I do and I do.
Life and this under-war.
Deep under protest, make.
For we are makers more.
—Muriel Rukeyser, “Breaking Open” (Collected Poems 527)
How should one approach Muriel Rukeyser’s vast body of work and multifaceted life? My first inclination is through her role as poet,one of the few identity categories she embraced, uncritically, alongside those of “American,” “woman,” and, after the birth of her son in 1947, “mother.” But given pervasive misconceptions about poetry’s apolitical or antipolitical nature, and given the variety of forms Rukeyser explored over her long career, even that identity seems too limiting. Other forms of identificatory nomenclature that seem suitable—bisexual or lesbian or pansexual, Jew, feminist—actually are contestable.1
Rukeyser’s own disidentification with political labels and sociological identity categories was more than reactionary antinomianism. Instead, her attitude was symptomatic of her own rejection of anything that might box her in, thereby cutting her off from other segments of humanity and diminishing her potential for future growth and empowerment, on her own terms. Critic Shira Wolosky, when examining Jewishness in Rukeyser’s work, insightfully notes that the poet’s work engages “mutual figuration,” whereby her “different identifications become figures for each other, standing for and also with or against each other” (202). Consequently, rather than write a poetry with a “closed, iconic, traditional lyric ‘I’” that suggests a unified ego, “Rukeyser’s selfhood is instead enacted as a multiple negotiation among a variety of mutually representative, contentious, constitutive parts of the self, each situated in concrete social, political histories” (Wolosky 203). So, perhaps a role like public intellectual, rather than any fixed identity, might be more applicable for studying Rukeyser. Teacher and educator, definitely fit. When developing a recent undergraduate course at the University of Albany, SUNY, devoted solely to Rukeyser’s life and career, I thought that activist made the most sense, at least for me.
Of course, this categorization is problematic, too. Even while a student at Vassar College, when she might be called a radical without controversy, Rukeyser found herself at odds with the American left’s partisan politics and ideologies. Very often, her marginalization outside, sometimes even exclusion from, organized radicalism was a product of the sexism that afflicted both American leftism and its literary arms. Rukeyser’s refusal to toe any party line remained a constant throughout her life, even as the nature of leftism evolved and she moved along its spectrum. At any given time, she was prone to adopt seemingly conflicting views. Much like Walt Whitman, Rukeyser was unapologetic about any self-contradiction. Her antifascism during the Second World War, for instance, caused her to enter into service producing propaganda for the federal government, the same government of which she had been critical during her student years, just a decade earlier. Her brief employment by the Office of War Information initiated the start of a particularly harsh period of vitriolic attacks by other activists and activist-poets that continued into the postwar years.2Her adversaries usually interpreted her tendency to seem at odds with herself or her previous positions as merely self-serving wishy-washiness. Rukeyser, in contrast, regarded it as a willingness to learn. First and foremost, she was a pragmatist, in William James’s sense of a flexible, experimental application of various practical measures for realizing philosophical ideals. Catherine Gander has wonderfully explored how Rukeyser’s adoption of a pragmatist emphasis on flexibility and adaptability informed her “commitment to the necessity of dynamic relation in an aesthetics of human meaning-making” (1217). Such a commitment to dynamism extended beyond the aesthetic realm, into the political. When it came to activism, for Rukeyser the most expeditious means of producing the most desired result, the realization and defense of socialist democratic first principles, were the best political means.
