December 15, 2015
MURIEL RUKEYSER (1913–80) understood poetry as a life-saving form of thought. Her abundant output of over 30 works included fifteen collections of poetry including a pioneering work of documentary poetics, Book of the Dead, about silicosis in West Virginia mines, children’s books, stage plays, and a set of biographies of figures — the scientist Willard Gibbs, the politician Wendell Wilkie, the navigator Thomas Hariot and the escape artist Harry Houdini — who allowed her to use poetic thinking as reparative interdisciplinary instrument. For Rukeyser poetry had the potential to repair the static perceptions of social thought kept in place by investments of power. She wanted to activate intellectual encounters she called “meeting places,” transforming the condition of war which she felt defined her world, into a less binary field of possibly transforming relations. Of Willard Gibbs, whose work in thermodynamics included the articulation of the phase rule, an instrument for understanding the change of states in physical chemistry, she said: “I needed a language of transformation. I needed a language of changing phase for the poem. And I needed a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.” Indeed, motion was a key part of the seeing she sought to activate in the world around her. In The Life of Poetry, she draws a kinetic venn-type diagram of the interaction between artist, audience-witness, and their shared consciousness. To the side, she writes, “This diagram is false until all the components are shown in motion.”
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s setting of Rukeyser’s poem “Gunday’s Child”
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Partisan (1904-13) and New God (1914-23) Generations.