Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Ruth Lechlitner’s Extinction Poetics 

Other papers in this cluster illuminate how modernism and extinction are closely historically related, but my contribution here is specifically concerned with the utility of reading a poet—Ruth Lechlitner—who allows us to think about modernism and extinction along parallel tracks. Lechlitner’s work is attentive to extinction in diverse ways; her poetry confronts the extinction of human solidarity, the extinction of organic life by the machines of extractive capitalism, the extinction of our embeddedness, as human animals, in a multispecies ecology, and the global extinction threat of nuclear war. But Lechlitner herself is also now in some sense “extinct”: out of print, rarely anthologized and almost invisible in our canons of modernism and twentieth-century poetry. Her poetic career, which begins in the radical left of the 1930s and extends beyond the Second World War, does not fit into the usual periodizations of modernism. Yet, her poetry traces an instructive trajectory of anticapitalist environmental awareness that connects the socioecological crises of the 1930s to the social and environmental activism of the latter century. Joshua Schuster suggests that “modernism was never very green,” but Lechlitner’s poetry brings Popular Front modernism into correspondence with contemporary conceptions of the nonhuman world and the global disaster of the Anthropocene.[1] Lechlitner’s work might, therefore, encourage us to extinguish, or even just diminish, our speculative investments in canonical modernism for the purposes of reading in the sixth extinction.

The last two decades have seen a rewilding of modernist studies, or at least interventions into the ecology of modernism that have increased its biodiversity and regenerated the field and its canons. But this diversity could be read differently, as a cumulative enterprise that, rather than encouraging a genuine heterogeneity, actually maintains the ecological dominance of a homogenous hub. Indeed Andrew Goldstone’s findings, resulting from his quantitative analysis of the “distribution of attention in modernist studies” in journal publications, suggests that the field remains overshadowed by “a small, nearly invariant hypercanon of central figures.”[2] Under Goldstone's analysis, even Modernism/modernity, the journal so central to the new formations of modernist studies, reinforces a top-ten canon that contains just two women (Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf), the usual Men of 1914 (Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Lewis), Beckett and F. T. Marinetti, and no writers of color. Thus, the evidence indicates that expansion has done little to disturb the status quo, and that the “ongoing investment in valuing . . . objects in modernist terms works to stabilize the definition of modernism, and, in particular, to ensure that the list of dominant modernist authors changes very slowly” (Goldstone, “Modernist Studies Without Modernism,” 7). [3] Even with the counters to this dynamic—“vernacular modernism,” “weak modernism,” and “intermodernism”—there is little place for Lechlitner’s work in the new modernist ecology.[4] Bonnie Kime Scott includes two of her poems (“Lines for an Abortionist’s Office” and “Case Recruit”) in the 2007 anthology Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections, but Lechlitner remains, despite decades of feminist revisions to the canon, an apparently “lost” voice, annihilated by the literary history of the twentieth century. In turning to read Lechlitner’s poetic speculations on environmental disaster, atomic power, and the future of the human, I am approaching her work as a particular opportunity to consider extinguished modernist poetries, and to recognize the value of these poetries in opposition to a gradualist evolutionary account of canonicity. 

Lechlitner was born in Mishawaka, Indiana in 1901 and studied in Michigan and at the University of Iowa, before moving to New York in 1926 and working as an editorial assistant at The Nation. After her marriage in 1928 to the writer Paul Corey (whom she met at university), they moved to Cold Spring-on-Hudson in 1931, where they built their own home, kept chickens, and grew fruit and vegetables. This was one of several houses on small holdings that they built, first in upstate New York and then, after moving there in 1947, in Northern California. Corey and Lechlitner’s Cold Spring home was a refuge for their New York compatriots (including Richard Wright, Willard Maas, and John Herrmann): in Sonoma, California they lived on a hillside opposite the ruin of Jack London’s Wolf House. 

