The life of politics: the compositional history of The Life of Poetry and Muriel Rukeyser’s changing appraisal of emotion and belief

Eric Keenaghan
  • Textual Practice, June 2018, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/0950236x.2018.1477109

Muriel Rukeyser's Life of Poetry and the relationship between poetry, emotion, and politics

What is it about?

Written and published in 1949, Muriel Rukeyser’s poetics treatise The Life of Poetry was initially developed between 1940 and 1948 as invited lecture series and courses. This period of composition, during a historical span when the United States moved from prewar into wartime and then postwar periods, offers an opportunity to trace how Rukeyser’s politicized poetics shifted in response to changing social and political conditions. Approaching the book bibliographically, through the lectures’ extant unpublished scripts and drafts, her reading notes, and other archival sources, illuminates how Rukeyser’s increasing emphasis on emotion and psychology, read against her de-emphasis of belief, inflected her leftism and political vision of peace during a supposed interregnum in American progressivism.

Why is it important?

No previous studies of the bibliographic and compositional history of The Life of Poetry exist. Consequently, there is a tendency to read Muriel Rukeyser's book as offering an ahistorical, and possibly apolitical, theory about poetry. Quite the opposite was the case, however. Her book actually is a studied response to the changing domestic cultural and political climate before and after the United States' entry into the Second World War. Recovering The Life of Poetry's bibliographic context also helps broaden our understanding of modernist leftism, and of how leftist authors like Rukeyser drew on multiple, often unexpected sources to develop their own understandings of the literature's political and social significances.

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The following have contributed to this page: Eric Keenaghan