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Pollak, Vivian: "Muriel Rukeyser, Emily Dickinson, and Visionary Citizenship"

Muriel Rukeyser, Emily Dickinson, and Visionary Citizenship

Vivian Pollak, Washington University

What is it to be a visionary citizen? I will begin this talk with a brief discussion of Rukeyser’s representations of Dickinson in her 1949 manifesto, The Life of Poetry, in which Dickinson as woman poet exemplifies the problem of cultural waste. Although recent understandings of Dickinson's project have gone some distance toward rationalizing the range of her refusals, in Rukeyser’s analysis Dickinson functions primarily as a minoritized writer whose work was withheld from publication because of her family’s feuds. Championing the right of the public to know, Rukeyser describes the 1945 volume Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson as perhaps “her finest book.” Therefore, I was surprised to discover that when Rukeyser read poems for a Library of Congress recording in 1959, she took none of them from this collection, nor from the then authoritative Variorum edited by Thomas H. Johnson (1955). Rather, she read the poems as printed in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s 1924 Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. (Bianchi was not the first to print them, but it is unlikely that Rukeyser had access to the rare 1890s books edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in which they first appeared.)

In working through this material, I found Sharon Olds’s description of her interaction with Rukeyser helpful, as it touches on issues of oral presentation and the construction of effective poem sequences. In “A Student’s Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser” (Special Issue on Muriel Rukeyser of Poetry East 16/17, 1985), she explains that Rukeyser urged her to think in terms of “a sequence of emotion, a drama, a building toward.” Moreover, Olds responded to Rukeyser’s voice as follows: “It had an unusually wide range of tones, and a slight vibrato. It had an amber quality, a dark gold note—it was deep, but with highlights in it when it sailed up almost girlishly, full of hope or promise.” Her voice was also “passionate,” “determined.” Of course not everyone will respond to the sounds of Rukeyser’s voice as Olds did. Time permitting, I will play excerpts from Rukeyser’s reading. There will be a handout, and I hope we can discuss the Dickinson sequence as it touches on the “visionary citizenship” theme.