Lechlitner is known today (if at all) for her radio verse drama We Are The Rising Wing, which was broadcast on WOSU in Columbus, Ohio and published in the 1938 volume of James Laughlin’s New Directions in Prose and Poetry. Genevieve Taggard’s interest in the power of radio to “promote political solidarity” and “eradicate the ‘futile,’ ‘false,’ and ‘manufactured’ opposition between the ‘Individual’ and ‘Society’” is something that Lechlitner shared, as We Are The Rising Wing and her essay “Verse Drama for Radio: A New Direction” indicate.[5] Lechlitner’s poetry appeared in The New MassesPoetry, The New Republic, The Nation, and The Saturday Review, and her work as a reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune sustained her household’s finances in the 1930s. With the publication of her first volume, Tomorrow’s Phoenix (1937), Lechlitner was closely associated with the group of leftist poets who were her contemporaries; Alan M. Wald, in his study of the mid-twentieth century literary left, points to her association with the League of American Writers in the 1930s.[6] Lechlitner’s literary connections were detailed by Louis Untermeyer, in “New Meanings in Recent American poetry” in 1940. Untermeyer suggests that “[i]n poetry the leading figures of a new order based on a universal moral sense begin with Carl Sandburg and Archibald MacLeish [. . .] and embrace the younger Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Maas, James Agee, Elizabeth Bishop, Oscar Williams, Robert Fitzgerald, Joy Davidman, John Wheelwright, Ruth Lechlitner, and other warring contributors to New Masses and Partisan Review.”[7] Of the four women poets mentioned by Untermeyer (Bishop, Rukeyser, Davidman, and Lechlitner) only Lechlitner has fallen into the footnotes of literary history. But her work—feminist, antiwar, antifascist, anticapitalist, and concerned with the dispossessed and disavowed urban and rural poor—bears comparison with these poets.[8] 

Lechlitner is part of what Cary Nelson terms a “collaborative critique of Depression-era capitalism and a collective call for revolutionary change,” and her contribution to the 1935 Partisan Review discussion of revolutionary poetry makes clear that this “collective call” should take a particular form.[9] For radical poetry to be an “expression of collective consciousness” it needs, she argues, to avoid the “narrowly individual, bodyless and temporal” and mere concerns “with separate, isolated cases and happenings,” and must reject the “sentimental close-up” of the individual “I.”[10] Lechlitner also argues in this piece that “[t]here is no reason, by the way, why the nature poet should be scorned by the revolutionary poet,” and thereby hints at the distinctiveness of her conception of radical collectivity (“Discussion,” 51). Wald designates Lechlitner “The Rational Ecologist,” but beyond this evocative appellation he offers little insight into the import of her interest in nonhuman nature and the environment (234).

Lechlitner’s poetry of the 1930s and 1940s interrogates the deprivations of the Depression, offering a care for life and an inherent environmental perspective; her account of “collective consciousness” is a vision of mutuality that includes the nonhuman world. Recognizing the damaging impacts of the extractive machines of modernity, as do many of her leftist contemporaries, her perspective moves beyond the anthropocentric individual to seek a recuperative wholeness, an intermeshing of human and nonhuman nature. In the poem “Of What Superb Mechanics,” for example, she contrasts the “ego-microscope” of a human perspective that can conceive the “measured fall and rise / Of mass replacing mass, the sure / Drive of the Piston” but cannot comprehend the “Star’s-eye view” of the cycles that drive the life of the universe.[11] Her critiques of the political and economic landscapes of Depression-Era America, in poems such as “For Statisticians” and “The Builders,” turn to the landscape and embodied experience to witness the “Abandoned houses,” “Brambled orchards,” “Dust bleeding over the dust-brown farms,” and the “sterile red-green bloom on avenues” (Lechlitner, Tomorrow’s Phoenix, 41). Such images of rural and urban poverty counter a narrative of progress, encapsulated by the “drone of airplanes, drive of dynamos” and the “upreaching dream” of vertical architectures (42, 51). Rejecting narratives of human technological transcendence that she connects to both the functional technics of destruction and to a denial of embodied experience, Lechlitner points to “the alphabet of earth” to the “power” and “strength” of the “land / Speaking with many voices,” and to the “blood that flows / In these strong arteries, these veins of steel” (57, 42, 41, 50). Her poetic vision is one that shows the world of human practice to be inextricable from a nonhuman world—this means that the natural world too is changed by the “facts” of human history; Lechlitner writes in the Second World War poem “Here in a Summer Meadow,” “Facts alter equally this stricken / Planet and quiet field.”[12]

Lechlitner’s political, feminist, and antiwar poetry is imbricated with her abiding attentiveness to the nonhuman natural world, an attention grounded in her lived experience as a homesteader. Her husband Paul Corey, who had already published a trilogy of Iowa farm novels (the Mantz Trilogy 1939-1941), wrote a critique of the rise of agribusiness in the Midwest in Acres of Antaeus (1946), as well as a series of self-reliant, self-build guides beginning with the 1944 Buy An Acre.  The Coreys could be seen as early participants in the back-to-the-land movement; Wald describes them as “revolutionaries who believed in ecology and a back-to-the-land ethos as key elements of the Communist project” (235). Lechlitner’s reflections on her early married years in Cold Spring-on-Hudson illustrates their subsistence existence:  

