Posted on May 19, 2014 by Catherine Gander

 In just a few days, I will have the pleasure of chairing a panel at the American Literature Association’s annual conference at Washington, DC. The panel, organised by Elisabeth Däumer (herself a force of intellectual connectivity of the sort Rukeyser celebrated) will bring together five established and emerging Rukeyser scholars including myself and Professor Däumer: Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, whose diligent scholarship recently brought Rukeyser’s ‘lost novel’ Savage Coast to light and publication; Laura Passin, whose work on the politico-aesthetic strains of contemporary American poetry traces valuable lines of influence to the lyrical, subjective voice of earlier confessional verse, and Stefania Heim, whose attention to Rukeyser’s mythic historicism has uncovered illuminating points of contact with the experimental hybrid writings of (to my mind) one of the greatest living literary innovators, Susan Howe.

As Däumer has explained, this wonderfully diverse and interconnected panel is assembled in response to Rukeyser’s own multivalence. Resisting classification into any strict subset of writer, scholar or activist, Rukeyser embodied and espoused a pluralism that at once related her to, and set her apart from, most of her peers.  As the majority of scholarship on Rukeyser (including my own) addresses in some way the elements of her temporal and ideological dislocation – enforced most strongly by her being a lion-hearted, strong-voiced woman as well as a Jew – I will not linger on the matter here. The panel, and the work that runs into and out of it, intends to celebrate and explore the rhizomatic nature of Rukeyser’s work in all of its pragmatic inclusivity.

I use the word ‘pragmatic’ because it strikes me that Rukeyser’s legacy is one to be used. Rukeyser’s richly original and intellectually provocative text, The Life of Poetry, emerged in 1949 as a meeting-place (I employ Rukeyser’s term to avoid the word ‘collection’ due to the book’s overriding dialogic spirit) of ideas, lectures and essays previously gathered under the title ‘the usable truth: communication and poetry’. I have written elsewhere about Rukeyser’s commitment to the use-value of poetry, her tireless crusading for the overcoming of the fear of it, embedded in the conviction that the systems of the social can be addressed at root in the workings of the individual; that the failures of democracy can be located in the fears of the unconscious self. In a 1941 essay for Poetry magazine entitled ‘The Usable Truth’, Rukeyser bemoaned the fact that despite its pragmatic tradition, American education retained an attitude to poetry that located it as something ‘to be memorised and stored…[but] not to be used’:

There is just this one learning, this one branch of your heritage, left. It is very precious, it is to be preserved – in fact, it preserves us, whole ages are given to us by its grace alone… This, of course, is poetry. In a utilitarian culture, this one knowledge is to be taught as being Not for Use.[i]

Rukeyser’s words here connect strongly with Heim’s understanding of her living legacy in Howe. If ‘whole ages are given to us’ through poetry, we are, according to Rukeyser, able to live and learn through the biographies of our ancestors, absorbing and using their words and lives to educate and inform our own.  As Heim rightly acknowledges, Rukeyser blends myth and history, shaping the lives of representative others into symbols and paths for present and future generations. Rukeyser’s poetic biographies – her series of ‘Lives’ that include Anne Burlak, Käthe Kollwitz, Akiba and Albert Pinkham Ryder – are such symbols and sign-posts; as are her prose biographies on Wendell Willkie, Willard Gibbs and Thomas Hariot.  Heim connects Rukeyser’s aim towards ‘collecting the lives of the dead’ with Howe’s invocation, after Creon in Antigone, to ‘go to the dead and love them’; her approach sets Rukeyser’s neglected play Houdini alongside Howe’s The Liberties (1990) to explore the ways in which, in Heim’s words, ‘these two texts attest that biography has as much to do with the life of the communal imagination, myth, and mind, as it does with the lived lives of the individuals in question; as much to do with the stories we make up and tell each other, as with what has taken place.’ In this way, then, Rukeyser’s own exemplary life joins the host of known and anonymous dead, the ‘packed and leafdrift earth of centuries of falling lives, fallen under our feet’[ii] that constitutes the grounding of all future imaginative experience.

