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Muriel Rukeyser’s Meta-Poetics and the Communal Soundscape

Jane Malcolm

A person stands alone in front of an audience, holding a text and speaking in an odd voice, too regular to be conversation, too intimate and too lacking in orotundity to be a speech or a lecture, too rough and personal to be theater. The speaker is making no attempt to conceal the text. Signs of auditory effort in the audience are momentarily lost in occasional laughter, tense silences, sighs and even cries of encouragement. Sometimes the reader uses a different, more public voice and refers to what is being read, or to some other information of apparent interest. No one talks to the reader. No one proposes a second take. No one reflexively discusses the ritual itself.

–Peter Middleton1


One primary reward for the production of a reading series is the establishment of “community” – including boundaries of inclusion/exclusion and the establishment of internal hierarchies.


“Community” maybe as much as “poetry” itself, is an oft-used justification for the institution of a reading series.


The non-poetic speech in a poetry recording is often more informative than the actual poetry reading.


The non-poetic speech in a poetry recording may seem more informative than the actual poetry reading due to our methodological limitations in interpreting speech prosody.

–Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler2


Amidst crackling, shuffling, and squeaking chairs, Muriel Rukeyser, one of the relatively few women to participate in the Sir George Williams University Poetry Series, begins her 1969 performance with a prolonged moment of self-introduction that at times sounds rehearsed – we can hear verbal slips and corrections – at times, extemporaneous.3 These few minutes of self-presentation crucially shape the reading, not simply because they attempt to explain the choice of material and the context in which it should be understood. In part, the introduction is exceptional because we can listen to it in the first place. The SGWU Series organizers recorded every reading, and Rukeyser’s remarks suggest that she had internalized this unique (for its time) context and venue.4 Accordingly, her introduction directly acknowledges the fact of being (and being recorded) in a room full of actual and imaginary interlocutors, and this acknowledgment can be read as a shift from the bardic to the communal, as a radical opportunity not merely to disseminate poetry, but to create it collectively on the spot – or at the very least, to create a space in which poetry, like “sex” (as she puts it), becomes “a human activity,” something “we all do.” This shift is most legible in Rukeyser’s strategic use of pronouns, such that, from the moment she begins speaking, she refers to “us,” “our poems,” and to the “We” who engage in the “odd and rare” practice of writing poetry:

And they lie all the time about the poems to us, you know, about all of our poems they say it’s something very odd and rare, that people who do it are very odd, if a man does it, he’s sexually questionable, if a woman does it she’s sexually questionable, besides, very few people do it. And it’s all lies, you know….But the thing is it’s a human activity. We all do it. We lie about it, you know, and they lie about it to us. And thanks now to the young, the poets maybe, a few other people one could name together, maybe we don’t lie so much as we used to, maybe we don’t lie about this anymore. Maybe we don’t lie about sex, maybe we don’t lie about poetry, they seem to lie a great deal about politics instead, it seems to shift around.5

From the start, Rukeyser makes her audience complicit in the furtive, even dissembling act of poetry, an act that, like sex or politics, is implicitly communal and explicitly human. In these few sentences, Rukeyser also highlights the opposition between “We” poets, we “liars” and “they” who “lie about [poetry] to us,” who “lie a great deal about politics.” In this Us versus Them opposition, we glimpse a burgeoning language of protest that tacitly acts to rally the troops, to transform a passive audience into an active multitude. Accordingly, the poetry reading’s conventional politics – rooted in the bardic conventions of Homer’s epics, Machpherson’s Ossian mythology, Wordsworth’s tributes to the “common man,” Whitman’s universalizing subjectivity, and even Bob Dylan’s folk poetry – are upended.6 Rukeyser, rather than performing a prosthetic poetry that takes the place of history by creating, incanting, and disseminating epic – what Eric Havelock calls the bard’s “didactic purpose”7 – constructs a communal, if idiosyncratic, subjectivity amongst and between the poet and audience. Peter Middleton notes that the conventional poetry reading often skirts the line between “performance” and “conversation,” and that the poet/reader usually (and awkwardly) “makes no attempt to conceal the text.”8 Yet, as we shall see, Rukeyser makes every attempt not merely to conceal, but to exceed her text, that is, to transform the venue and the event itself into a communally conceived (para)text. Gerard Genette, in his writings on paratext, highlights precisely this process of “production” as it relates to material textuality and reception: “although we do not know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in its strongest sense: to make present” (author’s emphasis).9 Envisaging a multidirectional poetic gesture (and subject to the production values of the reading series itself), Rukeyser underscores the room’s dynamism, its inclination toward flux, agitation, and motion – in effect creating presence, while at the same time inaugurating (a) movement.