During the Cold War, like many other American artists who also were leftists, Rukeyser continued to pursue her idealist vision through her work. Activism did not fall entirely out of the picture, but she understood full well just how vulnerable she was. So, the pragmatic—different from “pragmatist”—dimensions of political praxis took a backseat to her writing. She was surveilled by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the 1950s, her editor at the major trade house Little Brown fell victim to an anticommunist character assassination, a major factor in why three of Rukeyser’s books in her four-book deal with that house never came to fruition. While a lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College, affluent Westchester County’s local anticommunist brigade specifically targeted her for supposedly corrupting young women. Luckily, that establishment’s president and board of trustees defended her.3During the politically tense period of the 1950s, Rukeyser worked assiduously in many different media—poetry, biography, translation, fiction, film, television, drama, children’s literature, ghostwriting for others. In her preface to Out of Silence, an edition of Rukeyser’s selected poems, Kate Daniels problematically misrepresents this decade as unproductive for the writer. Supposedly, the “labor-, time-, and energy-intensive project of childrearing” led to “the dramatic and immediate decrease in her literary production” (Daniels xiii). In actuality, though, Rukeyser was incredibly and unimaginably productive. She still wrote and published a lot of poetry, but most of her work from this period actually was in other forms, usually ones with more promise of remuneration. After all, she was supporting a child on her own. Though she needed the paycheck, Rukeyser still took risks with her cultural output during the 1950s. Much of what she did create was politically inflammatory, and she drew fire from hostile parties. Consequently, much of her work was suppressed by editors and publishers, sometimes because she was a queer woman and a leftist. A great deal of this material still hasn’t seen the light of day. At least not yet.
In the final decades of her life, the New Left had risen to prominence. Many belonging to this younger generation of revolutionaries and radicals embraced a kind of cultural leftism that seemed an outgrowth of and conversant with Rukeyser’s own longtime ideas. Activists and writers associated with women’s liberation and gay and lesbian liberation would turn to her as a foremother. But she was slow in acknowledging the strengths of their political positions. She warmed up to the feminist movement late. Even then she did so with reservations, despite her fierce defense of women’s autonomy and her sex positivity—which only became more pronounced with age. She greeted queer politics after Stonewall with even more suspicion. It is rumored that in 1978, nearly a decade after the start of gay and lesbian liberation, Rukeyser had accepted an invitation to join a lesbian reading at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference but had to cancel because of illness (Bulkin 884). Even if that rumored invitation and acceptance were confirmed (I myself haven’t yet found definitive proof), would she have claimed allegiance with the movement then? If her expressed ambivalence about women’s liberation in her address to the MLA’s Radical Caucus a few years earlier is any indication, when she sarcastically noted that her breasts were too big for bra-burning, she probably would not have (Rukeyser, Untitled address).
Rukeyser would be embraced by the antiwar movement of the late 1960s and the amnesty movement of the early 1970s. The presumption that she easily adopted a personal philosophy of “pacifism” must be qualified, though. In 1972, she was arrested for participating in a die-in in the hallway directly outside the US Senate’s chamber, as part of a protest organized by the antiwar organization Redress. For years afterward, she peppered notebooks and miscellaneous slips of paper with what became almost a mantra, about how her desire to be nonviolent resulted in a struggle because she was, as she openly admitted, a violent woman. “Waking This Morning,” the extraordinary opening poem of her volume Breaking Open (1973), begins with this theme: “Waking this morning, / a violent woman in the violent day, / Laughing.” Rukeyser goes on to trace her efforts to write “my touch poems: / […] to find you entire / alive moving among the anti-touch people.” The prospect of making that work moves her toward her final declaration, a valediction to her reader:
today once more
I will try to be non-violent
one more day
this morning, waking the world away
in the violent day. (Collected Poems 471)
Rukeyser’s verb “try” both relieves and unsettles me, for it amounts to her casual admission of an uncomfortable condition I feel so strongly, too. Unlike her, though, I often see my temper and all other manifestations of my violent character as personal flaws. Rukeyser is not embarrassed by her innate violence, though. She knows that in her world, as in ours, the possibility of being nonviolent is, to be blunt (and to not suppress the frequent verbal manifestations of this flaw of mine), fucking impossible. The idea that we can will even our own nonviolence, unproblematically and without incident, is laughable. Indeed, that’s why Rukeyser laughs at the poem’s start. It’s an image that brings to mind the feminist laugh of Hélène Cixous’s medusa, a near-contemporary Rukeyser herself probably would not have known. The poem’s world-shattering, possibly self-derisive guffaw comes from the same woman who recently had gone on an unofficial peace mission to Vietnam with a Senator’s wife (Jane Hart) and another poet (Denise Levertov). It emanates from the same woman who, since the Second World War, often wrote about what she called her “wish” for peace. We can wish for peace, but that doesn’t mean we are pacifists. Purist idealism will get us nowhere and nothing in this violent world we cannot extricate ourselves from. But we can keep trying to free ourselves, to make the wish real. There’s her pragmatism again, in her vision of the need for our unending experimentation with resistance to our own internalization of the war-state’s and its society’s violence. Making, creating, doing. These are the only means by which we’ll overcome ourselves. Or, as Rukeyser writes in the title poem of Breaking Open, which I cite in my epigraph, “I do and I do. / Life and this under-war” (Collected Poems 527).
