Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joan Richardson

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Literature in English, North America | Women's Studies


American Poetry, Documentary, Investigative Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser, Pragmatism, Susan Howe


Instead of describing poetry as a set of constraints or history of practices, Muriel Rukeyser calls it "one kind of knowledge." Dark Matter heeds Rukeyser's call, theorizing a poetics of the "scholar's art," in which documentary investigation, autobiographical exploration, and formal innovation are mutual, interwoven concerns. The dissertation pairs American poets Susan Howe (b. 1937) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), reading their hybrid works not through the received categories of American poetry, or through common generic and disciplinary divisions, but using an inductive methodology that takes its lead from the poets. Understanding Howe and Rukeyser's literary experiments as serious interventions in broad fields of thought, I seek out and delve into their many sources - literary, historical, mythological, philosophical, scientific, and intimate.

Rukeyser is commonly read as feminist poet of witness, and Howe an aesthetic innovator. The assumptions that underlie these categorizations get at the heart of what poetry is, why it matters, and how it relates to the project of living. Implicit are ideas about the relationship between poetry and politics, what constitutes artistic experimentation, and how poems should and do address lives, particularly the intimate lives of women. Within these frameworks, the qualities that have made Rukeyser's genre-challenging books so difficult to interpret and place are the same that have secured for Howe's a preeminent position in contemporary poetry. But just as Rukeyser's experiments in form are illegible to readers with particular expectations of realism, Howe scholarship suffers from a related, if inverted, short-sightedness: many revel in her linguistic ingenuity without probing its profound philosophical underpinnings or explicitly personal stakes. An act of scholarly reclamation, Dark Matter interrogates texts of Rukeyser's that have received scant or no critical attention: her 1942 biography of physical chemist Willard Gibbs, her musical about Harry Houdini (1973), and The Orgy (1965), her book about the pagan festival, Puck Fair. I read these alongside kindred texts by Howe: Pierce-Arrow (1999), which is indebted to Pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce; The Liberties (1980), which joins Jonathan Swift's mistress Stella and Shakespeare's Cordelia; and THAT THIS (2010), which investigates archival scholarship through the lens of personal grief.