This movement – a figurative community constructed by implication – comes to life within the first two minutes of the recording, before a single poem is read. Taking for granted, for the moment, the actual poetry Rukeyser performs during this reading – an assemblage of poems whose political engagement is symptomatic of its turbulent historical context10 – Rukeyser’s peripheral language, what Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler call “non-poetic speech,” suggests an audio-textual politics that bears scrutiny.11 Camlot and Wershler rightly suggest that non-poetic speech can seem more sonically approachable, due to our “methodological limitations in interpreting [poetic] speech prosody,” and our relative comfort with informal, unstructured language.12 In the case of the Rukeyser reading/recording, this language becomes its own ideological site that allows us to examine not just the politics of the poetry reading – what Peter Middleton calls the “ritual itself”13 – but of the recording of the poetry reading, the context of the context, and the prosodic contours of each. Of course, this meta-context is available to us precisely because the SGWU reading was recorded, archived, and thus frozen in time – though Rukeyser’s peripheral language underscores the simultaneous (in)fallibility of the recording as documentary evidence: it is an alluringly historical sound-text, but our relationship to the sound recording itself is based on inference. Seduced by the idealism and wit of these opening remarks, we easily forget that our senses are being technologically groomed and that, as we listen to the information captured by the ear, we simultaneously produce and seam together uncaptured (and uncapturable) imaginary data.

Friedrich Kittler characterizes these limitations somewhat more cynically, arguing that “sound and image, voice and text [have been] reduced to surface effects” since the invention of the gramophone and the advent of the “interface.”14 Thus the consumer of sonic data, Kittler suggests, becomes blasé, no longer needing to “hallucinate meaning between lines and letters,”15 and forfeiting imagination and memory to “data flow”: “Ever since that epochal change we have been in possession of storage technologies that can record and reproduce the very time flow… And that changed the state of reality.”16 Whereas Kittler argues that technological reproducibility obviates the need and/or desire literally to read between the lines – “Once memories and dreams, the dead and ghosts, become technically reproducible, readers and writers no longer need the powers of hallucination”17 – the phonotext seems to require a critically inflected, but equally imaginary, even hallucinatory, reading/listening process. Just as we tend, in the literary context, to gravitate toward moments of aporia (à la de Man’s Allegories of Reading18), the critical listener (at Rukeyser’s behest) gravitates toward the moments in the recording that are the least concrete, the most inferred or imagined. Thus the limitations and liminal spaces that shape this documentary evidence – particularly the opening and concluding minutes – ironically are a primary source of its value as an archival and imaginary text.

In the case of the Rukeyser recording, these liminal spaces become the space of poetic and political community, which is to say that we might look to the recording as a site of sustained fellowship that gradually builds throughout the reading. Beginning, then, with Rukeyser’s crucial prefatory remarks, moving to her performance of “The Speed of Darkness” (the incendiary title poem from her 1968 collection, The Speed of Darkness, which questions the role of the poet in an era of protest, and from which most of the readings are excerpted19), and concluding, not with the end of the performance, but with the end of the recording – a mostly random cacophony of chatter, occasional laughter, and barely discernible conversation – I would like to push back against the “methodological limitations” we encounter as readers and auditors of the soundscape. In other words, in this alchemy of liminal moments and overly-intentioned ones – the negative space of silences, hesitations, and cacophonies that engages with the positive space of the poems themselves – emerge various sites of sonic community, or communal prosody, that are productions of the reading and the recording, sites of commerce between poets (widely conceived), and extra-performative sites of imagined poetry.

Approximately two minutes into the SGWU recording, Rukeyser asks a question of the audience, “apart,” as she says, “from all critical standards.” Following a snide reference to Polaroid, a “company that’s made a fortune on the premise that everybody takes a snapshot at one time or another,” she asks, “How many of you here have ever written a poem?”

