“Those men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances”

Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani

1. “The buried, the wasted and the lost”

When I was asked to take part in this research project—“Networking Wo/men: Subjects, Places, Links: Europe-America, 1890–1939”—and I proposed the name of Muriel Rukeyser as the subject/link of my study, I had already published a few essays on her work. [1] I knew that she had given all of her manuscripts, letters and notes to the New York Public Library, but I could not figure out what precious contribution the thorough analysis of those documents would bring to our entire research.

I must admit that when I first touched that material (at the beginning of January 1999), I was astonished or, better, overwhelmed, at the view of piles and piles of papers, that had belonged to Rukeyser, lying on the shelves of the Berg Collection. I immediately recalled a line of hers: “There is also, in any history, the buried, the wasted and the lost”; it is a fragment that does not belong to a poem, but is to be found in The Life of Poetry, [2] a book of theory and criticism described in 1950 as “ambitious,” “profound” and “demanding.” This meaningful line opens chapter six and, precisely, its first paragraph, which is entitled “Choice and the Past.”

“Buried,” “wasted,” “lost.” In front of me I could see an unpredictable amount of folders buried under folders, notes buried under notes—wasted, lost history—letters under letters, that had been separated from the envelopes they belonged to—I do not know by whom, I do not understand why. Nobody, as far as I could tell, had ever examined that material before, nobody had quoted it; what I knew for sure was that I did not want to lose that buried treasure Muriel Rukeyser seemed to have left to us, seemed to have saved for us, to be explored, exploited, arranged, selected. Paraphrasing the titles of the book and the paragraph I have just mentioned, I felt that, through those cherished pieces, I could make a “choice of her past,” “give it a new life.” And I immediately realized they would certainly reveal Rukeyser’s connections and relationships—the ones I was looking for, in order to contribute to the construction of networking paths between our wo/men.

2. “Rare intellectual bird of communication”

I was amazed at the view of Rukeyser’s papers because of their number; but other complex emotions and expectations were aroused in me, which—I believe—happen to be stirred up when one works on archival material, on documents that have never been published before.

I understood that Rukeyser, who had brought the events of the world into poetry and poetry into the world, and who had written a lot about herself, had intended to save a special chapter of her biography. And much more. As a matter of fact, besides the typescripts of several of her books and the manuscripts of some of her famous pages—which I believe most writers commonly wish to keep for themselves and their posterity—Rukeyser had saved all sorts of apparently meaningless notes. In the Berg Collection I found small torn pieces of paper where, in her elegant handwriting, she had jotted down phrases, ideas, suggestive words (literature, indeed!); I happened to discover an envelope, on the back of which she had written her shopping list—blueberries and cantaloupe among other things—and an incomplete sonnet; a business reply card (that was to be sent to a telephone company of New York), on the back of which she had scribbled a few lines on loneliness; a single sheet of paper where she had typed the carbon copy of a letter to President Roosevelt together with the one sent to Paul Muni, the famous actor. But most of the folders contained her correspondents’ letters, dated 1932–1976.

I was puzzled. I wondered why Rukeyser had saved all those letters, and the envelopes too, for more than forty years. We do not need the help of psychology to understand that saving her correspondence was a way of keeping the memory of herself and of her ideological, political, poetical changes through different periods of life, together with the memory of the people she was connected with; it was a means of keeping “control” of her subjects / places/ links—her wealth of human meanings and resources. I also believe this was a way of communicating that she did not want to reject or dismiss anything of her life.

I also searched for an answer to my puzzlement in what I knew about her. From the earliest moments of her career, she had cried out for total communication, against the indifference of the intellectuals who would retreat to an “ivory tower” [3]; she had seen the writer as one who would always be in readiness to receive, in readiness to respond; she had sought a poetics of relationship and process; moreover, she used to say that poems were “meeting places” (see below). In that definition I found a partial answer to my perplexity. Her correspondence, the letters she wrote and the ones she received, were probably also meeting places, disclosing undefined possibilities. They were “localities”—using the term we have adopted within our research—where she would encounter “those men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances”; and the meanings of those “signals,” once transferred to the New York Public Library, would be shared with her readers.

3. “Signals across vast distances”

The reason why I have chosen the above quoted lines for the title of my paper is twofold. First, they seem to reiterate and mirror (or should I say foreshadow?) the main concepts of the title of our research and our conference. Think of the hyphenated expression “Europe-America,” that has geographical, historical, ideological implications which seem to correspond to Rukeyser’s “vast distances.” Think of those “men and women” that are included within the two titles. Think of those “signals” and compare them to the “sphere of signs” of our research project, which Marina Camboni refers to in her introduction. Secondly, those lines belong to a lyric that covers and frames some of the events that Rukeyser was aware had shaped her life, her vision of the dynamic ebb and flow of reality:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars. [4]

“Poem” (this is the remarkably simple and elegant title of the composition) was published in 1968, in the volume entitled Speed of Darkness, but I do not know when it was written. It doubtless reveals Rukeyser’s understanding of the powerful relationships that exist between history, consciousness and creativity. And now, thanks to the papers I have analyzed, I can assert that she developed that understanding in the course of the years under scrutiny in the present research (1932-1942). Indeed the documents I found in the Berg Collection—some of which are attached to the records in our web site [5]—besides giving a clear perspective on her participation in the debate on modernist poetics, offer paradigms for tracing her “links” in general and what I would call her “connections” between her Jewish identity and her principles of relationship and witnessing.

4. “The witness is myself. / And you, / The signs, the journeys of the night survive”

One way of witnessing for Rukeyser was to write: essays, reviews, biographies, plays, poems. Given her belief that nothing should be excluded from the auspices of the literary imagination, it is not surprising that she wrote on an extraordinary range of topics, many of which are extra-disciplinary to poetry.

Poetry, she maintained, can be a transfer of human energy, make changes in existing conditions, extend the document. [6] And I believe that the documents I have in my hands, if I join them through interpretive and relational paths, can “extend” her poems, “transfer” her passionate vision, make us understand why she rejected false divisions—between poetry and politics, for instance—and why she refused disciplinary splittings, such as the ones commonly accepted between literature and science. I feel that what I have in my hands are extraordinary “findings,” exceptional “cuttings.” I have carefully chosen these two terms to label Rukeyser’s papers because they recall the fact that, as a young woman, she worked occasionally as a film cutter, and that at the very end of her life, she said Findings would be the title of her next book.