Currently working on a separate (albeit related) project involving pragmatism and intermedial artworks, I can see how Rukeyser’s deeply pragmatic stance to the life of poetry aligns with what Richard Shusterman, in the tradition of John Dewey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, has termed ‘somaesthetics’: ‘a critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation and creative self-fashioning’ that impacts on the self’s relation to society.[iii] Much of Rukeyser’s poetry stems from the memory or documentation of her on-site experience of social realities. As Jane Cooper has noted, ‘she wanted to be there. One way of witnessing was to write. Another was to put her body on the line, literally.’[iv] Forging a meeting place of practice and imagination, site and sight, Rukeyser dismantled traditional mind/body dualisms just as she demolished established binaries of art and science, poetry and prose, myth and history. Like the revisionary, feminist and repossessed voice of the poem ‘Absalom’, Rukeyser spoke an embodied and empowered poetry: ‘I have gained mastery over my heart/I have gained mastery over my two hands… I open out a way.’  Through her work, as Heim attests, Rukeyser reveals the ‘potential for enacting knowledge beyond the borders of the strictly aesthetic’; more than this, Rukeyser resituates poetry as a site and enactment of all human experience, understanding the inextricability of art from the practice of everyday life in a manner championed by Dewey as the key to individual and social improvement (Art as Experience, 1934).

Deweyan pragmatism (Rukeyser was an avid reader of both Dewey and William James) involves a blending of the immediate moment with past experience:

The process of living… is an everlastingly renewed process of acting upon the environment and being acted upon by it together with institution of relations between what is done and what is undergone. Hence experience is necessarily cumulative and its subject matter gains expressiveness because of cumulative continuity.[v]

Rukeyser’s approach to poetry, which is also her approach to being-in-the-world, is Deweyan at core. The reason for this is related to her strong conviction, also shared with Dewey, that our tendency to separate the experience of everyday human existence from the discourse of art and aesthetic experience creates a dangerous isolationism that locks art away in institutions, ossifies poetry, and disables us from treating life artistically. When I read Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics, steeped as they are in the importance of positive valence in emotive responses to the world, I am reminded always of Rukeyser’s imperative to strip the fear from the experience of poetry: ‘Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things; it quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms.’[vi]  Rukeyser’s life’s works are what Dewey calls ‘cumulative continuity’, continually enacting her dynamic interaction with her environment and others, and constituting a lesson in living and a celebration of it that extends to a renewed relation with the reader – or, to use Rukeyser’s preferred word, the witness.  Her writing is profoundly informed by immediate and by past experience, and although she was, in her own words, an ‘axiom-breaker’, she was also profoundly concerned with the vitality of tradition, with the lives of the ‘many-born’ who ripple through oceans of time, and charge ‘our latest moment with their wave.’[vii]

Rukeyser argues in The Life of Poetry that freedom (a human right) involves the ability to ‘choose a tradition,’ and select representatives of that tradition.[viii] In an essay entitled ‘Under Forty’ (1944) for a Jewish publication, Rukeyser expounds on the idea: ‘if one is free, freedom can extend to a certain degree into the past, and one may choose one’s ancestors, to go with their wishes and their fight.’[ix] Her position chimes with Martin Buber’s, whose writings Rukeyser also read and absorbed. Buber argued that ‘tradition does not consist in letting contents and forms pass on, finished and inflexible,’ but that ‘a generation can only receive the teachings in the sense that it renews them.’[x]  Rukeyser’s commitment to renewing and choosing a tradition – an ancestry – relates her in many ways to T.S. Eliot, with whose poetics she had a complex relationship. Elisabeth Däumer’s paper addresses Rukeyser’s readings of Eliot, tracing his rhythms and resonances in her writings, and exploring her reformulations of his criticism, including his attention to ‘the place of tradition, the limitations of art, and his theory of emotion.’ Däumer’s scrutiny falls particularly on this latter aspect, rethinking standard critical responses to Eliot’s objectivism by reading his interest in the affective agencies of poetry in the light of Rukeyser’s ‘concept of total response.’