In this moment of interpellation, of Rukeyser speaking beyond the curtain, we cannot know how many audience members respond in the affirmative, how many feel implicated – if this room is, in fact, like “all rooms” she’s asked it in previously, in which, by the end of the reading, nearly all of the participants answer yes (those four or five who do not approach Rukeyser after the reading to confess their poetic follies, with varying degrees of embarrassment). If, on the one hand, Rukeyser seeks to fill the room with poets by asking this question – to occupy the room with poetry, so to speak – on the other, the moment importantly transforms the audience members, as well as those of us listening to the recording, from objects to subjects, from passive receivers of poetry (a shrouded poetic code) to producers of it. In this nervous not-quite-silence, Rukeyser fills the room with poets by inviting her audience to consider its poet-animal, by construing poetry as a basic bodily function, as sex, as something utterly shared and deeply democratic. Having unearthed or exposed this community, the reading as auditory text is fundamentally altered, as we are now listening to a collective, to one mere poet in a room of poets. Audience exchange becomes audience participation, and quite apart from its welcoming effect and its idealism, the moment drastically changes how we apprehend this (now) communal soundscape, and indeed how we define the poetics and politics of audience exchange. Peter Middleton hints at this transformation when he notes that:

Audience and poet collaborate in the performance of the poem. The audience is not simply a collection of autonomous individuals whose auditions of the poem are entirely independent. During a performance the audience is formed by the event, and creates an intersubjective network, which can then become an element of the poem itself…. Both the author poet and the listening audience are performances. The audience effectively stages its own reception, allowing the poet to script its semantic adventures as participant witnesses. All this takes place beyond an individual will…. What we can do is to consider the metaperformative strategies in a particular poem read at a particular venue and speculate on the kinds of intersubjective formation that might be in the work.20

What Middleton does not address is the “particular poem” or poetry reading whose venue is imaginary, or is available to us only via sound recording. In this instance, the “particular venue” becomes the purview of the listener, the critical ear that, in the case of Rukeyser’s reading/recording, must infer or reconstruct an “intersubjective network” that is wholly unseen and mostly unheard.21 If Middleton argues for these moments of intersubjective formation and their effects on the actual poetry, the Rukeyser recording suggests that it is not merely the poetry that becomes elastic through audience participation, but the reading itself and the recording of that reading that become the poetic text.

The elastic quality of the reading/recording-as-poetic-text is entirely a function of its incompleteness. The sonic data here is fundamentally fragmentary because that which cannot be heard – the silences, the gestures, the energy, the negative space – is inaudible, unquantifiable, imaginary. Yet this delectably incomplete sonic archive – and the subsequent tension between what can and cannot be heard, between the irrecoverable and the audible – highlights Rukeyser’s own bardic reticence and her preference, both as a reader and in the poems she selects for this performance, for a shared language of protest, for a kind of poetic contract amongst and between reader and audience. In other words, there is no limit to what might happen in the imaginary space between the reading as performance and the reading as encounter, between the reading as event and the reading as recording. To that end, we contemporary auditors would like to know how many hands went up (how many confidently, how many hesitantly), how many shifty glances were exchanged, throats cleared, legs crossed or uncrossed. We likewise have no data about the currents of energy (nervous, anticipatory, or otherwise) that circulated in the venue, what filmmakers would call “ambience,” “presence” or “room tone.” How big was the room? The emcee mentions, near the end of the recording, that the next reading in the series will be “in the theater of the basement of this building” – perhaps this reading was also in the basement? Does that possibility alter our imaginary soundscape? Were there windows? Was it dark outside? Was the room crowded? Were the audience members seated, standing, packed in at the back, sitting on the floor in the front? Was the room a comfortable seventy degrees or was it overly warm? What kinds of clothing were the audience members wearing in 1969? Did they wear deodorant? Was there a podium? Did Muriel sit or stand? Was she showing her age – was her ill health (she had recently suffered a minor stroke) evident in her self-presentation, or was she confident and matriarchal, as her incendiary language suggests?

The purely documentary listener might lament these limitations – we will never know what really happened because we lack quantitative data and because the energy, the room tone, is lost forever – or is it? Alternatively, the close listener might embrace the recording itself as a hybrid text, a sonic fiction whose negative spaces are also spaces of prosodic possibility that, of necessity, reorient and reframe our encounter with the archival poetry reading. Prosody as a naturalized poetic device has been variously defined, but Owen Barfield characterizes it most succinctly as the “material element in language,”22 noting that “the sound of language is crucially relevant to its poetic meaning…owing to the peculiar relation of the vocal organs to the rest of the body.”23 The facility with which we decipher speech prosody, particularly in the context of a sound recording (both in the casual remarks and in the poems themselves), becomes a function of what Barfield calls the “stir of aesthetic imagination”24 or the “essentially active nature of the poetic consciousness,”25 that is, the extent to which the ear engages with the musicality of both speech and silence.We cannot be present in the moment of zeitgeist captured by the recording, so we take up, of necessity, the subjective goals of the critic by becoming readers of the soundscape, of “speech prosody” as a function of actual poetry as well as meta-poetic speech, what Charles Bernstein calls the “sounding of poetry.”26

