The Midcentury Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Olson
By mid-century, social scientists such as Kurt Lewin increasing believed that a better understanding of the mind and society required scientific methods, especially the use of conceptual schemes. Muriel Rukeyser brought her interest in such conceptual schemes to bear on her discussion of science and poetry in The Life of Poetry, a book that anticipated “Projective Verse.” She had already investigated conceptual schemes in her biography of the nineteenth-century physicist Willard Gibbs, whose ideas on scientific method had influenced Harvard social scientists, notably Lawrence Henderson. From these sources, Rukeyser produced her own poetics of system. This theory is criticized for its limitations, and contrasted with Olson’s concept of the field. It is argued that Olson’s experience of Harvard social science led him to write Call Me Ishmael, using a conceptual scheme, and then to develop his field poetics. This poetics has proven very useful because it offers an open-ended approach to locating meaning in the myriad elements of a poem, and because it draws attention to the relation between poetic expression and other kinds of knowledge.
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