Rukeyser’s papers are “cuttings,” “findings,” where aesthetic and poetic themes are explored; where political topics are debated; and where, surprisingly, the field of feminist discourse, sexual identity and gender roles is hardly tackled. The only item I found on the role of the “woman worker” is the carbon copy of a long essay entitled “Women and Scottsboro,” [7] which we can appreciate not only for its social, political, economic arguments, but also for “the generosity of meaning and the gifts of the imagination” [8]:

The women who have played important parts in the Scottsboro case are spectacular contrasts. There are the two pairs: on the one side, the mothers who have been most prominent, Ada Wright and Janie Patterson, who have seen the slow sacrifice of their sons to a deepening class struggle; and, on the other, the two women who have led the boys to conviction, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Behind one pair stand the other mothers, and all conscious women workers - behind the other are grouped the ignorance and vulgarity of the bourgeoisie and the prejudice of the group that used to be referred to delicately as “the flower of Southern womanhood” .…
The town-women of Decatur are divided in feeling. Most of them, the crisp leisure class, the office-workers, waitresses, are indifferent. When they do express an opinion, it is ingrained with prejudice ….
The Negro women of the town appear in numbers in and around the courtroom, and these numbers are an index of their strength. The working woman’s strength is an important factor in the case ….
Indeed, the fundamental issues of the Scottsboro case are more clearly tied up with the problems of the woman worker than has been pointed out. The fact that the boys were dependent on their mothers in Atlanta and Chattanooga when they were sent by freight to look for jobs; the fact that prostitution has played so large a part, socially and in the case … ; all these should bring the case home to the woman worker.
Our problem in the remainder of the battle is one of organizing and educating. In the North, we can rally, protest, be our classes’ voice. In the South, there is even more to do: the century-long prejudices must be fought even harder, the old cry of “rape! rape!” whenever a Negro is to be persecuted must be drowned out, the whole problem of employment for women must be examined, the facts of prostitution made clear ….
The case has long ago become the property of the working class. The woman worker must accept its problems and devote her energies to further the fight to free the Scottsboro boys, and to solve the problems which have led to their condemnation. [9]

If we grasp the articulated relation of Rukeyser’s “cuttings” and “findings,” we can reconstruct her connections with the political-literary movements of the period. We can evince how her leftist orientation did not mature through studying party doctrine, but through responding to public injustices; and we can understand why she encouraged the most important tendencies of modernism, while challenging them. One of the “cuttings” which is not dated, but that, by means of internal evidence, might be assigned to the period under scrutiny, is the one about Käthe Kollwitz’s life and art. It is a document that helps illustrate the links of our research—the relations between different cultures, between Europe and the United States—while giving a concrete example of a brave German woman sending “signs” across vast distances, [10] of a brave American woman ready to catch, to follow, to develop those “signs” [11]:

… Käthe Kollwitz has made drawings, etchings, wood cuts, lithographs and sculptures, with a passionate conviction which cuts into men’s minds and hearts….
Kollwitz has always been spiritually close to the human endeavor of the United States—the popular democratic form of expression of broad, human values….
Her theme is always humanity suffering, oppressed, menaced by starvation and death. She dealt in the “Bauernkrieg” with the struggle of the oppressed to right their wrongs. Before the World War she concerned herself with the life she knew best—poor mothers who came to her husband’s clinic, dead children, posters against syphilis and. alcoholism, for playgrounds for children. After the war she portrayed the waste and ruin caused by the war. She did a large monument at Eessen near Dixmuiden to her son Peter who fell there in 1914, showing a bereaved mother and. father, herself and her husband.
Her art speaks for all human beings who ask of life the freedom to live, the right to survive.
Her women, starving children, wounded men plead for life. They receive hunger, empty hands which hold no bread or hands which thrust weapons of death.
The Nazis had Kollwitz ejected from the Prussian Academy; they forbade all exhibition and sale of her work ….
Kollwitz has taken on the stature of an artist of the people of every country.

These lines are personal notes that reveal how Rukeyser “listened” to Kollwitz’s thoughts and feelings, as they were expressed through her art. [12] They also confirm her understanding of the powerful relationships that exist between history, consciousness and creativity. They disclose a consistent ethics underlying all of her activism and poetry; her way of saying, through the signals of a German artist’s life and work, that the struggle, although it cannot be concluded or completed by one single person, should never be abandoned—a well known talmudic quotation that has become a typical Jewish principle. The dominant idea fixed on paper—the overall precise message in these notes that Rukeyser typed on Kollwitz—is for herself and it is quite clear: experience / believe / communicate / act.

5. “Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings. / The blessing is in the seed”

The experience that led Rukeyser to believe, to communicate, to act, had started early. In 1932 at the age of 18, she founded a little magazine, Housatonic; in the same year, she was arrested at the trial of the Scottsboro boys, in Decatur, Alabama; at 21 she published her first collection of poetry, Theory of Flight [13]; early in 1936 she visited Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to gather information on an industrial disaster that left hundreds of miners dead and disabled from silicosis. Her contribution to that national drama was “The Book of the Dead,” a formally experimental long poem that integrates legal, medical and personal testimony with lyrical language, and in which, according to Kate Daniels, “she was perfectly capable of combining social-realist techniques with those of high modernism.” [14] Later in 1936, she was sent to Spain by Life and Letters To-day, to cover the Anti-Fascist Olympic Games (or the Workers’ Olympiad, set up in opposition to the official Olympics in Berlin); but she learned upon arrival that the games could not be held, since war had broken out in the province of Catalonia. The Catalan government decided to send all foreigners home, unless they had experience in nursing or child-care or were willing to fight. Rukeyser had only a first book of poems—she was asked to leave. Her memory from her days in Spain was published in London as “Barcelona, 1936.” [15] Here is the final stretch of the text, marking the intersection of the essay’s aesthetic, psychological and political concerns:

But now Martin, his square face with the heavy yellow eyebrows large over the crowd, was shouting to a mass meeting:
“The athletes came to attend the People’s Olympiad, but have been privileged to stay to see the beautiful and great victory of the people in Catalonia and Spain!
“These have come for games, but have remained for the greater Front, in battle and in triumph!
“Now they must leave, they must go back to their own countries, but they will carry to them...
(the tense sunlit square, Martin about to start for Saragossa, the people shouting ‘Viva!’ in the streets, the friends among workers, the soldiers who stopped to talk to foreigners, the salutes, international and strong)
they will carry to their own countries, some of them still oppressed and under fascism and military terror, to the working people of the world, the story of what they see now in Spain.” [16]

It was the moment when all foreigners were being asked to leave the embattled city. Rukeyser felt as though Martin, the organizer of the Games, spoke directly to her, giving her the task of witnessing.

Witnessing, a word heavy with spiritual and legal tones of obligation, is the vocation that Rukeyser accepts in Barcelona and that will impel her to repeat that “story” in different forms. Even in the opening scene of The Life of Poetry, she will recall that struggle against fascism, and will conclude the introduction to the book with this profession of faith: “Then I began to say what I believe.” [17] From that “moment of proof,” [18] she said what she believed. From that “moment of proof” she was at the center of an intense network of political, cultural, literary initiatives.