Throughout Rukeyser’s work, though especially in her later writing, from the early 1960s onward, we glimpse a tension between what might be termed her private, lyrical aims, her singular poetics, and her desire to democratize the poetic gesture, to use it as a way to broach the space between, or at the very least to occupy that space in the hope of creating dialogue and intimacy, both political and personal. As Kate Daniels has noted, Rukeyser’s

interest in the intersection of private experience and public politics surged into critical favor again as the Vietnam War entered the living rooms of millions of Americans and as fifty thousand vigorous young men were shipped off to lose their lives in a war that most Americans did not understand and many did not support. Buoyed by this new wave of political feeling sweeping the country and by the freedom that her son’s college enrollment conferred upon her, Rukeyser enjoyed a burst of poetic energy. She began to write again, in her sixth decade, as she had in her early life – prolifically, but with a new luminance lent by her advancing years.27

Rukeyser’s “surge” in popularity (an unfortunate term, given that it was coterminous with U.S. military surges in Vietnam) was uncharacteristic for a female poet of her age, but The Speed of Darkness (1968) catapulted her into the center of contemporary political debates, a position she was pleased to occupy. Rukeyser’s storied political background began in the 1930s when her first collection of poems, Theory of Flight (1935, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award), overtly referenced Marxist political debates and labor disputes.28 During the 1950s, she was investigated by the FBI and the House on Un-American Activities Committee,29 and in the years after the publication of The Speed of Darkness, traveled to Hanoi with Denise Levertov to protest the 1972 U.S. bombings. Eventually, like many public intellectuals of that era, she was arrested for civil disobedience while demonstrating against the Vietnam War.30 As Daniels points out, Rukeyser’s status as a single mother likewise figured prominently in her career trajectory and explains many of the gaps in her publishing record, as well as her surprising reemergence in the late 1960s, when her son became exempt from the draft. All of these factors, but particularly the span of her career and its persistent political engagement, make it difficult to situate Rukeyser’s poetics amongst the unstable categories of twentieth century modernism, feminism, neo-Marxism, and the avant-garde.

We glimpse the beginnings of Rukeyser’s investment in the tension between public politics and personal poetics in her early writings, Theory of Flight and particularly The Life of Poetry (1949). Daniels notes that early in her career Rukeyser “knowingly flung herself headfirst into the literary quarrels of the late 1930s by publishing, in her first book, poems that were simultaneously tied to the apolitical and highly aesthetic tradition of high modernism and to a self-conscious left-wing political identity derived from Marxist theory.”31 From the start, Rukeyser situated her poetry between modernist impersonality and personal lyric, perhaps to draw readers’ attention to the continuities between the two. But it is in The Life of Poetry, a considered, almost scientifically conceived statement of poetics, that Rukeyser sets out to define a writing practice that is contingent upon community, a “poetry of meeting-places, where the false barriers go down.”32 Meg Schoerke persuasively argues that Rukeyer’s interest in communion and community – the impulse to break down barriers both in her poems and by writing them – takes on an explicitly ethical dimension that asks whether

individuals [can] escape their isolation and make contact with people and the world around them…[whether] language serve[s] as a gateway to such interactions, or an obstacle…[and] whether people in a century wrenched by world wars and capitalist exploitation can overcome barriers of social conditioning, fear, and self-interest.33

The Life of Poetry continually meditates on the problem of alienation (born of “social conditioning, fear, and self-interest”) as the onus of the twentieth century poet, and Rukeyser’s efforts to enact a poetics of inclusion that foregoes the bardic impulse or the “genius” model of her modernist forerunners allow us to read her work (particularly from the 1960s onward) as overtly political.34

Not surprisingly, the SGWU reading series presented Rukeyser with the ideal forum to create the “poetry of meeting-places” she argued for in The Life of Poetry. From the moment Rukeyser asks the audience members (and recording auditors) to summon what we might call their inner poets, she works to destroy the illusion of hierarchy poetry readings tend to reinforce. As a result, the space of the poetry reading (and the duration of the recording) becomes a kind of political poetry or situational art that is ripe for interpretive intervention. Indeed, Rukeyser directs our attention to the shared space of the reading and to the “unmediated,” at times even silent, poetry of this communal space:

There are these, and the fact is, we all write poems, it is something we do, we come to this part of experience, as you get a very very rainy evening, why do people come and listen to poems? Or you’ve got some marvelous summer night, why do people come and listen to poems? Alright, it’s partly out of curiosity and looking at the person and I go to see what is that breathing behind, what is that heartbeat, the breathing goes against the heartbeat and these rhythms are set up, and the involuntary muscles and you see the person do it but beyond that, something is what we call shared, something is arrived at, we come to something with almost unmediated, that is the poem among us, between us, there, we’re reaching each other, you giving me whatever silence you are giving me and it comes to me with great strength, your silence.

