© 2016 Vivian Pollak

In the fall of 2016, the same semester that Washington University hosted a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I began teaching a fifteen-person seminar organized around the theme “American Women Poets and the Trouble with Normal.” There was a lot of energy and excitement on campus, and Chancellor Wrighton sent an e-mail to the Wash U community urging us to remember “our shared values of mutual respect, inclusion and the celebration of differing perspectives.” In what may have been an excess of caution, I felt reluctant to express my views about the candidates to students, having been sensitized to this issue by members of my own family. But I wondered how the poets on my syllabus would have responded. I imagined Dickinson keeping her rebellious thoughts to herself; Marianne Moore handing out leaflets; Elizabeth Bishop having another drink and writing funny letters to her friends; Sylvia Plath indignant in her journal. Then there was Muriel Rukeyser: would she have decided that it was about time to drop out of college before she exploded?

Although “Effort at Speech between Two People” might have seemed the more obvious choice (it was published when Rukeyser was a precocious twenty-one), on the first day of class I handed out “The Minotaur” (published when Rukeyser was thirty) which, to my taste, is a more complex study of the trouble with normal. In any event, during the hour in which we parsed rhymes and admired the poet’s craft, it emerged that students were curious about the minotaur myth and I proposed to the graduate students in the class (there were five of them) that we both attend to the myth and engage in a historicizing project. Several weeks later, we had a meeting at my house and worked out a plan to write short essays by the end of the semester. We shared copies of Beast in View in which “Minotaur” was published in 1944. Although Eric Keenaghan alerted me to the fact that “Minotaur” is listed on the title page of the second lecture Rukeyser gave at Vassar in the fall of 1940, I tried unsuccessfully to locate an earlier publication in the journals listed in the acknowledgments to the published book such as Decision, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Life and Letters To-Day, and so on. I also conducted a general search that proved equally fruitless.1 We proceeded, then, on the assumption that “Minotaur” was first published in Beast in 1944. We had a few more meetings (including a pizza party) before the students turned in their essays in December. I sent comments, and there were revisions.

Summing up our collective theme, Ana Quiring wrote, “While ‘The Minotaur’ centers itself on the epic and timeless, Rukeyser’s poem also bears meaning in a grounded historical setting. Its publication in Beast in View in 1944 places it in the context of war, and especially the fraught identity politics of World War II.” She suggested that “what the poem ‘stands for’ may be as multifarious as Rukeyser’s identity itself” and urged us to consider the poem’s special attention to “formulations of masculinity gone haywire.” Lisa Brune, too, was interested in emasculation and pointed to Ariadne’s association with “the thread, the clews of blood,” while Adeline Bauder saw the figure of the Minotaur as representing both antisemitism and the supposed animality of Jews in Nazi propaganda. Timothy DeCelle related the labyrinth to Nazi ideology and architecture and to racialized madness, explaining that “What appears as clarity is confusion.” Tim explained that “Rukeyser knew well the power of images to represent and challenge political forces” (see his revised essay ). Alexandra Swanson offered a reading of “The Minotaur” as a dramatic monologue spoken by Ariadne or as a political allegory in which Ariadne is the wife of a traumatized soldier. Alex became fascinated by the composer Charles Naginski, who is described in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser as a friend whom Rukeyser may have met at the Yaddo Writer’s Colony (612n) and as “a classical composer with whom Rukeyser was friendly” (628n). The editors state that Naginski is “mentioned” in “The Minotaur” and the class was aware that Rukeyser dedicated “Minotaur” to him. To my delight, Alex enlisted the music division of the New York Public Library in her quest for information, which sent the score of Naginski’s Minotaur ballet. She and I began to construct a Naginski timeline, and once the semester ended I was able to visit the New York Public to examine unpublished archival sources. I also contacted the Beinecke Library at Yale which sent me scans of Naginski’s letters to Eleanor Clark, with whom he was head over heels in love.2

Rukeyser’s note to “The Minotaur” reads “To Charles Naginski who shortly before his death wrote the music for a ballet of the same name” (Beast in View 98). His memory seems to have haunted her, for in 1958 she dedicated “Exile of Music” to him as well, with a note reading simply “For Naginski.” She spares us the knowledge that Naginski died in August 1940 under tragic circumstances at age thirty-one, and of course her Minotaur is represented as immortal, although the figure in her “Exile of Music” sinks to a watery grave. Naginski lovers will be pleased to learn that

In the last bus last night that dead musician

Rode, I saw him riding, all his orchestras

Lost past belief and under Egypt plowed

By rusty knives, the noise-machines of grief.