When I developed my course on Muriel Rukeyser, I knew I wanted to present her to my students as this kind of woman, this kind of activist, one who is impossible to heroize but whose example begs to be admired. She was a political poet not in spite of her contradictions and difficulties and complexities, but instead because of them. Indeed, Rukeyser ought to serve as a model—not a cautionary tale—for those of us who now fancy ourselves leftist or progressive writers and students of the literary arts. For my course to do justice to all of her, I could not be uncritical, and my criticisms had to be transparent. Yet, I also had to cultivate my students’ strong admiration, tempered by their own healthy criticisms of her. I would guide my students through her work, in its various forms: documentarian poetry, lyric, essays and reviews, literary nonfiction, fiction, drama, film, children’s books, and biography. To augment the readily available body of Rukeyser’s poetry and her poetics treatise The Life of Poetry (1949), I would draw on my years of archival work, to bring to my students Rukeyser’s previously published journalism, essays, book reviews, and scripts, most of which are long out-of-print. I would approach Bill Rukeyser, the poet’s son and literary executor, about the prospect of teaching an edited and annotated version of his mother’s masterful, as-yet-unpublished antifascist verse-play The Middle of the Air (1944-1945). Alongside the “Many Keys” essay that I had only recently recovered, it would be the sole piece of still unpublished or suppressed work that my students would read. But there could have been so many other possibilities—plays, pieces of uncompleted biographies, essays, reviews, collaborations—still left unpublished and awaiting discovery by a new generation of readers! We would read these selections of Rukeyser’s multivalent output against the backdrop of the evolving history of US radical political culture. We would trace the evolution of her ideas and poetics, and we would test them against various leftist principles and movements during her lifetime and against our own senses of social justice today.
My course was offered in Fall 2019 as a 300-level elective, cross-listed in both English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Although it was before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has cast our lives into chaos as well as has called into question all certainties about how activism can be done (though the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests assure as that we assembly is still possible, and consequential), we were still in a pretty chaotic space at that time. The seeming eternity of the Trump Presidential administration’s regime of malfeasance, mismanagement, and hatred—as well as, more positively, the #MeToo movement and earlier #BlackLivesMatter resistance—often were points of reference both for my thinking about Rukeyser and for my students’ processing of the American sociopolitical climate during her lifetime. I called my course “The Lives of Muriel Rukeyser,” for she had many lives and lived through many periods, not just one. Approximately thirty students enrolled for the course. Only one even knew who Rukeyser was before we began; she had taken my modernist poetry course the semester before, where we had studied The Book of the Dead (1938). For everyone else, Rukeyser was an unknown quantity. Most students were taking the class because it fulfilled some requirement or other, some because they were curious about women’s literature, generally, and thought they would get a straightforward introduction to feminist literature. I had warned everyone from the outset: Rukeyser was a woman of many contradictions but also of deep convictions. By semester’s end, you’ll either love her or you’ll hate her. Thankfully, many—of course, not all—loved her.
The following portfolio models the work by five of those undergraduates who came to love Muriel Rukeyser because they devoted an entire course from their respective student careers to her. Or, perhaps better put, they are five students who loved at least one facet of her life and work. The work published here consists of revised versions of these students’ final projects for our class. They had two options for designing their projects. The first was to develop a critical essay, based on a rather open prompt and incorporating secondary sources that had been assigned as required or recommended reading. The alternative was to develop a creative project of their own, accompanied by a similarly researched but shorter critical self-reflection essay. Whether scholarly or creative, each option for this assignment amounted to a means of encouraging the students to make critical responses to Rukeyser’s work.