Rukeyser points directly to the communal poem, the poem “among us, between us, there,” suddenly and explicitly manifest in the room, amongst poets, of poets, such that what was once an intersubjective performance becomes an open, multidirectional conversation, as well as a platform for a shared politics of protest. She views the reading as a valuable exchange – “we’re reaching each other” – and the silent commerce between poet and audience-of-poets builds, as she puts it, “great strength.” In effect, Rukeyser challenges the Olsonian model of the somatic poet, whose poetry is an extension of the poet’s body – a mechanism of silence and the transfer of energy, punctuated by beats/syllables and exhales/lines – and whose projective verse performs an arguably pedagogical function.35 Instead, she suggests that the room’s “unmediated” energy generates its own poetry – “something is what we call shared, something is arrived at.” Rukeyser focuses on that which is “beyond” the podium or the poet, and instead asks that we imagine “something” beyond the performance, an authentic unifying (and unspoken) dialogue reminiscent of Benjamin’s “aura.”36

Schoerke locates a similar impulse in the greater trajectory of Rukeyser’s work as a Jewish, feminist intellectual, noting that she “envisioned a form of unity (for American poetry, and also for American culture and politics) in which individual differences are not erased, but instead conjoin to create dynamic energy: a dialogic meeting, in which the differences ceaselessly play off one another, rather than a dialectic predicated on synthesis”.37 Just as Rukeyser’s early poetry skirted the divide between high modernism and leftist political poetry, her later work embraces both the meaningful differences between poet and reader/listener and the open space of possibility signified by that rift. Indeed, we can understand the SGWU poetry reading as a “dialogic meeting,” as the synthesis of “primadona” and “audience,” the shared work of poet and audience-of-poets, or, as Rukeyser puts it, as a communal “meditation”:

Somebody said primadona, you know, or I’m going to give this to the audience and the conductor says that’s what you think, you’re going to get it from the audience. That’s where it comes from in a funny way. So this mediation, it is not a description, it is not only the music and it, although certainly the reinforcement of sound. The sound climbing up and finally reaching a place, the last word, the sound that begins with the first breathing, the breath of the title. Keats doing “Ode to a Nightingale,” we hardly ever say ode, nobody says nightingale, but Keats having said that, never has to say it again, it’s a bird. You find it in these things, but from the beginning, from the first moment, that is the first breath, the thing that is made as, suggestion, breath, what my life has been, whatever that is – what your lives have been.

Summoning Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” a quintessential closed poem, Rukeyser alludes to the long history of lyric conceits that have governed our understanding of figurative poetic language.38 Rather than placing herself in this genealogy, however, she asks her audience to return to the instant before “the breath of title,” before the poem is fixed on the page as text and as metaphor. In these minutes before Rukeyser gives voice to her own poems, the synergy between audience (of poets) and poet creates “something” utterly random and supremely unique – a poetry of shared experience infused with what her “life has been” and what their (and our) “lives have been.” Rukeyser refuses to divest her own experience from that of her audience, or rather she wishes to bring the two together in a union signified by her question to them and to us (“How many of you here have ever written a poem?”), and by the moment in which we are deputized as poets, if only for the space of the reading.

Throughout the selection of poems Rukeyser reads at SGWU, there is a continuous and profound interest in “betweenness,” a poetics of commerce that is particularly evident in the final poem, “The Speed of Darkness.”39

The titular poem of Rukeyser’s 1968 collection, “The Speed of Darkness” interrogates negative spaces – dark rather than light, silence rather than speech (“I am working out the vocabulary of my silence”), unknown reader rather than known poet, and the liminal space “between”:

Between between

the man : act exact

woman : in curve senses in their maze

These lines evoke “betweenness” graphically on the page, but spoken aloud, “between” becomes both utterance and silence, a sonic “maze” cohabitated by “man” and “woman,” audience and poet. As was the case in her introduction, Rukeyser’s reading of “The Speed of Darkness” promotes a poetics of shared silence that uncannily conjures the surroundings in which the poem is read:

