Thoughts prepared for 1913 MLA Special Session: Muriel Rukeyser at One Hundred

“There is no substitute for Critical Tradition: A continuum of understanding, early commenced,” Hugh Kenner observed, when he compared the reception of Eliot’s and Pound’s work. When The Waste Land appeared in 1922, readers responded immediately; the first generation of Canto readers, by contrast, were not yet born when the first cantos were published; the deferral in response created what Kenner described as the paradox of “an intensely topical poem [becoming] archaic without ever having been contemporary” (415).

It may seem outlandish to begin a talk on Rukeyser by invoking the pillars of modernism, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, yet as a scholar who has studied Eliot intensively, I cannot help but notice the extreme variance in the reception of these three poets, all of whom managed, even at their most private, to write in a public voice, and whose writings were engaged in a constant, creative and critical, dialogue with the literary tradition.

We know the causes for this variance—a number of critics have addressed them. But in the case of Rukeyser, despite decades of often superb critical writing about Rukeyser, we are still dealing with the consequences of the lack of critical tradition, “early commenced”:

What are these consequences?

  1. We do not know how to read Rukeyser’s poetry. Of course, there are notable exceptions, like “Book of the Dead.” Her first long poem, by contrast, “Theory of Flight,” is still awaiting fuller discussion—we might even use Kenner’s words by describing it as an “intensely topical poem” that has never been contemporary; the same might be said about Ajanta (which David Bergman recently addressed in a wonderful essay in American Literary History) and “Waterlily Fire”—a visionary poem in the tradition of The Waste Land and H.D.’s Trilogy that, for one reason or another, has fallen through the cracks, the cracks of the sort of academic criticism all of us are trained in—not those of a lay reader’s awareness. (I remember finding a letter to Rukeyser in her Library of Congress papers, thanking her for writing the poem—Rukeyser has always been read, has always had a following among lay readers, but these readers did not necessarily write about their responses to her work).
  2. The absence of a continuous critical tradition makes those of us writing about Rukeyser’s poems, particularly her lesser known ones, into apologists: we “explain” her work, over and over again, to what we assume are either new or indifferent readers of her work. We do not confidently rely on a tradition of critical understanding, one that we could briefly evoke, extend, contribute to, or argue with. Particularly the latter is missing with regard to Rukeyser’s work: argument. (Even when Eliot’s work was toppled from its eminence by feminist, marxist, and psychoanalytic critics, it remained in discussion, thus visible. In recent years, in fact, Eliot studies have flourished. All the critical attacks had, I think, fruitful results, opening his work to new generations of readers). Rukeyser’s visibility, by contrast, is always partial (critics writing about Book of the Dead, for instance, will admit to knowing few of Rukeyser’s other works) and unstable. While Rukeyser herself was deeply engaged in dialogue with other writers of the literary tradition (among them Eliot and Pound—and Virginia Woolf and H.D.), she herself has not found a secure and stable place within that tradition—and this despite the fact that her writings (like those of few others) has the potential to fulfill Pound’s definition of literature as “news that stays news.”

These thoughts were followed by a presentation about this website, The Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive, which was, at the time, in its very early stages.  My hopes for this website have always been to establish something like a permanent place for generating and energizing critical discussion of Rukeyser’s work.