6. “Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry”

Before analyzing the documents that will demonstrate this intense network, let us understand why Rukeyser was sent to Spain by Life and Letters To-day, and started contributing to that journal. While “exploring” Rukeyser’s papers I came across a few letters by Robert Herring [19] and a precious letter by Bryher dated 3 July 1936, [20] sent from Villa Kenwin, Vevey (Switzerland). [21] This epistle is probably not the only direct “link” between the two Jewish intellectuals, but it is the only one I found. It is certainly a fundamental “locality” combining several threads of our research:

Dear Miss Rukeyser,

I have meant for a long while to write to you about your poems, for I found the volume by far the most interesting, of any of the newer groups which I have read. Only if I like a book or a poem, I like it, and hate having to search round for words to say why I liked it. And I’m afraid if I wait again to think this out, I shall never write to you now, and I would like to put you in touch, if I can, with one or two people in London. [22]
I hope we can meet. I shall be over about July 20th. In the meantime you should certainly see… Dorothy Richardson, if she is again in London, my last news was that she was still in Cornwall ….
I expect that you will find London very strange. I have lived, really lived, in many countries of Europe, and have been three times to the States, but I assure you that if you are puzzled, think what you would do in the States in like circumstance, and you can be almost certain the English will do the exact opposite. I have been wondering for years why, but I do notice that if you break the English away too much from their habits and traditions, they make no progress. I suppose it is something to do with islands….
Dorothy Richardson’s [address] is, Mrs. A. E. Odle, 32 Queen’s Terrace, London N. W. 8….
I hope so much that we, ourselves, can meet.
With all best wishes,
If you are interested in politics, as I imagine from your book, you ought to go to
Paris for July 14th. I could give you introductions there. Can you speak French?
Most of my friends there speak English.

The unconventional beginning of the letter seems to imply that Bryher, like Rukeyser, sees poetry as a realm of possibility, not a kind of artifact. She does not make an adequate critical discourse; nor does she express any precise appreciation of Rukeyser’s stylistic practices, sounds and rhythms patterns, deployment of modernist collage and rapid juxtapositions. But her statement, with the triple repetition of the verb “like,” signals the full acceptance of the American poet within the literary community, and implies an understanding of the potentialities of a writer that had just published her first book, the one starting with the emblematic line “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” [23] This acceptance is reiterated in the handwritten post-scriptum: “If you are interested in politics, as I imagine from your book, you ought to go to Paris for July 14th. I could give you introductions there.”

Bryher does not use the expressions modern / modernist (or their “siblings,” as Susan Stanford Friedman would say), but simply “newer,” an evaluation marker that seems more projected into the future. The repetition “I hope we can meet” / “I hope so much that we, ourselves, can meet” is implicitly rich in promises: Bryher would introduce Rukeyser into her environment, her cultural setting, into her “life” and “letters.”

And she really did. Rukeyser was asked by Bryher and Herring to substitute a journalist who at the very last moment could not go to Spain, to cover the Anti-Fascist Olympic Games for Life and Letters To-day. The following letter, dated 15 July 1936, probably convinced Rukeyser to accept the “proposition”:

Dear Muriel Rukeyser,


Now, I can’t make Barcelona myself…. But I have a proposition to make. Would you go for us? The company has voted £3O for expenses, etc. … and it is, for us, important to have it covered. The difficulty has been that one wants to know whoever goes is sympathetic….
You, I think, would be excellent—if you would go. I am in touch with the committee…. I have details of trains and list of hotels. It’s a simple trip—11 from here and next day at noon in Barcelona. Dates are, 19th to 26th. I have full programme at [the] office.
There isn’t much time, so would you call me to-morrow? In the morning I have to go miles out to some conference…. So I shan’t be in till after lunch—would you ring about 3?….
I’d be so pleased if you felt like it and it would be a relief to know the show was in safe hands. In fact, it’d help us out a lot!
Yours sincerely,
Robert Herring

The sheet of headed paper where the epistle is typewritten presents, on the left hand side, the same logo of the journal, preceded by the line “EDITED BY ROBERT HERRING • PETRIE TOWNSHEND,” with a central dot between the two names. It was not the first official letter that Rukeyser received from Life and Letters To-day and Herring. [24] A quick message of his, just five days before, had announced something extraordinary that must have thrilled her:

Forgive me for not having written before—largely because I have been reading your manuscripts with delight. I congratulate you. I hope that isn’t impertinent and can I please use “Course,” “Burning Bush” and “Lover as Fox”? Many thanks for the grand time I have had reading them.
I hope to see you again soon….

After the “Iberian adventure” [25] and as soon as Rukeyser sent Herring her “piece” on the Spanish War—“Barcelona, 1936”—Herring expressed not only his admiration and gratitude, but showed he was concerned about her emotional response to that event (“you must be feeling a bit of a reaction”; “it must have done a few things”):

Dear Muriel,

that was fine stuff: I sent it down right away, deeply grateful…. I do appreciate your doing it to time when you must be feeling a bit of a reaction, & I do trust you’ll forgive me for inadvertently landing you in such a trip. You took it with grand outward calm, but it must have done a few things.
…. if I don’t see you again before you go, best wishes—a quiet trip this time, many thanks & looking forward to the next meeting. …Best luck.

Between the two final words (“Best luck”) and his signature, Herring drew a fist—a very simple and naive sketch—with the same pen and ink he had used for the entire letter. Although undated, that short message was certainly written in August. It was followed by a long handwritten letter dated September 4 where, among other things, the idea of the fist was resumed, and where the new issue of Life and Letters To-day (Vol. 15, No. 5, 1936) was announced:

The English press, with a few honourable exceptions, the M. G. & the New Statesman, so fearfully fascist—it is a comfort to have your story. I took an ad. in a couple of papers, & also got out a poster as light tribute to your spirit & as a little clenching of fist against fascism. I’m sending you a couple of them, en souvenir.
You’ll be getting the number along with this. How do you like it? Do you like the new cover? And is the editorial approved?

“Her story” was referred to in the editorial Robert Herring and Petrie Townshend wrote for that number of Life and Letters To-day [26]:

A year ago we expressed our intention of being non-political in these pages and we still feel that our concern is less with the opinions of writers than with the work those inform. But a year ago is a year ago, and it would be useless to maintain now that Spain’s civil war is none of our business. It is everyone’s business. We hope that we speak for our readers as well as for our authors when we say that we consider it impossible to go to press without paying tribute to the courage of the Spanish people fighting in support of their government.…
For facts which were not given prominence, we refer readers to a letter by Stephen Levy, a conservative, in the August 1st issue of our parent paper, The New Statesman, and to the article which we owe to the spirit of a young American poet that we are able to print in this number. [27]

The article itself was introduced by this editorial note on Rukeyser: “The author left London alone on July 18th. She was on the last train to enter Spain after the fighting began and arrived back in London on July 27th. This was her first visit to Europe.” Moreover, in the “Notes on Contributors” of that issue, she was presented as follows: “Muriel Rukeyser, who was born in 1913, is author of the well-received Theory of Flight, a first selection of verse published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. We took occasion of her visiting England to enrol her as contributor and are happy to be introducing in December several of her newest poems to our readers.”

As a matter of fact, three of Rukeyser’s poems appeared in the Winter issue of Life and Letters To-day [28] as promised: two were those Robert Herring had already chosen, “Course” and “Burning Bush.” The third was “In Hades, Orpheus.” A politically committed poem—“Elegy”—was published in Vol. 21, No. 19, 1939. [29] It portrays the dangers of the “age of magicians,” the age of the German, Spanish, Italian dictatorships. [30] In this way, Rukeyser continued to be consistent with her personal anti-fascist choice and with the ideological attitude of the London journal.