No longer speaking

Listening with the whole body

And with every drop of blood

Overtaken by silence

In part because Rukeyser valorizes “listening” as much as “speaking,” the poem likewise champions a collective “We” and works in various ways to generate and ironize a Whitmanian dialogue. Adrienne Rich, in a 1993 review, was the first to suggest the comparison between Rukeyser’s later poetry and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” asking: “What happens when a woman, drawing on every political and social breakthrough gained by women since Dickinson’s death in 1886, assumes the scope of her own living to be a least as large as Whitman’s?”40 Rich in effect argues that Rukeyser, like Whitman, understands poetry as a gleeful bardic exchange between poet and reader: “And what I assume you shall assume.”41 While this formulation rightly highlights Rukeyser’s deep investment in her readers (or, in the case of the SGWU reading, her fellow poets), it elides the extent to which the exchange enabled by poetry is multidirectional – a dialogue between and amongst the multitudes, rather than an all consuming “I” that “contains multitudes.”42 In other words, Rukeyser’s “I” does not subsume its readers nor presume complete affinity, but attempts to speak (or be silent) through and with them. Whereas Whitman exclaims, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Rukeyser writes, “I know I am space / My words are air,” and this “air” evokes the audience’s meditative “silence” and the “great strength” it builds in the SGWU venue.

The dimensions of this silence, what we might call the poetics of the unspoken, are postulated and revised repeatedly throughout “The Speed of Darkness,” as Rukeyser likens the unquantifiable energy of silence to the space of a room, the space of a drinking glass, and ultimately, to the “reaches” of outer space and a “sky” full of unknown starry relationships:

I mind this room is space

this drinking glass is space

whose boundary of glass

lets me give you drink and space to drink

your hand, my hand being space

containing skies and constellations

your face

carries the reaches of air

Here the vastness of “space” (both literal and astral) and the intimacy between “I” and “you” are continuous, and the “boundaries” that delimit the space of the room/glass/sky within the poem cannily reference the space without, which is to say that the unspoken exchanges between lyric subject and object, or poet and audience-of-poets, further energize the “space” of the reading and the recording. In other words, “The Speed of Darkness” performed aloud in a room full of deputized poets differs utterly from mere text or paratext on the two-dimensional “space” of the page. As Walter Ong has noted, “Written texts all have to be related somehow, directly or indirectly, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language, to yield their meanings. ‘Reading’ a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination, syllable-by-syllable.”43 Indeed, Rukeyser’s “reading” of her own text, its “conversion to sound,” invites her immediate audience, and especially her invisible interlocutors, to build (and rebuild) meaning in an eruptive sonic environment. In the same way, the brazen syllogism that begins the poem – “Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis / Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt / Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child” – becomes axiomatic when it is read aloud at SGWU and, together with the charged silence, allows new affinities between Rukeyser and her audience to emerge. In effect, a temporal shift occurs, as the poem being read no longer represents a fixed lyric subjectivity, but a dynamic intersubjectivity, as “The Speed of Darkness” acts to crystallize the shared politics of (feminist) protest Rukeyser tacitly created during her opening remarks. Thus lines such as “These sons, these sons / fall burning into Asia,” now inevitably evoke (for the auditors of this soundscape) the room’s shared anxieties about the Vietnam War.

Throughout Rukeyser’s performance of “The Speed of Darkness” (and throughout the reading/recording), the communal body is always in the foreground, as is the space for dialogue and the space of the room itself, charged with “betweenness,” whether it takes the form of silent exchange or bardic prognostication, as in “I know I am space / My words are air.” The final lines of “The Speed of Darkness” act to extend this moment of commerce between Rukeyser and audience by suggesting that the serious political stakes her poems adopt (the fear of the clitoris, the travesties of Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King) are not hers alone, but ours:

My night awake

Staring at the broad rough jewel

The copper roof across the way

Thinking of the poet

Yet unborn in this dark

Who will be the throat of these hours.

No. Of those hours.

Who will speak these days,

If not I,

If not you?

