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Handwritten notes on yellowing paper
Muriel Rukeyser, “Poetry for the People,” lecture notes, c. 1946. Box I:43, Folder 4, Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of William L. Rukeyser.

Made at the Library Program to Highlight Poet and Social Critic Muriel Rukeyser

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This is a guest post by Manuscript Division historian Barbara Bair.

In honor of Poetry Month, join professors and coeditors Eric Keenaghan and Rowena Kennedy-Epstein as they discuss their new book The Muriel Rukeyser Era: Selected Prose with Manuscript Division historian Barbara Bair.

The event took place online only on Thursday, April 25, 2024, 12 pm-1 pm EST. Watch the program here:

Please request ADA accommodations at least five business days in advance by contacting (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Made at the Library is an event series highlighting works inspired by and emerging from research at the Library of Congress. Featuring authors, artists, and other creators in conversation with Library experts, this series takes a deep dive into the process of working with the Library’s collections.

Acclaimed poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a prolific writer, dedicated teacher, generous mentor to other writers, and a committed social advocate. Born and raised in New York City, Rukeyser taught literature and writing in the post-World War II era at the California Labor School in Oakland, California, and at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The collection of Muriel Rukeyser Papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division reflects her network of fellow writers and poets, including Kay Boyle, Denise Levertov, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker. Her work also inspired new generations of poets, including former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.

Eric Keenaghan is associate professor and chair in the Department of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is the author of Queering Cold War Poetry (2009) and of scholarly articles on Rukeyser, including studies published in Feminist Modernist Studies and Textual Practice. Rowena Kennedy-Epstein is associate professor of gender studies and women’s writing at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. She is author of Unfinished Spirit: Muriel Rukeyser’s Twentieth Century (2022) and editor of the recovered Rukeyser novel, Savage Coast (2013). She is currently writing a Rukeyser biography.

Typewritten page
Muriel Rukeyser, “The Fear of Poetry,” lecture, Vassar College, October 29, 1940. Box I:43, Folder 4, Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of William L. Rukeyser.

In their new collection, Keenaghan and Kennedy-Epstein reveal Rukeyser as a social commentator and witness who incorporated a documentary style into her prose work as a journalist, essayist, lecturer, and review writer. She scripted a short-lived radio series, wrote plays, and entered into collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects. Her career spanned from the Great Depression through the women’s liberation period of the 1970s.

In crafting The Muriel Rukeyser Era anthology, the coeditors selected a plethora of unpublished archival materials in the Muriel Rukeyser collections at the Library of Congress and New York Public Library. They complemented these primary documents with published articles, reviews, and essays by Rukeyser drawn from periodicals ranging from the Vassar Miscellany News to the Daily Worker, New Masses, New Republic, New York Times, and the Contemporary Jewish Record, as well as literary journals like the American Poetry Review and Kenyon Review.

In Part I of their book, Keenaghan and Kennedy-Epstein highlight a key five-part lecture series that Rukeyser delivered at Vassar College in the fall of 1940, entitled “The Usable Truth: Five Talks on Communication and Poetry.” Only the first of the lectures, “The Fear of Poetry,” was published. All are preserved in typescript form in the Library’s Muriel Rukeyser Papers and were later reworked by Rukeyser for her book The Life of Poetry (1949). Delivered as the forces of fascism gained power in Europe, the lectures posited that poetry can counteract repression and provide a forum for greater recognition of common points of humanity.

Part II includes Rukeyser’s early work commenting on the Scottsboro Nine, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg cases, as well as her eyewitness observations of the 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona – an experience that was pivotal for her on both personal and professional levels, and which reappears in various forms in her work across time.

Part III spotlights Rukeyser’s 1946 collaboration with photographer Berenice Abbott, and her discussion of truth, reality, and seeing. The editors also include what remains of Rukeyser’s written notes and documentation for two episodes from her 1949 Sunday at Nine radio broadcasts, which were produced in San Francisco. This innovative series, conceived by Rukeyser years before the advent of podcasts, combined spoken word literary criticism and the reading of select poems with musical selections. The editors feature the first episode, on Emily Dickinson, and the last, on oral modes of poetic expression and the blues. The episodes demonstrate Rukeyser’s lifelong commitment to cross-disciplinary and inclusive ways of understanding and her dedicated outreach to public audiences.

In their final section, Part IV, Keenaghan and Kennedy-Epstein offer examples of Rukeyser’s published and unpublished essays on poetry and her literary reviews. The latter contain Rukeyser’s thoughts on many fellow poets and writers, including Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Federico Garcia Lorca, Robinson Jeffers, Franz Kafka, Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, and Marya Zaturenska.

In The Muriel Rukeyser Era, Keenaghan and Kennedy-Epstein have produced a single-volume reader that will appeal to those who may only be familiar with Rukeyser as a poet, but who will discover additional perspectives from her prose and greater understanding of her theories on the power of poetry. The extensive Muriel Rukeyser Papers at the Library of Congress remain, meanwhile, full of possibilities for other researchers to explore. Join us on April 25 for insight into the making of The Muriel Rukeyser Era.

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“later reworked by Rukeyser…” See Box I:43, Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“produced in San Francisco…” Muriel Rukeyser, Sunday at Nine radio scripts and outlines, Box II:14, Muriel Rukeyser Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Comments

  1. What an important writer M.R. was! I am grateful for this exploration of these unpublished work, which adds much to my estimation of her importance.

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