Affective and somatic aesthetics in the context of tradition also provide pathways into Rowena Kennedy-Epstein’s and Laura Passin’s papers. Kennedy-Epstein focuses on the cross-currents between the lives of Rukeyser and Virginia Woolf, tracing the lines of connection through shared fields of ‘textual, sexual and political radicalism’ and aligning both women’s treatments of the experimental novel as an arena for the espousal of new ways of thinking about war, nationalism and art in times of social upheaval.  Rukeyser’s Savage Coast and Woolf’s The Pargiters – daring works of genre hybridity and radical thought, documenting ‘the lives of women in contexts of war, nationalism, education and sexual subjectivity’ – were both ultimately abandoned by their authors, their ideas unpicked and rewoven into the fabric of other, more publishable works (Woolf’s Three Guineas, Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry and several poems). Kennedy-Epstein explores the position of the female experimental writer as offering vital (yet largely ignored) perceptions of state violence and sexual hierarchies.

Passin’s perspective on Plath returns us to feminist revisions of mythology in which Rukeyser advocates a strong female voice arising out of the maternal body (see ‘Absalom’ in its entirety, for example). Critics have tended to position Plath and Rukeyser at opposite ends of the somatic spectrum when it comes to creative impulses, particularly in relation to motherhood. Louise Kertesz, for example, has noted how Rukeyser’s attentions to the subject are ‘quite different’ from the ‘horror’ and ‘lost belief in the value of living’ that accompanies the ‘motherhood poems’ of Plath and Anne Sexton, quoting a line from Rukeyser’s ‘Breaking Open’ to reinforce her point: ‘I’d rather be Muriel than be dead and be Ariel.’[xi] Passin, however, wishes to recontextualise Rukeyser’s responses, addressing her ‘suicide poems’ in particular, and arguing that through these poems, Rukeyser ‘frames and revises the cultural narratives around Plath.’

Both Kennedy-Epstein’s and Passin’s approaches can be said to examine Rukeyser’s Deweyan commitment to art as experiment and experience, her proclivity for embodying and questioning the multiplicity of social selves that one’s interaction with the world requires and enables.  Reference to the act of suicide becomes, conversely, an act of creation for Rukeyser, for her reimagining connects to her wider understanding of the poem as a continually renewing process: as an ongoing event, not a finished object.  The interconnected variety of the ALA panel brings me, therefore, to another unfinished project of Rukeyser’s, and one that – one day – I hope to be able to bring to light in a more accessible form. In the Rukeyser archives at the Library of Congress is a work, suitably in-progress, entitled In the Beginning. The proposed book is, according to Rukeyser, ‘an anthology of creation’, bringing together extracts of works from a wealth of writers, thinkers, scientists, filmmakers and artists. Rukeyser explains the importance of humankind’s ‘glimpses of understanding’ of the nature of creation:

Whether it is the root in fire or in word, in the lightning flash or the great dreaming and active cycle that springs out of central rest, whether we see it reflected in the act of love or the entrance of birth, it illuminates the world and ourselves to us.[xii]

In the end, In the Beginning allows us our own glimpse of what the ALA panel will no doubt bring into more sustained focus: that the way to understand and illuminate ‘the world and ourselves to us’ is not through aesthetic enclosure or the possessive grasping of knowledge, but through active, intersubjective experience, and the forging of new, creative paths that share our lives with the living words and images of others.



[i] Rukeyser, ‘The Usable Truth’, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 58 (July, 1941), 206-209, 206.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, second edition (Roman and Littlefield, 1992; 2000), 267.

[iv] Cooper, ‘And Everything a Witness of the Buried Life’, in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?, eds. Herzog and Kaufman (New York, 1999), 3-16, 7.

[v] John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934) (Perigee Books, 2005), 108

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 182.

[viii] The Life of Poetry (1949) (Ashfield, Massachusetts: Paris Press, 1996), x.

[ix] Ibid, x; Rukeyser, ‘Under Forty’, Contemporary Jewish Record, VII (February, 1944), 4-9, 8.

[x] Buber, ‘Teaching and Deed’, in Will Herberg, ed., The Writings of Martin Buber (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 317-324, 318.

[xi] Kertesz, The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 225, 344.

[xii] MR Papers, Library of Congress, 1:21.