Rukeyser’s final question is rhetorical, which is to say that she has always already defined the space of the SGWU reading in terms of poetic community. Thus the “poet yet unborn” who will “be the throat of these hours” arguably is a member of this very audience. In fact, “The Speed of Darkness” turns on the repetition of site-specific adjectives, “these days” and “this dark,” which continually (and somewhat eerily) reference the reading’s meta-context. (For the archival close listener, room tone necessarily echoes in the dark,since the imaginary text materializes from sound alone.) As the last three lines of the poem are spoken – “Who will speak these days, / If not I, / If not you?” – the audience does not realize that the poem and the reading are coming to an end (partly because Rukeyser almost inaudibly mumbles “Thank you very much”), and their bewilderment (silently) resonates on the recording. During the five awkward seconds before the applause begins, the imaginary, hallucinatory qualities of this soundscape again assert themselves, and we listen closely and carefully for the audience’s irrecoverable answers to the question “Who?” Here, the (non)sound of uncertain, unspoken answers is captured and archived by the recording device. In this simultaneously (meta)poetic gap, Rukeyser’s urgent query becomes a performative utterance, and the potential energy of silence (its “great strength”) becomes kinetic. Quite apart from Rukeyser’s seemingly strategic decision to end her SGWU reading with “The Speed of Darkness,”44 this sonic gap – at the tail end of a reading teeming with communal rhetoric and a recording full of elusive sonic energy – illustrates the process by which all poems to a certain extent become about the space in which they are read (or encountered).

As the close listener inevitably constructs this imaginary space, the archival poetry recording ultimately transforms from a documentary to a poetic text. In the final minutes of the Rukeyser recording, immediately following the applause, a familiar clamor returns to the soundscape – the discomposed silence transitions to sonic excess, as the reading ends but the recording does not.

Though very little quantifiable data can be extracted from the milling around at the end of a reading, this cacophony (like the moment of interpellation that preceded the reading) acquires a literal profundity reminiscent of John Cage’s 4’33”, which sought to give depth and dimension to silence (that, as it turns out, is not silent).45 What is going on between poets during these few minutes? Are the abstainers telling Rukeyser about their poems? A man asks, “Are you sure you don’t want to do some more reading?” We hear bursts of laughter. There is no profound strategy to these captured moments – perhaps the technician forgot to turn off the recording device or was distracted by one of the organizers, until s/he remembered to turn it off. We cannot know why these arbitrary phonotextual minutes exist, and we should not care, since, out of this half-knowledge, an imaginary text – the space for communal poetry – is born, as is a new critical void whose poetic contours merit exploration. In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser begins to define this dialogic state of being, a poetics in which pluralist language begets mutual self-discovery:

We need a background that will let us find ourselves and our poems, let us move in discovery. … This state arrives when freedom is a moving goal, when we go beyond the forms to an organic structure which we can in conscience claim and use. Then the multiplicities sing, each in his own voice. Then we understand that there is not meaning, but meanings; not liberty, but liberties. And multiplicity is available to all. Possibility joins the categorical imperative. Suffering and joy are fused in growth; and growth is the universal.”46

As a soundscape, Rukeyser’s SGWU reading contains multitudes, and as we become more finely attuned to the poetic features of the archival recording, the possibilities for sonic insurgency, as a function of (non)poetic speech prosody, are endless.

  1. Peter Middleton, “The Contemporary Poetry Reading,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 262. 

  2. Jason Camlot and Darren Wershler, “Theses on Discerning the Reading Series,” circulated via PDF (April 1, 2013), 5, 8. 

  3. Of the approximately sixty poets recorded in the SGWU series between 1965 and 1974, ten are women: Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Maxine Gadd, Gladys Hindmarch, Barbara Howes, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daphne Marlatt, Diane Wakowski, and Phyllis Web. A complete list of the invited writers is available at: 

  4. More recently, online open-source archives like Charles Bernstein’s and Al Filreis’s Pennsound, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Ubuweb, and SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center archive and catalog recordings of poetry readings by a range of poets from the modernist avant-garde to the contemporary. Bernstein’s 1998 essay collection, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, demonstrates the value of assembling “oral poetries” and “the lyric in our own culture and other cultures,” as well as the need to “rethink prosody in light of the performance and sounding of poetry.” (3). 

  5. Spokenweb, Muriel Rukeyser at SGWU, 1969, podcast audio, MP4, 3:25, accessed September 25, 2013,–1969/. All proceeding excerpts are time-stamped from the same recording. 

  6. In a recent article on Bob Dylan, Francine Prose writes: “He’s the heir, the unlikely offspring of Arthur Rimbaud and Walt Whitman.” See “Bob Dylan: Musician or Poet?” The New York Times, December 17, 2013, accessed April 3, 2014, 

  7. Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy From Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 11. 