7. “Women and poets see the truth arrive / Women and poets believe and resist forever”

The Spanish Civil War was a crucible for Rukeyser, and from that “moment of proof” she was at the center of an intense network of political-literary initiatives, as is evident from the letters of her correspondents. From the American Student Union of New York she received a letter dated 18 September 1936, saying:

Could you find time before next Friday to rush me a piece on Spain for the first issue of the ADVOCATE? I just noticed that you were back and I’m desperately anxious to get something which will not be merely an editorial or a statement that we are for the loyalists, however worthy the thought.
You are probably harried and overburdened and therefore I set no maximum or minimum of length—I do want at least an impression and a suggestion of what is happening to the people of Spain.

From the League of American Writers, and more precisely from its executive secretary, Ellen Blake, she received the following message, dated 5 November 1936:

I am sorry for the delay—we have been having some trouble finding a hall.
The meeting is to be held on November 9th, 8:15 p.m., Irving Plaza, 15 Irving Place.
Sherwood Anderson will be chairman. Professor Julian Moreno Lacalle will give the historical background of the struggle; you [and] Eugene Schachner… will give eyewitness accounts. Malcolm Cowley will talk about the part English and French writers have played in the fight.
I could not find out whether any of the others had been in Catalonia. I do know that Schachner saw some of the fighting around Madrid and in the Guadarrama mountains.
The length of your talk should be approximately 15 minutes.
Would it be possible for you to get to the hall at 8 p.m.? Sherwood Anderson will be there at that time to meet the speakers.

“Harried and overburdened,” Rukeyser would “rush a piece” to those who “desperately” wanted to know the truth about what was “happening to the people of Spain.” She would participate in the meeting, chaired by Sherwood Anderson, and give a speech as a witness of what she had seen at the outbreak of the Spanish War. In this way, she would confirm her belief in the need for social concern on the part of the writers, and in the existence of relations between different domains of knowledge as well as between different experiential realities.

8. “Through acts, through poems, / through our closeness— / whatever links us in our variousness”

Rukeyser did more within the context of her lifelong commitment to a poetry grounded in historical particularity. In the Berg Collection, I found a booklet—published in 1938 by the “Writers and Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy” of New York—containing a version of “Mediterranean” [31] that is slightly different from the original one, printed in New Masses in 1937. The front cover presents one of the etchings entitled “Los Desastres de la Guerra” by Francisco Goya. [32] On the back cover, the following appeal for funds is printed under the meaningful title Today in Spain: “Eight American hospitals have been established by the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. One hundred and thirteen surgeons, nurses and ambulance drivers, with fifty two ambulances and tons of medical equipment are saving hundreds of lives daily. What you contribute today, will receive the heartfelt thanks of a heroic people.” [33]

Even in this new version, surely written on purpose to contribute to the appeal in favor of the heroic Spanish people, “Mediterranean” remains Rukeyser’s major poem about her experience in Spain, and is a concrete affirmation of her conception of poetic responsibility and poetry as witness. It is an answer to the question which is posed in the poem itself: “Where is the place for poetry?”

“Mediterranean” was much praised when it was issued. Horace Gregory previously described the poem “Your book on Spain,” in the letter he wrote Muriel immediately after reading her typescript:

This is just a line not a letter: the poem is beautiful and fine. It is actually your book on Spain as I had hoped to see it: there it is as only you could write it…. I want to see it in the New Masses (where it sh’d appear) showing people how to write about Spain. I’m really delighted by it; it always cheers me up to read good poetry.

Since Gregory plays a pivotal role in introducing Rukeyser to European intellectuals, his correspondence with her deserves some attention. There are passages in his letters in which he addresses her with such intimacy that the text is almost transformed into a conversation, an unconventional, insistent assertion of connection. [34] Gregory would tell her what to visit in London, and would ask her opinion about his latest poems. He would put her in touch with T. S. Eliot; he would speak about politics and the heat in New York. Worth quoting here is his letter [35] dated 3 July 1936, reminiscent of the letter written by Bryher on the same day (examined earlier):

Dearest Muriel
It’s grand to think of you in St James’s Park…. And I would even suggest the commonplace tourist stunt of seeing the Tower, if only to see the ravens, the only creatures in the place who seem authentic ….
And I hope you visit Charing Cross where Keats used to make appointments with the Hunt circle of friends, but is now a row of second hand bookstalls and fairy eating houses, coffee shops behind the theatrical district….
Meanwhile I’m feeling slightly better: and the reason is the enclosed new poem, which has grown indirectly out of the play….
Do let me know what you think of it and all our love,
I dropped a note to Eliot about you this morning.

It is curious how both Bryher and Gregory [36] wrote letters to Rukeyser, on the same day, commenting on some peculiar aspects of London, suggesting places to visit and which links to establish. Both of them hoped that Rukeyser would meet Dorothy Richardson—but from Richardson herself, writing to Bryher on August 1936, we learn: “we missed, by the way, Muriel Rukeyser, who, when we came back from Essex, had left town.” [37] In a letter dated November 1936, Richardson gave John Cowper Powys more details: “Horace Gregory introduced one Muriel Rukeyser, fresh from Vassar, poet, airwoman & the most vital woman in young America. We waited trembling, &, when this portent wrote, were away staying with friends. Before we returned, she had gone to Spain. So we never saw her.” [38]

Bryher and Gregory are linked to Rukeyser even in Richardson’s correspondence. And the American poet—“placed” or “displaced,” in New York, in London or in Barcelona—appears always at the crossroads of a rich cultural world. She becomes the intersection of a number of different relations, a center of exchanges, as we can realize from a short message H. D. sends her:

Dear M. R.
It was kind of you to write me so understandingly. Yes… I have been very busy. One excuse for not having returned your books sooner …. The other is that I lent the volume [Theory of Flight] to people whom I thought would enjoy it… and even, in a way, be useful. The same with the typed poems …. With best thoughts,
H. D.
A volume of the poems has been ordered for me!

The letter is undated (on top of it we find only the abbreviation “Thurs.”), but is to be assigned to the weeks Rukeyser spent in London before leaving for Spain. It is handwritten on a very light blue sheet of paper—almost transparent, like her words. The same may be said of a letter written on a “Monday”, that starts with a formal “Dear Miss Rukeyser” (and not with the initials), and ends with a friendly “A bientôt”:

I only just now hear from Robert H. [Herring], he wants to take us to the Ballet and dinner, Friday. I hope this suits you. Will you come here soon after 6, so we can have a talk before he comes in, about 7?
I have read your book [Theory of Flight]; it is truly exciting in every sense and makes me feel very provincial and back waterish, get all the same, at one & at home in your atmosphere! I did enjoy seeing you. I have written Bryher as she is a great fan of yours and she may want you to meet friends of hers here.

Epistolary connections, social links, ideal knots, elective affinities. In that Summer of 1936, different representatives of modernism were “net-working” in London.

9. “When this portent wrote….”

If one follows the threads connecting Rukeyser to her correspondents, and reads the letters kept at the Berg Collection, one after the other as a continuum, one has the impression of reading a hypertextual epistolary novel where nothing is fictitious. Real are the participants—the members of the literary community—as well as the ideas, the events, the artworks which they present, which they explore, for which they take risks. Real are “those men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances.” Real and brave—engaged in politics, engaged in denouncing social crises, engaged in literary debates—they set up multifaceted signals, giving voice to “the unseen and unborn.”