Responsiveness was the combined ethico-political and aesthetic core of Rukeyser’s literary work and sociopolitical convictions. One of her great political poetic sequences “Searching / Not Searching,” also from the aforementioned volume Breaking Open, is prefaced with a serious witticism from Rukeyser’s acquaintance and another poet to whom I’m committed, Robert Duncan. “Responsibility is to use the power to respond,” she quotes him as having said (Collected Poems 480). She had been writing about such “power to respond” for decades, most pointedly in her book-length treatise The Life of Poetry (1949). There, Rukeyser theorizes about all manner of responses, including a formulation I’m fond of quoting: “a poem invites a total response” (Life of Poetry 11). That response “is reached through the emotions” (11). Emotions are a complex matter for Rukeyser; suffice it to say here that they are the primary means for accessing one’s self. The old chestnut Know thyself was a misbegotten idea for her, as well as for Duncan, two writers deeply invested in the artist’s unconscious life. If knowing oneself is out of the question, then the most one can do is Work on thyself. Poetry, or any art, calls upon us, readers and writers alike, to do exactly that. “The process of writing a poem represents work done on the self of the poet, in order to make form,” Rukeyser writes toward the end of The Life of Poetry (181). “That this form has to do with the relationships of sounds, rhythms, imaginative beliefs does not isolate the process from any other creation. A total imaginative response is involved, and the first gestures of offering—even if the offering is never completed, and indeed even if the poem falls short” (181). When I asked my students at the end of the semester to respond to Rukeyser, I implicitly was asking each to make such a total imaginative response. I was asking them to work on themselves, to come to some sense of their individual and personal commitments to some principles or ideals of social justice, while they worked through, and responded to, Rukeyser’s work…which itself is the trace of her own process of working on herself. Unlike those who prize scholarship’s rationalism because of its intellectualist cultural capital, I value critical essays for being creative affairs, reflexive acts of self-creation. And as a poet, I also know that a creative project is always its own kind of critical essay, using the word essay in the sense of its French root, as signifying an adventure, a process, a trial or testing of oneself.
The students featured in this portfolio volunteered not only to share their work with you, the reader, but also to live longer with their initial projects. They have revised and expanded and transformed their writing beyond what they originally produced for our course. Thus, their work exemplifies what is possible when one engages and then reengages Rukeyser with one’s whole self to her precedent, in order to produce a total imaginative response. It’s significant that the five contributors who wanted to share their work with you identify as women. Gender is important here, and figures prominently in how they engaged with and responded to Rukeyser. But many other factors are important, too: Rukeyser’s Jewishness, her anti-imperialism and lifelong protest of white supremacy, her resolute faith in universal equity and humanity, her caring and empathy, her sex positivity, her desire for social transformation.
Two of the contributors have developed academic critical essays. Both of these essays are impressive undertakings, which do not just perform dry close readings of Rukeyser’s work. Instead, they are conceptual engagements with the poet’s core ideas about social justice and citizens’ empowerment, as read in her prose and in her poetry. Modina Jackson reads the poem “Breaking Open” (1973) in light of Rukeyser’s activism during the Vietnam Conflict. Chloe Ross meditates on how Rukeyser’s brand of Cold War-era feminism in “Many Keys” (1957, pub. 2018), a lost essay about women’s writing, offers a model for feminist collectivity predating second-wave liberal feminism of Betty Friedan that is necessary for us to reclaim today to reimagine the terms of solidarity and coalition, beyond identity politics.