  8. Middleton, “The Contemporary Poetry Reading,” 262. 

  9. Gerard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1. 

  10. Rukeyser’s reading takes place in January of 1969, and many of her poems reference the violent events and political and social shifts that occurred the previous year: In 1968, Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. government were fully engaged in the Vietnam War; the Tet Offensive began in January of that year. Student demonstrations and protests against the war were taking place across the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy in June; in May, the Paris riots began with a million students marching in the streets; the Prague Spring came to a violent conclusion in August, and by December, the Zodiac Killer was at large in San Francisco. See

  11. Camlot and Werschler, “Theses,” 8. 

  12. Camlot and Wersher, “Theses,” 8. 

  13. Middleton, “Contemporary,” 262. 

  14. Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 1. 

  15. Kittler, Gramophone, 10. 

  16. Kittler, Gramophone, 3. 

  17. Kittler, Gramophone, 10. 

  18. See Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). 

  19. As Janet E. Kaufman and Anne F. Herzog note in their introduction to The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), this incendiary position was characteristic of Rukeyser’s work from the 1930s onward: “She insisted on writing poetry that emerged from – and was part and parcel of – distinct cultural and political, and historical moments. Rukeyser’s belief that poetry could enact change in the larger world shares no affinity for the ironic stance and world weariness of many high modernists” (see p. xxxvii). They observe that Rukeyser’s poems often set “the details of her life in relation to individuals, nations, cultures, wars” (see p. xl), and The Speed of Darkness meditates repeatedly on the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. 

  20. Middleton, “Contemporary,” 291. 

  21. As Bernstein points out in his introduction to Close Listening, the close listener, as opposed to the prosodist, valorizes sound over text and metricality: “Aurality preceded orality, just as language precedes speech…. Aurality is meant to invoke a performative sense of ‘phonotext’ or audiotext and might better be spelled a/orality” (13, author’s emphasis). 

  22. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Wesleyan: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 151. 

  23. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 47 

  24. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 152. 

  25. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 47. 

  26. Bernstein, Close Listening, 3. 

  27. Kate Daniels, “Muriel Rukeyser and Her Literary Critics,” in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, eds. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 257. 

  28. Muriel Rukeyser, Theory of Flight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935). 

  29. For an excellent history of this era, see Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick, eds. Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920–1950 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), which explores the impact of governmental authority on American cultural productions. See especially Jeanne Perreault’s “Poetess Probed As Red”: Muriel Rukeyser and the FBI,” 145–62. 

  30. For more information on Rukeyser and the Vietnam War, see Michael True, “The Authentic Voice: On Rukeyser’s ‘Poem,’” in “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser, eds. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 94–99. 

  31. Daniels, “Muriel Rukeyser,” 250. 

  32. Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (New York: Current Books/ A.A. Wyn, 1949) 20. 

  33. Meg Schoerke, “Radical Relation: Jewish Identity and the Power of Contradictions in the Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen,” in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, eds. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 246. 

  34. I am thinking here of Bob Perelman’s The Trouble With Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 1, which argues that the “notion of genius in its modernist incarnation is bound up with [the] strain between presence and obscurity.” 

  35. Charles Olson, “Projective Verse and Letter to Elaine Feinstein,” in Selected Writings, ed. Roberty Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), 15–30. 

  36. Benjamin argues that the “authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” In the SGWU reading, Rukeyser likewise focuses on that which is transmitted between audience and poet and on the silent strength that subtends the poetry reading. See Water Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 221. 

  37. Schoerke, “Radical Relation,” 257. 

  38. I’m thinking here of the New Critical emphasis on hermetic close reading, in which the poem is autonomous and self-contained and thus foreclosed from the poet (and the reader, to a certain extent). Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and even more so his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” become exemplary close reading texts in Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947), for example. 

  39. In my readings of the written text, I refer to “The Speed of Darkness” as it appears in The Collected Poems, 465–68. 

  40. Adrienne Rich, “Beginners,” Kenyon Review 15 (1993), 16. 

  41. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Shorter Fifth Edition, eds. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2005), 679. 

  42. Whitman, “Song of Myself,” 682. 

  43. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York: Routledge, 2002 c1982), 8. 

  44. “The Speed of Darkness” is also the last poem in the 1968 collection, which indicates that Rukeyser was equally interested in leaving her readers to ponder how they are implicated in the poem’s final question. 

  45. John Cage, 4’33”, 1952. To listen to a recording of the piece, as performed by David Tudor, see:

  46. Rukeyser, Life of Poetry, 226–27. 

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