In this epistolary novel, Rukeyser’s portrait emerges vividly. And not only her portrait, but the picture of an age. We do not have her letters and can only guess what her thoughts, feelings, concerns, joyful reactions were like. We can imagine how she answered and reacted to a praise or an attack, to the refusal of a sonnet, or to the request of series of poems for publication; how she responded to the “signs” that confirmed her achievements, as well as to the veiled or transparent “signs” that left only scars [39]; to the “signs” that testified to her being a “mediator” of culture.

Weaving this web of her correspondents’ words (from the most formal to the most confidential letters), we get a sense of the power of her personality, her charm, her humor, her generosity; and we understand how Rukeyser lived on paper, continually exploring and elaborating her key themes of connection and growth, since she believed in growth through connections.

One of the earliest steps in this direction was, I think, the founding of the little magazine Housatonic, on which new details are offered by two “buried” papers of the Berg Collection The first is a circular letter announcing the publication of Housatonic and promoting subscriptions to it:


This is a new magazine for and about New England.

Its purpose is to focus the cultural and economic trends in New England
life. It will include poems and short stories and articles on the arts and
industries, people and places of this section of the country. Briefly, we are
trying to define the New England of today as it has evolved from the past in
order to see more clearly its promise for the future.

The editors of Housatonic are asking subscriptions from all who love the
special artistic background of New England, who are interested in the
changing occupations of its people, and who are looking to it to carry on the
pioneer tradition.

Housatonic is published at Roxbury, Connecticut, by four Vassar students,
members of the editorial boards of the college literary magazine and newspaper,
Eunice Clark, Eleanor Clark, Muriel Rukeyser, with Denise Dryden as Business

The price is $1.50 for four issues of Housatonic, published semi-monthly
beginning July 15th.

The second “buried” paper is the copy of an ad for New Masses which is accompanied by a letter dated 15 July 1932, signed by its business manager, Frances Strauss, that reads as follows: “Dear Muriel, here is a copy for our ad to appear in your honorable journal. I’m anxious to have a look at your first issue. Thanks for giving us a break in New England.” Rukeyser’s “honorable journal” was, obviously, Housatonic.

The ad presented the following persuasive opening:

50,000 WORKERS
and intellectuals in America, organized and functioning in revolutionary cultural
organizations in all sections of the country, have as their spokesman, the

(American Monthly of Revolutionary Art and Literature)

Contributors: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Michael
Gold, Whittaker Chambers, Sam Ornitz, Langston Hughes
and a talented young group of writers from the mills, mines and factories and
colleges contribute regularly in stories, articles, poems, reviews.

I want to draw attention to two meaningful aspects of Rukeyser’s connections and growth through connections. In offering to advertise New Masses, she meant to establish a significant link and make a precise choice in the literary-political field. In launching her little magazine in the form we have seen above, she showed the wide range of topics that would be covered by a journal published by four women, who would join political, social, artistic discourses in the same “housatonic” “locality.”

We do not know what Rukeyser meant to imply by coining that semantically complex name/adjective as the title of her magazine. I wonder whether she intended to convey several connected ideas, even contradictory, within the same term. Was it a homemade journal? Was the verb atone doing something there? and the adjective atonic, with its double meaning? Was that title just a modernist quirk, where the two terms “house” and “tonic” were yoked by “&”? Was Rukeyser starting to draw interdisciplinary metaphors—as she would be doing in her poetry—from the physics of Willard Gibbs, from the explorations of Elizabethan navigator and naturalist Thomas Hariot, from Native American rituals?

As an open window watching on the culture of modernity beyond boundaries of disciplines, genres and genders, that magazine gave rise to several expectations. New Masses defined it an “honorable journal,” and John Wheelwright, clearly seeing in Housatonic a promising “signal” and a “meeting place,” expressed his approval, by writing a letter dated August 18, 1932:

Thank you for sending me Housatonic, and for asking me to contribute to it. I enclose a poem in five divisions of which you can use some or all, or none as you see fit. Naturally, I should like to see all of it printed and your large pages would seem to make this possible…
New England has longly needed a magazine of its own, and my only regret is that you seem to plan only four numbers.

Rukeyser really believed in what she was doing, as far as Housatonic is concerned. She wrote Pound a letter [40] in which, aged only eighteen, she was able to communicate quite a lot about herself and about her addressee, both implicitly and explicitly:

Dear Ezra Pound,
… you might say something to us—for us… but, magazine article or not, I’d rather know what you were thinking about our sort of thing…. It’s a place-magazine that speaks about New England….
Officially, I should be asking you what from your point of vantage, you see happening to New England as the nucleus breaks. Writing for myself I am wanting to write to you, or listen to your talk, after the refractions of books like Margaret Anderson’s and Lincoln Steffen’s—and your own.
Our attack is from the place-poem, place-magazine side, after the person-poem, person-novel and that all facing the avenue of group-works of one or another sort. Of course the validity of that is questionable. I came into the magazine as somebody who’s been for my eighteen years in New York and subject to that education, wanting to see any one place whole. I wish you would say something about that. And about not wanting to be a short-sighted, long-winded romantic, even about writing, even about inflated causes.
Words like that are falling leaves turning underfoot.—I would like it if you’d answer—that simply.
Muriel Rukeyser

In a peculiar mixture of arrogant and deferential tones, Rukeyser showed she was aware of the multiple aspects of modernism, she was conscious that she could be a networking “link,” while her little magazine could be a networking “place” / “locality” where Pound and other “subjects” could meet.

10. “For our time depends not on single points of knowledge but on clusters and combinations”

While writing this essay I have often felt tempted to give a graphic image of Rukeyser’s personal connections and immaterial relations. If only I could draw, I would copy (and magnify) Le Miroir Vivant that Magritte painted in 1928 (and that I have recently seen in Rome), in order to make the reader enjoy the colorful and significant clusters of relations that come out through the cross-lacing of the shattered fragments that belonged to Muriel Rukeyser. I would substitute the terms that Magritte uses in his oil on canvas, and I would first “enter” Housatonic in one of his jagged white/yellow clouds, New Masses in another, and then Poetry, and modern/modernism, and leftist, and revolutionary, and Bryher, and the Spanish War, and Elizabeth Bishop, and Horace Gregory, and Marya Zaturenska, and American Prefaces, and H. D., Robert Herring, Ezra Pound, Klaus Mann, William C. Williams. I would place fascism and nazism together in one of his black clouds. Then, I would insert all sorts of keywords (immaterial relationships) of my research, and more names (personal connections)—chosen among those of Rukeyser’s correspondents—into the clouds, in order to show their dynamic interaction.

Going on with our epistolary novel—for which we can now use my “copy” of Le Miroir Vivant, as an ideal cover [41]—I will quote stretches of letters signed by different senders, that seem quite meaningful for what they reveal about the literary debate that took place in these “localities” and about Rukeyser being both the object and the subject of that debate.

