Muriel Rukeyser and Other Writers
Thursday, May 22, 9am, Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill
Chair: Catherine Gander, Queens University, Belfast
1. “Across the Boundaries of Genre: Virginia Woolf’s and Muriel Rukeyser’s Unfinished Texts,” Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, Hunter College, CUNY
2. “Reading T. S. Eliot with/through Rukeyser,” Elisabeth Däumer, Eastern Michigan University
3. “The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology: Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser,” Laura Passin, Independent Scholar
4. “’Collecting the Lives of the Dead’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini and Susan Howe’s The Liberties,” Stefania Heim, Deep Springs College
Description of Panel:
The challenge of Rukeyser’s reception is her seeming singularity: she does not fit within established literary movements. She appears to be unclassifiable, whether as proletarian, modernist, or feminist poet (to name just some of the movements that either laid claim to her or, in the case of modernism, never quite acknowledged her presence). This place apart has been detrimental to her critical reception, which until recently has been tenuous and uneven at best. Despite her marginalized position in literary history, Rukeyser was profoundly responsive to other writers, past and present, and her work was and is in constant conversation with modern literary traditions and forms of experimentation. The goal of our session is to trace and define Rukeyser’s place among and dialogue with other writers: modernist precursors Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, contemporary poet Sylvia Plath, and potential, if unlikely, descendant Susan Howe. Chaired by Catherine Gander, whose scholarship has done much to delineate Rukeyser’s integral contributions to the field of American Studies emerging in her lifetime, the panel brings together new perspectives and contexts for the study of Rukeyser’s multi-generic body of work, including discussions of her recently published novel Savage Coast and her experimental, critically neglected verse play Houdini.
“Across the Boundaries of Genre: Virginia Woolf’s and Muriel Rukeyser’s Unfinished Texts”
In the 1930s, the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, just at the beginning of her career, and Virginia Woolf, nearing the end of her own, began writing and publishing a series of works that were to be their most philosophical, politically radical, and formally experimental. Both began with extraordinary drafts that were never published in their lifetimes. Woolf’s 1932 project, The Pargiters, was to be a work that crossed the boundaries between the fictional and the factual in order to document the lives of women in contexts of war, nationalism, education, and sexual subjectivity. Within a year she abandoned the project, splitting the fictional and the factual into two texts and publishing Three Guineas, itself a multi-genre work, and her novel, The Years, separately. In 1936, Muriel Rukeyser wrote her first and only novel, Savage Coast, recording her experience during the first days of the Spanish Civil War. It is a text that documents the conflict through an experimental crossing of genres: documentary, prose, and poetry. Rejected for publication in 1937 because of its textual, sexual, and political radicalism, it was lost in her archive in a nearly finished draft, only recently to be recovered, and published by the Feminist Press. Like Woolf, Rukeyser used the novel as the foundation for a radical treatise on war, nationalism, and the role of art in times of crisis: The Life of Poetry; she also proliferated the material of the novel throughout a series of poems and essays. This paper will explore the politics and problematics of the cross-genre forms employed by Woolf and Rukeyser, looking at the ways in which these kinds of experimental works proved innovative for critiquing systems of state violence, sexual hierarchies, war, and nationalism. At the same time, it will consider why these works provoked such intense backlash from their first readers.
“Reading T. S. Eliot with/through Rukeyser”
Muriel Rukeyser was a careful reader of T. S. Eliot. She read him as the representative of a tradition in twentieth-century poetry that she respected, even partly admired, but felt the need to surpass, both in attitude and aesthetics. Eliot, she wrote in an early poem, “led us to the precipice,/subtly and perfectly ; there striking an attitude/rigid and ageing on the penultimate step… ”. This sense of Eliot’s important, but ultimately lacking, tutelage pervades much of Rukeyser’s early poetry, from Theory of Flight, a “counter thrust,” in Louise Kertesz’s words, “to Eliot’s pessimism,” to Rukeyser’s ambitious documentary poem Book of the Dead whose use of a mythic substructure echoes the construction of The Waste Land even as the poem’s final words—“seeds of unending love”—stand in stark contrast to the ambiguity of Eliot’s desultory Shantih. Rukeyser frequently references Eliot in her modernist manifesto The Life of Poetry, in which she subtly reformulates central dicta of Eliot’s criticism, such as the place of tradition, the limitations of art, and his theory of emotion. Rukeyser’s own theory of poetry, as elaborated in The Life of Poetry and instanced in her poems, has long been understood as diametrically opposed to the objective theory of poetry espoused by Eliot, and via Eliot by the New Critics. However, from the vantage point of Rukeyser’s concept of total response, Eliot’s theory of emotion appears in a different light. Both poets were interested not only in the emotions being expressed or conveyed by the work of art, but, equally or more, in the emotions being evoked in the reader, i.e. in poetry’s communicative potential. Thus their shared interest in theater. Overshadowed by New Criticism’s rigid ideas about poetry as immutable object, T. S. Eliot’s theory of emotions has not been fully recognized in its search for communication, for ways of affecting, touching, moving the reader. I will propose that reading Eliot through the lens of Rukeyser’s poetry and prose offers a nuanced way of understanding how Rukeyser’s aesthetics align with, reformulate, and extend those of her most formidable and problematic modernist precursor.
