In 1936, just a year after winning the Yale Younger Poet’s Prize, the twenty-two-year-old Muriel Rukeyser arrived in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in United States history, to work on her next poetry project.
Muriel Rukeyser and Susan Howe tell the same anecdote about nineteenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. In it, Peirce has been tasked with defining — among many specialized terms of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy — the word “university” for the Century Dictionary.
In her last post, Kaia wrote about inexpertise as a possibly positive interventionary poetry stance.
Many of us have a conflicted relationship with experts and expertise. To be sure, in general, contemporary society demands increased reliance on and deference toward experts and expertise. Pay heed to the news any day of the week—whether it be television or radio or a newspaper—and you’ll find a cavalcade of experts expertly asserting expertise.
On the positive side, experts can provide us with shortcuts, time-savers, insider insights, and thought-provoking analysis. Not a day goes by when I don’t appreciate an expert offering shrewd dissection of a topic I hadn’t quite thought of in that particular way.
Some years ago, while reading around in the Poetry magazine archive in the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, I ran into a stack of letters to and from Lee Anderson. Anderson had just made an arrangement to present his archive of reels of audiotape to the Beinecke Library of Yale University. He would deliver recordings he'd made of poets to that date, and then would continue to record and deposit subsequent reels later. I took a mental note, but then forgot all about the project. Then, later, came PennSound; we began of course to collect and borrow recordings to add to the quickly growing online archive. More years went by. Last year I was back at the Regenstein, as it happens, giving a talk on Henry Rago at a conference there, and met the poet-archivist Nancy Kuhl, another of the presenters. Nancy is one of the head librarians at the Beinecke; we talked; then the fact of Lee Anderson's recordings came back to me. I asked Nancy about them, and, as it happens, she'd already started the process of digitizing a few of the old reels. Were we interested in perhaps requesting some as a priority? Yes.