We know that no discourse is neutral, in the sense that, on the emotional gradient, it expresses different degrees of vicinity or distance towards the addressee and towards the object of discourse. Some of Rukeyser’s correspondents, like Horace Gregory, Theodore C. Wilson and Louis Untermeyer—who had a permanent dialogue and exchange with her—would manifest their “vicinity” towards their addressee under different forms. In a letter dated 24 April 1936, Untermeyer, resorting to irony and to metaphoric images, lent his discourse semantically and visually rich resources, in order to convey the importance of their connection and the pleasure of spending some time together in the near future:

It was good to leave the feverish atmosphere of the Algonquin bar with its blue nudes and hyper-educated drunks (to say nothing of the haughty Greek god who threw out anyone who spoke above a whisper)—it was good, I say, to… come back to the relative quiet of a lawyer-wife and two small boys recovering from measles. It was here that I found you, so to speak, all over my desk: Your letter; a note about you from the lecturing lady to whom I had sent your book; thanks from Allene Tallmey of Vogue; and two references to you in my columns in the just-published Mercury.
It seems unlikely that I’ll get back to New York in May. There are two lectures to be delivered… then I must open the farm in the Adirondacks…. Do come anytime after June 1st and before Christmas. Borrow a car. Hitch-hike. Come naked on roller-skates. Paddle your own canoe. Swim, volplane, surf-ride, trek, bicycle, or drive an engine. We’ll meet you in the village—we being two miles in the country—or ask any garage-mechanic, bell-boy, or sheriff. But come. Come with the Gregorys. Come alone. But come.
Get the idea?

Untermeyer’s messages always reproduce the rhythms of spoken discourse, and his speech seems to be interrupted and resumed continuously, sometimes with the help of questions that do not expect any answer, but only mean to prolong or extend the pleasure of being together, on paper.

Some of the letters that Rukeyser received from Horace Gregory were rich in descriptions and evaluations of episodes concerning the political-literary debate of the time, as the one he wrote from Ireland in 1934, [42] which concludes with a note of sincere admiration toward his addressee [43]:

Now, POETRY is actually the only magazine published in America that isn’t hog-tied by stupid gang warfare. HM [Harriet Monroe] respects an honest fight, and God knows, even though many of her prejudices and ideas of what “poetry” is are often wall-eyed, she is the sort of editor who believes that, whenever work is interesting it should be published. Much of what she publishes runs counter to her prejudices…. I see in this present row a hopelessly bad poet trying to make a public issue out of personal resentment; I see HM, an old Tory, finding an excuse to air her political convictions by a blanket attack on Communism, and of course, praising a worthless book…. I hope I haven’t bored you with these platitudes. I could go on all night, because I want you, with the particular talents or gifts you have, to understand my position. You’re among the very few for whom I’d take the trouble to open up at all.

Ted Wilson, after opening his letter dated 25 October 1935 with “I was very glad to hear from you that we may use your poem in the December issue,” and after speaking of his own poetry, would entertain Rukeyser by making fun of some “characters” of the time, while revealing his political opinion and consequent “detachment” from Ezra Pound:

American Prefaces

A Journal of Critical and Imaginative Writing
University Hall

.… I should not want to see the correspondence of Pauline Stephens [44] and Ezra Pound, the more so that they are, as you say, now in the “explosive period.” Pound himself is none too steady mentally these days, and P.S. is a real weirdie. I think she has a certain kind of violent, twisted talent for satire—as evidenced in her poem in Westminster anth., The Unholy Three, which seemed to me very powerful in its way—but she is too hectic a person to have any dealings with personally, for me at any rate. I called on her last winter in N.Y.C. and since then have been deluged with letters, books, etc. I finally told her (in desperation) that I was ill and could not reply to letters any longer. So she continued to write to comfort me in my extremity!…. Ezra and I have reached the parting of the ways for good. My reply to his book on Mussolini brought on the end which came this  fall amid a torrent of abuse, shrieks, and stuttering typography. “You red bastard, you understand nothing like ’em ALL” sez [sic] Ez. Marianne Moore, who is invariably poised and able to cope with any occurrence by her wit, said to me after seeing Ezra’s recent epistles to me, “Ezra Pound has the mechanics of a somewhat rare firearm.”

In the literary debate taking place in our epistolary novel, Rukeyser happens to be both the object and the subject of that debate. The two letters Babette Deutsch writes while preparing her book, entitled This Modern Poetry, illustrate my point. The first, dated 20 June 1935, recites:

I have in preparation a book entitled THIS MODERN POETRY, which Norton is to publish in the fall, and I wonder whether you would care to send me about half a dozen of your poems—or more if you like—for consideration in connection with what I have to say about the younger moderns. My book is not an anthology, but a work of criticism. As it goes to press shortly I should appreciate an immediate response.

In the second letter, dated 9 July 1935, Deutsch states: “The ms. [of your poems] came to me so late that I do not know whether I shall be able to include anything in my text, and may be reduced to a mere mention of your work without quotation. But if I can quote, will you be so good enough to give me your permission to do so?” [45]

Some of these letters—besides being a source of historical insight into modernist culture, and besides giving a truthful portrait of Rukeyser’s strength, wit, honesty, courage, talent—help discover some clues of her poems, and help define their meanings. Moreover, they let us understand how events initially external to the writer’s personal life became absorbed and then expressed by her reportage and/or by her poetic dialectic; as in the case of the “event” of Gauley Bridge that “became” a poem. When “The Book of the Dead” was issued, Ted Wilson, clearly admiring the continuity that existed between Rukeyser’s artistic creativity and her social commitment, disclosed his opinion in a long letter, dated 22 March 1938, of which I quote only a fragment:

The “Book of the Dead” is, I think, far and away the best thing you’ve done—the whole thing comes through clearly, sharply, with just the right emphasis at the crucial points, making its point firmly and succinctly and without any waving of arms or forced optimistic conclusion, but for that very reason all the more impressive it seems to me. You have gone an immense way since Theory of Flight—there is no blurring of outline, no immaturity in the conception or handling here…. The “Book of the Dead” is really an achievement.

The poem was “really an achievement” because it “extended the document.” [46] As a contemporary critic has recently made clear, Rukeyser responded to the Gauley Bridge tragedy “with a fierce assertion of modernization’s potential both to empower workers and to inspire a specifically modernist poetry.” [47] “The Book of the Dead” revealed that she “imagined modernist poetry as a productive dynamic force capable of forging connections, connections that could rescue the casualties of Gauley Bridge from oblivion and charge the event with meaning.” [48]

After all, some years later, in The Life of Poetry, [49] she would theorize that the defining feature of modernism across disciplines is an emphasis on relationship, and in the course of an interview, she would make clear how she wished “to live in relationships that are all moving but that have their own stability, a kind of musical stability, a spiritual stability.” [50]



