukeyser delivered during the war and published in 1949, The Life of Poetry is a wide-ranging interdisciplinary meditation on poetics, politics, art, philosophy, music, science, war, peace, protest, the environment, and literary lineages, among other subjects. It is a work very much in conversation with its historical moment—the 1940s through the Cold War—but its antecedents and legacies are far-reaching, and its insights into the relationships between art and politics remain urgent. For those writing on Rukeyser and the related fields of committed literatures, experimental poetics, eco-criticism, war studies, American pragmatism, science and literature, The Life of Poetry is an oft cited text, yet there has been no critical consideration of the work itself. While this seems like a striking oversight, it is not altogether surprising, considering that Rukeyser herself endured an uneven critical reception throughout her life, at times highly lauded and praised as the “best” of her generation, at other times denigrated and marginalized. Such uneven reception has been due, in part, to Rukeyser’s diverse and eclectic oeuvre, one that defies formal categorization and literary schools. Her work traverses disciplinary and formal boundaries, including fiction, biography, film, theoretical texts, and poetry—often combining genres. Documenting the changing cultural, political, and artistic landscapes of the twentieth century, it is particularly attuned to suppressed and marginalized narratives. While her blurring of the boundaries between politics and aesthetics, gender and genre, scholar and amateur, has often resulted in her exclusion from canonical literary histories, it is precisely this hybrid interdisciplinary that makes her work particularly resonant right now. The Life of Poetry is both her best example of this interdisciplinarity and a treatise on its necessity; it is an ars poetica and call to action, a philosophical meditation and a deeply rigorous investigation into the inter-connected disciplines that make up an American literary tradition. As such, The Life of Poetry deserves an equally rigorous critical consideration, a conversation this roundtable intends to begin.

The past three years have proven to be a productive time for Rukeyser studies. They have seen the publication of her lost novel Savage Coast (Feminist Press); a recent scholarly monograph on her work (from Edinburgh University Press); a dedicated special issue of JNT: The Journal of Narrative Theory; the launch of an interactive website and digital archive at Eastern Michigan University, and a noticeable rise in panels and dissertations on Rukeyser’s work. Other monographs, a scholarly edition, and an extensive biography (forthcoming from Knopf) are in the works. With a desire to keep this momentum alive, this roundtable will include both established and emerging scholars. Since The Life of Poetry is central to any project on Rukeyser, a dedicated roundtable seems both necessary and fruitful; likewise, since the text has broader implications in the fields of American studies, digital humanities, refugee studies, ethnic studies, film studies, editorial and archival theories,ecopoetics, transatlantic studies, gender studies and pedagogy, it is a subject that will be of interest to a wide audience beyond Rukeyser scholars. The panel will include a presider and six participants. Each participant has been asked to speak briefly on an aspect of The Life of Poetry; this will be followed by a discussion between panelists and audience members.

Dr. Eric Keenaghan, who is currently editing the original lectures, called The Usable Truth, upon which The Life of Poetry is based, will discuss Rukeyser’s process of (re)composition in the context of an evolving Cold War “power-culture.” Dr. Stefania Heim, editor of Rukeyser’s Darwin and the Writers (CUNY 2010), will discuss The Life of Poetry and Rukeyser’s feminine poetics of war. Dr. Catherine Gander, author of the monograph Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (Edinburgh 2013), will discuss The Life of Poetry in context of the American pragmatist tradition, exploring the influences of John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James on Rukeyser’s text, and the way the work anticipates developments in pragmatism and its related fields of cognitive studies and neuroaesthetics. Dr. Cecily Parks, a poet who’s scholarship focuses on women writers and eco-criticisms, will discuss The Life of Poetry’s foundational place in ecopoetics, arguing that Rukeyser’s literary-activist essay reinforces an environmental context for poetic responsibility, and that her treatment of poetry as a “resource” anticipates a contemporary environmentalist discourse on consumption and sustainability, situating poetry squarely within it. Dr. Elisabeth Däumer, who has developed an interactive, interdisciplinary website designed to serve as a central resource for readers, scholars, and teachers of Rukeyser’s multi-facetted work (murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org), will discuss The Life of Poetry in context of ecopoetics as well, showing how Rukeyser argues for an understanding of poetry as a Commons—-an essential resource used by everyone and owned by none. Hadji Bakara, who is writing his dissertation on Rukeyser, will explore the image of the refugee in The Life of Poetry and consider Rukeyser’s engagement with and contribution to the practice and discourse of international human rights. Finally, Dr. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, editor of Rukeyser’s lost Spanish Civil War novel Savage Coast (Feminist Press 2013), will discuss The Life of Poetry as a pivotal text in reading for a counter-canon in American literature, one that challenges Cold War political and gender ideologies, as well as New Critical orthodoxies.

This roundtable is meant to open up new discussions on a germinal work that has implications for studies across many fields, and offers new ways to think about how we read twentieth-century literary culture. While each of the participant’s topic is worthy of a much longer talk, it is our hope that the materials presented here will en-gender interest in new and exciting scholarship on The Life of Poetry.