Elegant Elocution

Inspired by her mother’s recitation of poetry since she was a young child, Carol Muske-Dukes, California’s Poet Laureate, knows that words can change a life.
BySusan Andrews

“I write poetry because I have no choice. I’ve always been haunted by words, by the music of words,” said Carol Muske-Dukes, professor of English and California Poet Laureate.

A prominent and influential contemporary poet, Muske-Dukes’ creative genius plays well to the many definitions of poetry. William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Emily Dickinson believed, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

So what is it that inspires and influences those who enthrall us with their words? For Muske-Dukes this is an easy question.

“My mother had an enormous effect on me, on my sense of words, when I was a child,” she said. “My mother comes from that last generation of Americans who memorized poetry with great interest and industry in a class called Elocution, which provided students way back then with the chance to commit poems or orations to heart and to recite them.” 

At 92, her mother, Elsie Muske, can still recite works by the greats — Milton, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Longfellow, Whitman, and Shakespeare — verbatim.

“My mother grew up on the Dakota prairie during the Great Depression and she found that poetry kept her alive and connected, even in the face of enormous deprivation and sadness (she lost her own mother when she was 16),” Muske-Dukes said.

Sometimes the mother’s dream becomes the daughter’s reality. Even though Elsie was awarded a scholarship to a college in Minnesota, where she hoped to study poetry, there was not enough money for her to go. Her dream to attend college evaporated, but her love of poetry did not.

Muske-Dukes can also recite poems and asks students to memorize them as well. All of these efforts add up to the “poetic voice in the mind” — poems that beat with the heart and run in the bloodstream, and, she notes, are “part of the ongoing consciousness of language.” Her fond recollections of her mother and poetry began when she was just four or five.

“If I refused to eat some over-cooked vegetable, she would purse her lips, and recite ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!’ from King Lear,” she said. “Or she would appear in my bedroom doorway on a freezing Minnesota morning. As I burrowed deeper under the quilts she would cry these lines from Longfellow, ‘Let us, then, be up and doing, / With a heart for any fate’! But perhaps my sweetest memory is of her pushing me on a backyard swing while reciting Stevenson’s ‘The Swing.’ I was swinging, line by line, within the sound of her voice, within the poem itself.” 

Muske-Dukes composes in a seeming stream of consciousness with spontaneous feelings and thoughts: “How could I not have become a poet growing up swimming in that wild sea of words? In my head since childhood, there’s a ‘collage poem’ of lines from great poems running all the time. Something like ‘In the room the women come and go’; ‘The world is too much with us’; ‘Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me!’; ‘That is known as the Children’s Hour’; ‘Downward to darkness, on extended wings’; ‘We real cool. / We left school.’ And it sustains me.”

As a young poet in New York City during the ’70s, Muske-Dukes felt fortunate to be hired to teach at The New School and in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Yet, she points out that her most unforgettable experience was teaching poetry at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island. There she established a writing program called Free Space, which expanded to many New York prisons and became known as Art Without Walls.

“Teaching poetry to women in extremity — who wrote to keep alive, to keep sane — taught me how to be a teacher and to let poetry flow through me so that the message wasn’t about me. It was about the words, and how words could change a life,” she said.

Muske-Dukes generally does not consider her work autobiographical, although she wrote about her experiences at Rikers in her novel Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2007).

She also wrote about being married to an actor, the late David C. Dukes who died of a heart attack in 2000. Even though she thought she would never write again, she recalls how a few months after his death, she got up in the middle of the night and began writing a book of poems titled Sparrow (Random House, 2003), a National Book Award Finalist in 2003.

“The poems are elegies for David, but they are also, if they work at all, meditations on our twin arts of acting and poetry,” she said. “David’s death changed my life, obviously, but also changed the way I wrote not just poetry, but my novels and essays.” Just as her mother’s Elocution class affected her love for and dedication to words, so did David.

In early 2001, a benefit reception was organized at USC’s Bing Theatre to raise funds for a scholarship in David’s name. Among the actors who donated time and effort in one-act play readings were Annette Bening, Stacy Keach, George Wendt and René Auberjonois. Muske-Dukes and dear friend John Lithgow then established the David Dukes Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded annually by the USC School of Theatre to a junior in its program and also includes an internship with L.A.’s Center Theatre Group.

Last spring Muske-Dukes again teamed up with Lithgow to present a fascinating poetry reading as part of Visions and Voices, the USC arts and humanities initiative. 

A decorated poet, author, teacher and scholar, Muske-Dukes won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Dylan Thomas Poetry Award. She has also been honored by the Library of Congress and the Ingram-Merrill Foundation. A frequent writer for the New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, she is a regular guest on National Public Radio. Several of her works have been named New York Times Notable Books and San Francisco Chronicle Best Books of the Year. At USC she has been recognized for her outstanding teaching, scholarship and service with the Albert S. Raubenheimer Award.

Having found great success with seven works of poetry and four novels along with the widespread admiration of her peers, it is no surprise that Muske-Dukes was named California’s Poet Laureate for 2009–12. She is working with the California Arts Council to help spread the art of poetry throughout the state with the aim of “inspiring an emerging generation of literary artists.”

The Magic Poetry Bus, the statewide poetry project she is developing, will bring poets, actors and playwrights to California’s public schools as well as juvenile halls. Often with a film crew, these creative artists will teach workshops, writing exercises, and have fun with games and riddles. The project will have a virtual presence with a Web site at www.magicpoetrybus.org that will serve as a resource guide for teachers and students of poetry.

“The goal is to make poetry unintimidating and accessible and fun, especially ‘creative reading’ to intensify creative writing,” she said.

The Magic Poetry Bus has also joined forces with Get Lit: Words Ignite (www.getlit.org), a literacy project in which inner city teens learn and recite traditional poetry by heart as well as perform spoken-word poems.

California and other places where Muske-Dukes has lived have both informed and impacted her writing.

“Where one lives and loves always somehow enters one’s work,” Muske-Dukes said. “I’ve written about California, especially in a collection of essays called Married to the Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood (Random House, 2002). California — desert by the sea, freeway-crazy, culturally complicated California — continues to obsess me and challenge me as a poet. My daughter, Annie, was born in L.A. and watching her grow up in this astonishing city taught me about re-imagining the imagination.”

Annie, a molecular biologist and research chemist in Bend, Ore., graduated from the College with a double major in biology and journalism, and went on to earn her advanced degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Annie’s fiancé, Johnny, will graduate this December with a major in East Asian languages and cultures. But it does not stop there, Muske-Dukes’ nephew John graduated from the College in 2006 with a major in English and her niece Kelsey, also an English major, is a student in the College.

USC has also inspired and sustained Muske-Dukes. In 1999, she founded the College’s literature and creative writing Ph.D. program, which is ranked in the top five nationally. “I love teaching at this university,” she said. “I’ve had the most extraordinary students in creative writing, both in our immensely popular undergraduate program in the English department and in the literature and creative writing Ph.D. program.”

Sustained by the hard work and friendship of her fellow writers in the creative writing program, she values the ongoing support of the College’s deans, the provost and President Steven B. Sample, who Muske-Dukes recalls once recited a poem of hers from the podium — with perfect pitch. “USC means creative possibility, always,” she said. n

For more information on Carol Muske-Dukes visit www.carolmuskedukes.com. Donations to the David Dukes Memorial Scholarship may be made at www.usc.edu/giving.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2009 issue.