[1] See Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Barcelona, 1936—A ‘moment of proof’ for Muriel Rukeyser,” in Angela Vistarchi, editor, The City as Text. Atti del X Convegno dell’Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord-Americani, Sassari, Chiarella, 1990, pp.387-96; “Muriel Rukeyser, ‘held among wars,’” in Mario Corona e Giuseppe Lombardo, editors, Methodologies of Gender. Atti dell’XI Convegno dell’Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord-Americani, Roma, Herder, 1993, pp.505-13; “Muriel Rukeyser, ‘dalle trincee della poesia,’” in Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, Arturo Colombo and Antonio Pasinato,editors, La guerra civile spagnola tra politica e letteratura, Firenze, Shakespeare & Company, 1995, pp.51-62; “Muriel Rukeyser e Käthe Kollwitz: un confronto di segni,” in Liana Borghi and Rita Svandrlik, editors, S/oggetti immaginari, Urbino, QuattroVenti, 1996, pp.165-79; “Muriel Rukeyser e la lezione spagnola del 1936,” Nuova Antologia, 2197, 1996, pp.300-310.
[2] Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, Ashfield, MA, Paris Press, 1996, p. 85. (The Life of Poetry, a collection of essays and lectures, was originally published by A. A. Win of New York in 1949).
[3] See my essay, “Barcelona, 1936—A ‘moment of proof’ for Muriel Rukeyser” and, in particular, what I wrote on some lines of “Mediterranean” (p. 392): “…the lines 122-131, with a ritualistically threefold iteration of a protasis, a prolonged anacoluthon and no apodosis, imply severe, although oblique, criticism of the poets who have retreated to an ‘ivory tower’: ‘If we had not seen fighting, / if we had not looked there / the plane flew low / the plastic ripped by shots / the peasant’s house / if we had stayed in our world / between the table and the desk / between the town and the suburb / slowly disintegration / male and female.’ The next verse paragraph, clearly shaped on a form of isocolon (it has both a parallel rhythmical structure and a parallel argumentative system), emphasizes the contrast between the ‘slow disintegration’ of the poets who have chosen a secluded life in their cities (line 132) and the ‘quick recognition’ of Rukeyser (line 142), that is her acceptance and acknowledgement of the role played by Barcelona in her quest for self-definition.”
Moreover, in a footnote of the same essay (p. 395), I gave this piece of information: “The phrase ‘ivory tower’ was used in the questionnaire which was submitted to the British writers by the Association of Writers for Intellectual Liberty in England. The questionnaire began with the following statement: ‘It is clear to many of us throughout the whole world that now, as certainly never before, we are determined or compelled to take sides. The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do.’ Authors were asked to answer two questions: ‘Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the people of Republican Spain?’, ‘Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?’ The Left Review, anxious to show that support for the Loyalists was strong among writers, published the pamphlet Authors Take Sides (1937), in which 127 writers indicated they favored the Spanish Republicans; sixteen others were neutral, and only five were pro-Franco. Approximately similar results were obtained from the questionnaire submitted to American writers. A perfect example of the ‘ivory tower’ poet was T. S. Eliot, who declared that the ‘cause’ was just, but a few writers should remain isolated and aloof from the group effort. He, of course, was one of the ‘aloof’ poets.”
On Nancy Cunard and the pamphlet Authors Take Sides, see Renata Morresi, “The Question for Authors Take Sides in the Spanish Civil War.” Networking Women/Reti di donne, online, October 2, 2002.
[4] Muriel Rukeyser, Collected Poems, New York, McGraw-Hill,1978, pp. 450-51.
[5] See http://reti.unimc.it/ . Permission to quote all this material, in our web site and in the present article, was obtained from Muriel’s son, as copyright holder (fax and e-mail dated 21 March 2002 signed by Mr. William L. Rukeyser), and from the “Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public, Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations,” as the owner of the physical rights (letters—dated March 27, October 17, and December 17, 2002—signed by Mr. Wayne Furman of the Office of Special Collections). As far as H. D.’s letters are concerned, permission was obtained from “New Directions Publishing Corporation” (Copyright 2003 by the Schaffner Family Foundation) and from the “Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public, Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations”, as the owner of the physical rights.
[6] Rukeyser has repeated these concepts several times, but most clearly in the Introduction to her Collected Poems (as regards the idea of “extending the document”) and in The Life of Poetry, p. XI: “The relations of poetry are, for our period, very close to the relations of science. It is not a matter of using the results of science, but of seeing that there is a meeting-place between all the kinds of imagination. Poetry can provide that meeting-place.
I have attempted to suggest a dynamics of poetry, showing that a poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water. Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions. It appears to me that to accept poetry in these meanings would make it possible for people to use it as an “exercise,” an enjoyment of the possibility of dealing with the meanings in the world and in their lives.”
[7] I hope I shall be able to find out whether it was ever published.
[8] I am here quoting an expression that Rukeyser used in a letter she wrote to Albert Einstein, on September 1st, 1942, that deals with the book she was going to publish on Willard Gibbs.
[9] On the issue, see also Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Women and Scottsboro”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 26, 2002; Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Scottsboro Boys”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 26, 2002; Renata Morresi, “Macpherson on the Scottsboro Case”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 20, 2002; Marina Camboni, “Bryher to H. D., on Macpherson and the Scottsboro Boys”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 25, 2002.
[10] For more details, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Käthe Kollwitz”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, April 19, 2002; Rita Svandrlik, “Kunst und Literatur”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, June 6, 2002; Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “The Mothers”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 26, 2002.
[11] Rukeyser mentions Kollwitz’ art in The Life of Poetry (pp. 136-37), by referring to “the Kollwitz of the unforgetting eyes”, and “the starving children of Käthe Kollwitz.”
[12] Many years later, these notes would “become” a poem—that is a “meeting place”—entitled “Käthe Kollwitz” (Collected Poems, pp. 479–84). It is the poem (that is the culmination of Rukeyser’s prolonged study of Kollwitz’ art) which starts with the lines: “Held between wars / my lifetime / among wars, the big hands of the world of death / my lifetime listens to yours,” and that presents the famous epiphanic couplet “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” On the issue, see my essay “Muriel Rukeyser e Käthe Kollwitz: un confronto di segni,” where I draw a comparison between Rukeyser’s poetic “signs” and Käthe Kollwitz’ graphic “signs.”
[13] It contained poems that were tied to the apolitical and highly aesthetic tradition of “high modernism” along with politically committed poems. See, below, Bryher’s and H. D.’s comments on this book.
[14] Muriel Rukeyser, Out of Silence. Selected poems, Kate Daniels, editor, Evanston, Illinois, Triquarterly Books, p. XI.
[15] For more details, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Barcelona, 1936”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 20, 2002.
[16] Life and Letters To-day, Vol. 15, No. 5, 1936, p.33.
[17] Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, p. 3.
[18] See my essay “Barcelona, 1936—A ‘moment of proof’ for Muriel Rukeyser.”
[19] Most interesting for our research are his letters dated January 8, June 25, July 10, July 15, September 4, 1936, a postcard from Prague, dated August 8, 1936, with a post scriptum from Bryher, and an undated letter that—thanks to internal evidence—may be assigned to the same period of time. Some of his letters (and the postcard) are addressed to “Miss Muriel Rukeyser, 325, West End Avenue—New York CITY,” some are addressed to “Miss Rukeyser, Queen Anne’s Mansions, St. James’s Park, S. W. 1.”
