February 2013

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Stein and Rukeyser

In preparation for the first Poetry in Red Dress, a program featuring poems of Gertrude Stein, Muriel Rukeyser and four contemporary women poets—Karren LaLonde Alenier, Mary Mackey, Evelyn Posamentier, and Margo Taft Stever—the Steiny Road Poet will offer a discussion about the compatibility of Stein and Rukeyser.


The background is that the Steiny Poet got involved with a discussion on WOMPO, the women in poetry listserv, on the subject of poetry manifestos by women poets. This led to an off-line exchange with San Francisco-based poet Evelyn Posamentier and then came the idea of a poetry reading in San Francisco where Stein and Rukeyser set the tone of the program. Because this essay was written in advance of the scheduled reading, the Steiny Poet will offer a comparison of Stein and Rukeyser. The intention of the Steiny Poet is that if the debut Poetry in Red Dress program is successful, there will be other Red Dress readings in other cities and everyone involved will need to understand how the program came about and why the pairing of Stein and Rukeyser.


Both Stein and Rukeyser were hounded and written off by their critics but neither let that interfere with their prolific writing. Both had Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dossiers. Both wrote work that might be described as gender conscious leaning toward women's issues, patriotic for the United States of America, sensitive to the big issues of the day, and keenly tuned into the problems of writing, particularly poetry. And both had manifestos of sorts. For Stein, Lectures in America offered explanations of Stein's experimental writing that uses simple English words, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin, no commas or questions marks, emphasis on verbs and adverbs, and copious repetition. For Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry tackled big questions about why Americans see poetry as something "to pass on but not ... used" beyond ad jingles and greeting card trivia.


Born in a suburb of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946) came from German Jewish stock. Stein's father made a successful investment in the San Francisco cable car transportation system and therefore Stein and her four siblings were financially set for life on modest pensions. She did her college years at Harvard and four years of medical school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She lived most of her adult life in France but never considered herself an ex-pat.

Born in New York City, Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913 – February 12, 1980) Muriel-Rukeyser-crwas the child of an upper middle-class assimilated Jewish family that suffered financial loss during the Great Depression. As a child she attended the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Columbia University from 1930 to 1932 quitting after her father went bankrupt. Unlike Stein, Rukeyser held many jobs including journalist, Hollywood film editor, and teacher.

Rukeyser's first book came at age 21 (1935) when she won the Yale Younger Poets Award for Theory of Flight. Three Lives, Stein's first book was published in 1909 when she was 35.


In their personal living, both broke the rules of the day. Stein lived with her 07.1Toklas-SteinFly-crsame sex partner for most of her adult life. Rukeyser, who had passionate relations with both men and women, had a child out of wedlock. Both women were activists. Both women jumped into politically fraught activities. Stein served as a volunteer during World War I buying a vehicle to run medical supplies around France. Rukeyser was a social activist who as a journalist covered the 1931 Scottsboro case in Alabama, the People's Olympiad, an alternative to the Nazis' 1936 Berlin Olympics, and the outbreak of recurring silicosis among miners at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia (1936). In 1972, Rukeyser went with poet-activist Denise Levertov to North Vietnam on an unofficial peace mission to meet with Vietnamese writers and civilians.

In a time when few women operated automobiles, Gertrude Stein owned several vehicles and even drove a rented car in California during her 1934-35 American lecture tour. Stein also did much of the US lecture tour by flying from city to city which was unusual during her time. At age 20, Rukeyser took flying lessons.

Both came from families of assimilated, upwardly mobile Jewish families. Stein believed her Judaism was a private matter and she had a close friend—Bernard Faÿ—who was a known anti-Semite. Despite the rush to assimilate, Rukeyser's mother confided to her daughter that she was a direct descendant of 1st century Rabbi Akiba who, even under torture, would not surrender any information to Hadrian's Romans. Akiba was burned to death yet stayed true to his ideals. This was an indelible mother and daughter moment. So, Rukeyser, drawing on the years of assimilation silence that began her life within her own family, took a bold stance on Judaism after World War II revealed the extreme hatred for Jews in Europe that lead to the Holocaust of six million Jews. The following are excerpts from the ten-part poem entitled "Letter to the Front."

Women and poets see the truth arrive.
Then it is acted out,
The lives are lost, and all the newsboys shout.

Horror of cities follows, and the maze
Of compromise and grief.
The feeble cry Defeat be my belief.

All the strong agonized men
Wear the hard clothes of war,
Try to remember what they are fighting for.

But in dark weeping helpless moments of peace
Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.


To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift.
If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and
God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

Muriel Rukeyser, from "Letter to the Front"

"A Long Dress.," a socio-politically aware poem (shades of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?) from Gertrude Stein's long poem Tender Buttons, informs the title as well of the contents of the Poetry in Red Dress reading.


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it
crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a
necessary waist. What is this current.

What is the wind, what is it.

Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a
dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and
green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line
distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

Gertrude Stein from "Objects" in Tender Buttons

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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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