The portfolio’s other contributors opted to respond to Rukeyser through different creative avenues. Sam Buczeksmith was inspired by Rukeyser’s challenge of the culture of shame in Puck Fair (1965), a book about an Irish centuries-old fertility celebration of the same name. In response, she wrote a short fiction updating the Cinderella fairytale to tackle how shame interferes with women’s autonomy and sexual freedom. Lily Pratt also has written a short fiction, a diaristic account by a young woman, imagined as the daughter of Anne, Rukeyser’s protagonist from the unpublished play The Middle of the Air (1944-1945), which the poet’s literary estate generously allowed me to share with my students. Lily’s narrator suffers the indignities and violence of a patriarchal, sexist culture, and we witness her consciousness being reshaped by those experiences and the public and activist discourse of our #MeToo moment. Vered Ornstein also was impressed by Rukeyser’s wartime play. However, she adopted The Middle of the Air’s dramatic form, not its content or themes, to create a speculative playlet that interrogates Rukeyser’s cultural Jewishness and her wartime stance in relation to Zionism. Vered comes to understand how the Holocaust prompted extraordinary responses from many American and European Jews about the question of Palestine, but she sees the poet’s wartime position as exposing the limits of Rukeyser’s anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist politics, as evinced in early poems like “The Blood Is Justified” (1935).
I will withstand the temptation to say more about these great total imaginative responses to Rukeyser. Each author’s work should speak for itself. Only then can these students introduce themselves to you as the strong, vibrant, and fiercely committed intellectuals and writers they are. Just as Rukeyser’s own literature attests to her process of self-construction and the many lives she had led, these authors’ writings bear the traces of the work they have done on themselves while making their total responses to this formidable predecessor activist and poet.
Bergman, David. “Ajanta and the Rukeyser Imbroglio.” American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010, pp. 553-83. Project Muse.
Berkinow, Louise, editor. The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950. Vintage, 1974.
Brock, James. “The Perils of a ‘Poster Girl’: Muriel Rukeyser, Partisan Review, and Wake Island.” “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?” The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, edited by Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. St. Martin’s Press, 1999, pp. 254-63.
Bulkin, Elly. “‘A Whole New Poetry Beginning Here’: Teaching Lesbian Poetry.” College English, vol. 40, No. 8, 1979, pp. 874-88. JSTOR.
Daniels, Kate. “Preface: ‘In Order to Feel.’” Out of Silence: The Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Edited by Kate Daniels. Triquarterly Books, 1992, pp. ix-xvii.
Folsom, Merrill. “Sarah Lawrence Again Under Fire: Legion Renews Its Attack on College over Hiring ‘Leftist.’” New York Times, 14 Nov. 1958, p. 11. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Gander, Catherine. “Poetry as Embodied Experience: The Pragmatist Aesthetics of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry.” Textual Practice, vol. 32, no. 7, 2018, pp. 1205-29. Taylor and Francis, DOI: 10.1080/0950236x.2018.1477259.
Keenaghan, Eric. “Biocracy: Reading Poetic Politics through the Traces of Muriel Rukeyser’s Life-Writing.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 43, no. 3, 2013, pp. 258-87. ProjectMuse, DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2013.0014.
—. “There Is No Glass Woman: Muriel Rukeyser’s Lost Feminist Essay ‘Many Keys.’” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 1, nos. 1-2, 2018, pp. 186-204. Taylor and Francis, DOI:10.1080/24692921.2017.1368883.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. Edited by Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog with Jan Heller Levi. U of Pittsburgh P, 2005.
—. The Life of Poetry. 1949. Paris Press, 1996.
—. Statement for “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews.” Contemporary Jewish Record, vol. 7, no. 1, 1944, pp. 3-36. ProQuest.
—. “Statement of Miss Muriel Rukeyser.” Typescript, 17 Nov. 1958. Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Box II: 8. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
—. Untitled address to the Modern Language Association’s Radical Caucus. Typescript, undated [c. 1975]. Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Box I: 16. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Wolosky, Shira. “What Do Jews Stand For? Muriel Rukeyser’s Ethics of Identity.” NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, no. 19, 2000, pp. 199-226. EBSCO: Academi”c Search Complete.
To cite this article in MLA, 8th edition: Eric Keenaghan. “Total Imaginative Response: Five Undergraduate Studies from ‘The Lives of Muriel Rukeyser.'” Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive, https://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2020/09/05/eric-keenaghan-total-imaginative-response-five-undergraduate-studies-from-the-lives-of-muriel-rukeyser/.