Thunder of the senses died,

Stabbed in their singing by a sleepwalker.

You were the man in whose voices the green leaf

Of form was singing, the bird riding the cloud.


Minotaur underwater in the cedar lake,

Naginski, you are your own exile of music.

There were three roads going through that whole land:

The bird’s, the bed’s, or suicide.


He meant to drown his self. He drowned his life.

Silence lay down fanatically straight.

I am your exile, he sang from his dead mouth,

From the water-maze reaching out his hand and one green leaf.

“Fanatically straight”: is Rukeyser hinting to those in the know that Naginski was tormented by what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick defines as “homosexual panic”? Or, as seems more likely, is it silence that is fanatically straight, in which case Naginski becomes a queer victim of the homo/hetero divide. In any event, his friend Muriel was determined to keep his memory green and as it turns out, they were planning to collaborate on a ballet about the great escape artist Houdini, who is the antithesis of a minotaur, “trapped, blinded, led. Deserted at the middle of the maze.” In several archives, I found four references to this projected work.

On October 8, 1938, Naginski wrote to Elizabeth Ames, the director at Yaddo, “I saw Muriel Rukeyser–she has this idea of a ballet which I will work on–[Lincoln] Kirstein wants me to do another work for him.”3

On January 13, 1939, Naginski, recently arrived in Rome, wrote to Eleanor Clark: “Things with Muriel aren’t so bright. I haven’t had a word from her. I set one of her poems to music and it is very beautiful.”

On July 2, 1939, Naginski wrote Clark from Cap Martin, France, saying words to the effect that Muriel isn’t at all sure about doing the Houdini with him because of her fear that the music might overpower the dance. The letter is in French.

On May 30, 1939, Rukeyser wrote Elizabeth Ames, “The Houdini ballet, that I had been doing with Charles, has a chance of being produced at Radio City. You’ve probably been hearing from him from Paris. He sounds sad, but I suppose he is hard at his work.” Rukeyser was temporarily in Chicago working for Coronet Magazine.

“Exile of Music” offers three roads, or life choices, “the bird’s, the bed’s, or the suicide’s.” The bird, I take it, is a solitary lyricist, or lyric composer, and Naginski felt a strong affinity with poets. In addition to setting several Rukeyser poems to music, he worked with lyrics by Whitman, Dickinson, Edward Arlington Robinson, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Sara Teasdale, T. S. Eliot, and Blake, among others.4 The bed, I assume, is erotic love. In 1938, Naginski was conducting a torrid affair with Clark until mid-October, when she called it quits (this includes the time when Rukeyser and Naginski were both guests at Yaddo). Naginski tried to suppress his bitterness, but in a dramatic series of letters to her written from France in 1939 he describes himself as a beast, a potential murderer, and a madman, and I speculate that Clark’s failure to reciprocate his passion plunged him into the depths, although there were of course other elements at play in the tragic web of circumstances closing around him. In January 1939, for example, he comments that Chamberlain has just arrived in Italy to see Mussolini and, in a later letter, suggests that art should have nothing to do with politics, that it should function as a self-enclosed system. When he returned to the U. S. in the fall of 1940, he saw Eleanor again, and again she disappointed him. In a touching moment earlier on, he explains that he speaks through his music and can’t express himself adequately in words, yet, he claims, and I believe him, he has the soul of a poet. Naginski’s style is eloquent in both English and French. Most of his letters to Eleanor are in English, but French is his native language, the language he knew in Egypt when he was a boy. Reading his letters to Clark and to Ames, I came to admire him and his struggle to control the temper he describes to his ex-girl friend and the “nerves” he describes to Ames. Reading his correspondence with Clark and Ames, I felt that I would have enjoyed his company, even if, as he explained to Clark, he had a tendency at Yaddo and elsewhere to indulge a “monstrously selfish” heart.

Perhaps that’s a good place to leave it. With a charismatic composer, exiled from the world he deserved to inhabit, and a man of many parts who recognizes his own inadequacy. In that recognition, he differentiates himself sharply from Rukeyser’s minotaur, who does not have Naginski’s three choices–the bird, the bed, or the suicide. In a weak moment, Naginski chose the latter, but in both “The Minotaur” and “Exile of Music,” Rukeyser permits him to reclaim his humanity.5