From a letter written by Louis Untermeyer to Rukeyser, on June 8, we understand that she left the United States soon after that date. He wished her: “Bon voyage, Glückliche Reise, Godspeed, and Happy Landing”, added some ironical comments (“The Duchess of Richmond is a steady old tub; the journey by way of Canada has less sea sickness per square mile—or square meal—and you will probably get used to the English language on the way over”) and a “networking” remark: “Send me a postal card from the Tower, and if you would like to meet Sassoon drop him a card and tell him I said so.”
[11] For more details, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Bryher to Muriel Rukeyser”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 20, 2002.
See, below, Horace Gregory’s letter also dated July 3rd, 1936.
[21] See Francesca De Ruggieri, “Villa Kenwin”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, January 24, 2003.
[22] Compare this statement to what H. D. writes in one of her letters quoted below.
[23] Muriel Rukeyser, Collected Poems, p.3.
[24] See, above, footnote 19.
[25] As Herring defined it, in his postcard from Prague, dated August 8, 1936.
[26] See also Michela Menghini, “Editorial—Life and Letters To-day, Autumn 1936.” Networking Women/Reti di donne, June 30, 2002; Renata Morresi, “Contents – Life and Letters To-day, Autumn 1936”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, June 30, 2002.
[27] Italics are mine.
[28] Life and Letters To-day, Vol. 15, No. 6, 1936, pp.72-74.
[29] Op. cit., pp.46-48.
[30] See my essay “Muriel Rukeyser, ‘held among wars.’”
[31] See Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Mediterranean”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 20, 2002.
[32] The Metropolitan Museum of  Art owns the complete set of 80 etchings, dated 1810-1823.
[33] That reminds us of Carlo Rosselli’s motto: “Oggi in Spagna. Domani in Italia.”
[34] On Rukeyser’s close link with the Gregorys (Horace and his wife, Marya Zaturenska) I have recently read some interesting pages in The Diaries of Marya Zaturenska, 1938-1944, edited by Mary Beth Hinton, with an introduction and biographical notes by their son, Patrick Gregory, published by the Syracuse University Press (2002).
[35] For more details, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Horace to Muriel”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 20, 2002.
[36] On the relationship between Bryher and the Gregorys, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “The House on Jefferson Street. A Cycle of Memories”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 23, 2002.
[37] Dorothy Richardson, Windows on Modernism. Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson, Gloria. G. Fromm, editor, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1995, p.317.
[38] Op. cit., p.324.
[39] In August 1934 the editors of Partisan Review refused one of her poems by saying: “Sorry we can’t use “City of Monuments.” The references are too obscure at times. You have here some very good lines coupled with what appears to us absolutely private allusions and backgrounds. This sort of thing, so common in the preceding decade, is out as far as we are concerned.”
This is an example of how Marxist journals, especially the Partisan Review, ostracized Rukeyser for her political inconsistencies as a leftist intellectual and probably used obscurity as a pretext to refuse her poems.
[40] Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (http://highway49.library.yale.edu/). For more details on this letter see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Muriel Rukeyser to Ezra Pound”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 26, 2002.
[41] See “Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani’s Living Mirror”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, October 20, 2002.
[42] As a matter of fact, this letter is simply dated “August 10.” One can evince the year from what Dorothy Richardson writes, on September 1934, to John Cowper Powys (Dorothy Richardson, op. cit., pp. 270-71): “We have lately been several times visited by the Horace Gregorys, from New York. Do you by chance know these two courageous little poets? Hard up & both more or less ill, but determined to visit England …. Not content with this much daring, they went to Ireland … on a tramp steamer only to be horrified by the general desolation & abject poverty. The sad strange pilgrimage was brightened by … a rather curious & wonderful meeting with W. B. Yeats .… We liked, & admired, Gregory enormously, not only for his triumph over a truly horrible sort of paralysis—he can hardly walk— …. You should read his book on Lawrence (if you don’t yet know it) I wait for her poems, just now due in book form, to know a little more of her. She is an American-born Russian, remote behind an air of frank communicativeness, very weary & fragile.”
[43] For more details on this letter, see Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani, “Horace Gregory to Muriel Rukeyser”. Networking Women/Reti di donne, March 20, 2002.
[44] In the Berg Collection, I found some letters from Pauline Stephens to Rukeyser, all dated September and October 1935. The one dated September 21 is accompanied by her holograph poem “Smoke,” dedicated to Muriel. The one dated October 10 recites as follows: “When is your book of poetry to be published and issued … as I wish to purchase a copy …. I want to keep in touch with the more modern thought, believing that the moderns, no matter what their special trend of thought, are in kinship with one and other, way above the backbiting conservatives … .” In the New York Public Library I found three small volumes of poems by Pauline Stephens, published respectively in 1934 (36 pages), 1936 (32 pages), 1939 (20 pages). The last, entitled Columella; a Peace Offering contains the following poems: “Swastika” (to Chancellor Adolf Hitler), “The Fasces” (to Premier Benito Mussolini) and “España” (to General Francisco Franco).
[45] In This Modern Poetry (London, Faber and Faber, 1936, pp. 252-53), Deutsch’s reference to Rukeyser was eventually “reduced to a mere mention” of her work, “without quotation,” as we can read in the following stretch: “Gregory realizes, as sensitive members of his generation must, that a new conflict is in preparation, and that its issue is doubtful. But he does not despair .… His recent poetry proves that he can still draw courage from the American past. It shows him, above this mad, stricken era, leaning forward to hail a new Atlantis. Nor is he alone in this brave hope.
Poets are turning away from the personal problem, the private vision, to a more inclusive if not a more profound theme …. Not yet bound by any accepted tradition, sharply aware of their misshapen world, they are better able than their seniors to respond vigorously and immediately to the needs of the moment. Muriel Rukeyser, while indebted to Gregory and also to the younger British poets, seems to be developing a strong authentic voice.”
[46] See above, footnote No. 6.
[47] Stephanie Hartman, “All Systems Go: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” and the Reinvention of Modernist Poetics”, in Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman, editors, How shall we tell each other of the poet?, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1999, p.209.
[48] Ibidem.
[49] Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, pp. 11-12.
[50] Charles F. Madden, editor, Talks with Authors, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, p.143.


BIO: Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani is full professor of English at the University of Florence, Faculty of Political Science. She has published books and essays on the language of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, on the English orthography of the sixteenth century, on the English lexicography of the seventeenth century, as well as on English and American literature. Her articles on G. Eliot, B. Disraeli, D. Abse, S. Bellow, B. Malamud, l. B. Singer, H. Miller, M. Rukeyser, A. Ostriker have appeared in a variety of journals. Recent books of which she is the author or editor include Guida alla Costituzione degli Stati Uniti d’America (1985; 1999, 4th edition), La guerra civile spagnola tra politica e letteratura (1995) and Il Federalista (1997). Her most recent essays are the following: “Personal diagnosis and social diagnosis ‘attorno a questo corpo dalle mille paludi’” (Textus, XIII, 1, 2000), “The ethics of organ donation: texts and contexts of the ‘transplant community’”(Textus, XIV, 2, 2001), “Ri-scritture e re-visioni bibliche di Alicia Ostriker” (in O. De Zordo, F. Fantaccini, editors, Le riscritture del postmoderno. Percorsi angloamericani, 2002).

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