“The Power of Suicide and the Refusal of Mythology: Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser”
Sylvia Plath’s place in American culture is more than that of a poet. She has (with the help of her publishers and early critics) become an icon of several cultural narratives: self-destructive genius, repressive domesticity, scorned woman, vengeful goddess. Her contemporary, Muriel Rukeyser, recognizes both the romance and the terror of mythologizing self-destruction in several poems that indirectly allude to Plath, such as “The Power of Suicide” and “Not to be Printed.” In this paper, I will put such poems in dialogue with Rukeyser’s feminist revisions of Orpheus, Icarus, and Oedipus, in which she reconstructs the voices of the women written out of foundational Western myths. I will argue that in her suicide poems, Rukeyser frames and revises the cultural narratives around Plath similarly, as the story of the act of suicide tends to superimpose itself on the life and the woman Sylvia Plath gets written out of her own literary history.
“‘Collecting the Lives of the Dead’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini and Susan Howe’s The Liberties
In a folder of miscellaneous jottings and notes among Muriel Rukeyser’s archived materials at the Library of Congress is a torn scrap with twinned fragments. Etched boldly across the top of the page is Rukeyser’s theoretical proposal: “Our symbols limited only by our lives.” Across the bottom right corner in a slanting, much lighter script, she confesses her method: “collecting the lives of the dead.” “Go to the dead and love them”: Susan Howe quotes Creon’s words to Antigone, defining her own method and vocation in a 1985 poetic manifesto. Sharing a piercing attention to the lives of the dead, Rukeyser and Howe’s historical and poetic inquiries are constituted by an intimate communication with their chosen figures, and, further, a tight entwining with their personal experiences, their own “symbols,” and these lives. These two profoundly different poets write texts of mythico-historical-biographical-autobiographical urgency. This paper juxtaposes Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini , an almost completely unexamined piece of musical theater that Rukeyser worked on for four decades (the play was produced once, in 1973, starring Christopher Walken in the title role), with Susan Howe’s The Liberties (1990), a text that uses poetry, prose, and a brief play called “God’s Spies” to animate the lives of Jonathan Swift’s tragic mistress Stella and Shakespeare’s Cordelia. Together 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. For Rukeyser and Howe life-writing crosses into fiction, fact passes into narrative and is then burned back into fable. With their very different audiences, histories, and positions in poetic canons or taxonomies, the pairing of Houdini and The Liberties provides a rich vantage point for investigating some of the categories – myth and history, self-expression and research, play and poem – that control our understanding of the work poetic thinking does in the world, as well as its potential for enacting knowledge beyond the borders of the strictly aesthetic.
Catherine Gander teaches at Queens University Belfast. Her research addresses the conceptual, practical, and philosophical cross-currents between literature and the visual arts. Her monograph Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: the Poetics of Connection was published by Edinburgh University Press in January 2013 and won the inaugural Peggy O’Brien book prize of the Irish Association for American Studies. Catherine Gander’s interdisciplinary interests involve ethical and political aesthetics in modern and contemporary American fiction, poetry, art, and photography, as well as the cognitive work of imagetexts and visual cultures. She is currently working on a book examining the role of the artwork in attitudes to crisis in 21st century American fiction.
Rowena Kennedy-Epstein is the editor of Muriel Rukeyser’s novel Savage Coast (Feminist Press, 2013) and “Barcelona, 1936” & Selections from the Spanish Civil War Archive (New York: Lost and Found, The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series II March 2011). Kennedy-Epstein’s essay “’Her symbol was civil war’: Recovering Muriel Rukeyser’s Lost Spanish Civil War Novel” appeared in the most recent issue of Modern Fiction Studies. She received her PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Elisabeth Däumer is Professor of English and American literature at Eastern Michigan University, with research interests in twentieth-century poetry, modernism, and cognitive literary theory. She has published essays on T. S. Eliot, Muriel Rukeyser, and feminist theory. Co-editor (with Shyamal Bagchee) of The International Reception of T. S. Eliot (Continuum 2007), she founded The Muriel Rukeyser Website (https://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/) and organized the 2013 Rukeyser Centenary Symposium at Eastern Michigan University (https://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/welcome/rukeyser-symposium-2013/). She also edited a special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory (43.3 Fall 2013) on Muriel Rukeyser.
Laura Passin is an independent scholar and poet whose work has appeared in Inkwell, Bellevue Literary Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is also a non-fiction contributor to The Toast, http://the-toast.net/. In her recently completed dissertation “The Lyric in the Age of Theory: The Politics and Poetics of Confession in Contemporary American Poetry” (Northwestern, 2012) Passin argues that a politically and artistically significant strain of contemporary American poetry, influenced by the confessional poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, complicates and extends the lyric “I” in ways that current literary scholarship has yet adequately to theorize.
Stefania Heim is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is writing a dissertation entitled Dark Matter: Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser, and the Scholar’s Art with support from the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust. She is editor of an annotated edition of Rukeyser’s “Darwin and the Writers” (New York: Lost and Found, The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, Series I Winter 2009), and author of “’Another form of life’: Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs, and Analogy” (Journal of Narrative Theory 43.3 Fall 2013) and “Trespass and Presumption: Susan Howe and Muriel Rukeyser” (Jacket2, September 2013). Her poetry collection A Table That Goes on for Miles is forthcoming from Switchback Books.