Eric Keenaghan is associate professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of Queering Cold War Poetry (Ohio State University Press), and his essays on Muriel Rukeyser have appeared in Journal of Narrative Theory, Feminist Modernist Studies, and Textual Practice. Currently, he is editing a selection of Rukeyser’s uncollected and unpublished essays, lectures, stories, and scripts.
- Rukeyser’s relationship to her Jewish heritage changed over the course of her life. As she noted in a memoir essay for a 1944 collection by younger Jewish writers, save one “silver ceremonial goblet” that was a family heirloom and “a legend that my mother’s family was directly descended from Akiba,” her childhood experience had “no mark of Judaism” (Statement for “Under Forty” 5). By the forties, in response to the Holocaust and her personal connections to European Jewish refugees, cultural Jewishness figured into some of her work more explicitly, often in the form of political and mythical motifs. However, she was more drawn to the Bible—for “its clash, poetry, and nakedness, its fiery vision of conflict resolved only in God”—than she was to religious institutions or services (Rukeyser, Statement for “Under Forty” 7). Gender and sexual politics, as well as social categories of sexuality, posed even more problems for Rukeyser as a basis for unilateral identification. Throughout her adult life, she had many romantic and sexual affairs, with both men and women. In 1950 or 1951, her open partnership with her agent, Monica McCall, would begin. Each kept separate households, sometimes on opposite coasts. Their relationship lasted until Rukeyser’s death in 1980, with little extant documentation or evidence of its existence. Rukeyser resisted any taxonomic classification of her sexuality and, as I’ve narrated elsewhere, her same-sex relationships, including her partnership with McCall, remained an open secret upon which her work does not directly comment (See Keenaghan, “Biocracy.”) Post-Stonewall gay and lesbian liberation-era poems like “Despisals” (1973) do defend same-sex love and eroticism, but in a rather self-distancing way. Rukeyser’s narrator embraces “our secrecies,” including “our sexuality wherever it takes us.” But that self-inclusion disappears as she urges her interlocutor to: “never to despise / the homosexual who goes building another / with touch with touch (not to despise any touch) / each like himself, like herself each. / You are this” (Collected Poems 472). Homosexuality is the experience of others, in the third and second persons. And this in a poem where the author owns her Jewishness, “not to despise our Jews / (that is, ourselves).” Rukeyser also resisted affiliating herself or her work with women’s liberation. Her unpublished midcareer essay “Many Keys,” written in 1957, could have pioneered feminist literary criticism, if it were not suppressed by the very magazine that had commissioned it, The Nation. As I’ve written in my introduction to the recovered edition of that piece, Rukeyser’s impressive effort predated the groundbreaking work of second wave feminist critics and poets like Adrienne Rich, Germaine Greer, Judy Grahn, and Kate Millet by fifteen to twenty years (Keenaghan, “There Is No Glass Woman”). As the second wave emerged, Rukeyser’s implicit precedent as poet, if not as a literary theorist, was featured in many feminist poetry anthologies. She even wrote a preface for Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open (1974), an anthology of British and American women’s poetry which borrows its title from a line in Rukeyser’s “Käthe Kollwitz” (1968). However, despite her commitments to women authors’ visibility, her critiques of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and a nuanced understanding of the gendering of literary form, Rukeyser resisted the idea that her work or her own person would be unequivocally identified with women’s liberation. She felt the political movement was too gynocentric, and thus risked splitting women from men, as surviving notes and jottings in her archives clarify.
- On the so-called “Rukeyser Imbroglio” that unfolded in Partisan Review, see James Brock’s “The Perils of a ‘Poster Girl’” and David Bergman’s “Ajanta and the Rukeyser Imbroglio.”
- On how anticommunism affected Rukeyser’s publications during the early 1950s, see Eric Keenaghan, “Biocracy,” especially pp. 273-4. The attack on Rukeyser by the Westchester County American Legion, and her defense by Harold Taylor, then President of Sarah Lawrence College, was publicly documented by the New York Times (see Folsom).The poet’s two-page self-defense, refuting the charge that she had been a member of the Communist Party, remains unpublished (Rukeyser, “Statement”).