  1. Eric Keenaghan e-mail to the author, January 12, 2017. “Minotaur” and “Leg in a Plaster Cast” are listed on the title page of the second Vassar lecture (“The Speed of the Image”). Kenneghan notes that Rukeyser dated very little of her work. There is a typescript of “The Minotaur” at the Berg Collection with several edits in ink by Rukeyser but no date. Thanks to Joshua McKeon, the librarian at the Berg who helped with this and other matters.
  2. Clark was a 1934 Vassar graduate, a short story writer and aspiring novelist who worried about Rukeyser’s unpredictable comings and goings, her difficult relationship with her parents, and her health. In 1949, she applauded Rukeyser’s decision to have a child and remained affectionate toward her “darling Muriel” even if she no longer needed her “to touch.” Writing to the twenty-year old Vassar dropout in the spring of 1934, while her fast-off-the-mark friend was at Yaddo for the first time, the soon-to-be-graduated Clark complained about her unsatisfactory love life at Vassar, commenting, “There is no one here to touch except the faculty and they are cautious.” When Naginski began writing to Clark in 1937, she was in a sham marriage to Trotsky’s secretary Jan Frankel, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whom she met in Mexico. According to Mary McCarthy, Clark married to help Frankel immigrate to the U. S. (Intellectual Memoirs 74). For more on Clark, see Vassar Encyclopedia. In conversation, poet Mary Jo Bang suggested to me that Naginski was probably bisexual and looking to Clark to rescue him from the anxieties of a closeted gay life. Before reading his letters to Clark, I had assumed that he was primarily homosexual but have been unable to document that intuition. For more on elite American modernist musicians and gay male culture, see Hubbs.
  3. Kirstein was the director of the American Ballet Caravan, a small touring company founded in 1937 to feature distinctively “American” works. See Duberman, chap. 16.
  4. For a list of Naginski’s art songs, see “Guide to the Charles Naginski Collection.”
  5. On Rukeyser’s “Minotaur” as exemplary, see Phillips, “I called the Minotaur an outsider before, but another way to see him is as the most truthful representation of human beings” (105).

Works Cited

Bauder, Adeline. “On(e) Beast in View: Antisemitism in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Minotaur.'”

Brune, Lisa. “The Mythology of Betrayal in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Minotaur.'”

DeCelle, Timothy. “Becoming Visible: Witnessing Ideology in Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Minotaur.'”

Duberman, Martin. The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein. New York: Knopf, 2007.

“Eleanor Clark.” Vassar Encyclopedia. [http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/eleanor-clark.html ]

“Guide to the Charles Naginski Collection.” Archives, Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. JPB 85-68.

Hubbs, Nadine. The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. UCAL 2004.

Kaufman, Janet E., and Herzog, Anne F., eds. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

McCarthy, Mary. Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Naginski, Charles. “Boy with His Hair Cut Short.” Words by Muriel Rukeyser. Archives, Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Folder 2 JPB 00-40.

—–. Letters to Eleanor Clark. Eleanor Clark Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. YCAL MSS 315, Box 31, Folders 431-33.

—–. Letters to Elizabeth Ames. Yaddo Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. MssCol4795.

—–. The Minotaur: Ballet for Orchestra. Archives, Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Folder 15. JPB 00-40.

—–. “Seventh Avenue.” Words by Muriel Rukeyser. Archives, Music Division, New York Library for the Performing Arts. Folder 32. JPB 00-40.

Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014.

Quiring, Ana. “‘Trapped, Blinded, Led’: The Identity Politics of Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘Minotaur.’”

Rukeyser, Muriel. Beast in View. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944.

—–. “Boy with His Hair Cut Short.” In U. S. 1 (New York: Covici Fried, 1938), 89-90.

—–. “Effort at Speech between Two People.” In Theory of Flight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), 19-20.

—–. “Exile of Music.” In Body of Waking (New York: Harper, 1958), 22.

—–. Houdini: A Musical. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2002.

—–. Letter to Elizabeth Ames. Yaddo Records, Archives and Manuscript Division, New York Public Library, MssCol4795.

—–. “The Minotaur.” In Beast in View (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1944), 30.

—–. “The Minotaur.” Draft. Beast in View, Muriel Rukeyser Collection of Papers. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library.

—–. “Seventh Avenue.” In A Turning Wind (New York: Viking, 1939), 70.

—–. “The Usable Truth.” Title page draft. Muriel Rukeyser Papers. Library of Congress. Part I, Box 43.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Swanson, Alexandra. “Reinterpreting Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The Minotaur’ Through Charles Naginski.”

Wrighton, Mark. Email to the Washington University Community, August 26, 2016.

Biographical Note: Vivian Pollak is Professor of English at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. Her publications include Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference (2016), A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004), The Erotic Whitman (2000), and Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (1984).

To cite this essay: Pollak, Vivian. “The Trouble with Normal.” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive, October 17, 2016,  murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org. [Accessed day, month, year]