[F]or more than seven lean years we had no electricity or running water, no 

running water, no phone, no heat except from the wood we cut . . . But Paul made terraced garden-beds on our hilly slopes to hold what soil we had, scattered between those eternal stones, and we grew our own vegetables and berries. The surplus I canned, pickled and jammed all summer, to have for winter use. We found a free supply of apples from unfenced trees, abundant swamp blueberries, other kinds of wild fruit, and nuts.[13] 

 From an intimate living with the cycles of nature, and an anticapitalist politics that apprehended the enmeshment of humans, technology and the planet, Lechlitner derives a poetic exploration of environmental pattern and interconnection, engaging with “subterranean patterns, deep and mute, / Reshaped in branch and leaf” and the “electric change / Wheeling the cycle” (Tomorrow’s Phoenix, 45, 52.). 

In the vital worlds of Lechlitner’s poetry, the nonhuman cosmos is experienced as energetic and forceful, where “no spring is gentle / No spring arbitrates” (52–53). This world is moving, decaying, growing, and communicating beyond human temporalities and ways of knowing: 

(Warm from this sowing  

There will be winds to gather the hoof-prints  

From deer trails through late snow; warm winds  

Touch the tight-nippled hickory buds, uncoil  

Hairy fern-snails, unbutton dogwood bloom - - -) (48)  

The “wind” here evokes a sense of the nonhuman, affective relations of the natural world that can “gather,” “touch,” and “uncoil,” while the human imprint on the landscape is superseded by “hoof-prints” and “deer-trails.” In poems like this, Lechlitner rejects the hierarchy of human exceptionalism and constructions of the natural world as a mute, inert milieu for the human, writing that “earth is no sleeper, no host” (52). But Lechlitner refuses to deploy the pastoral as a retreat from the force of modernity—as she writes in the poem “Reply to a Friend in the City”: “We cannot (nor you) find in nature a dream that evades / The dominant pattern” (Only The Years, 36). Instead of reifying nonhuman nature as an amelioration of the destructive impacts of modernity, Lechlitner’s poetry is alive to the human destruction of the environment. 

The ecological awareness that informs Lechlitner’s leftist writing of the midcentury is further inflected, and radicalized, in its analysis of the socioecological crisis of modernity, following the emergence of popular environmental science and the environmental movement in the US in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, is often credited as originating environmental awareness and our contemporary understandings of the impact of the Anthropocene, and Lechlitner reflects on Carson’s Silent Spring in a September 11, 1963 letter to Norman Corwin.[14] Lechlitner engaged in a more sustained way with another key figure in the rise of the ecology movement: Murray Bookchin. Writing as “Lewis Herber,” Bookchin published Our Synthetic Environment six months earlier than Silent Spring; his book outlined the ecological, social, and health crisis produced by the expansion of global capitalism at the end of the Second World War. Our Synthetic Environment highlights the “toxic wastes,” “radioactive pollutants,” and “profound biological implications” that result from capitalist expansion and from the “tendency to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world.”[15] These are some of the ideas Lechlitner highlights in her notes on Our Synthetic Environment, handwritten in two Golden West spiral-bound notebooks held in the Lechlitner Archive at the University of Iowa. Bookchin also argued for a “need to restore the normal, balanced, and manageable rhythms of [. . .] life” (240). Lechlitner records in her reading notes the “basic fact that a species survives only through good balance in his [sic] environment.” Bookchin went on to posit, in “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” (1964), that humanity’s ecological impact on the earth was global in extent and had “no precedent in man’s [sic] long history on earth,” and, in the closing chapter of the 1965 Crisis in Our Cities, he pointed to the “long-range catastrophic effect” of climate change caused by “carbon dioxide” emissions.[16] For Bookchin, environmental problems were rooted in social problems—the divisive and destructive effects of an accumulation-orientated, profit-driven capitalist society. Thus, against the strains of liberal environmentalism, deep ecology, and technophobia, Bookchin developed a theory of social ecology, based in an “ethics of complementarity” that celebrates “unity in diversity, spontaneity, and nonhierarchical relationships” in the human-nonhuman biotechnological networks of the planet.[17] 

The impact of Bookchin’s radical responses to the degradation of the social and natural worlds can be traced in Lechlitner’s last published collection A Changing Season: Selected and New Poems 1962–1972. In the poem “Inside and Outside” Lechlitner reflects on the limits of both liberal environmentalism and the ecological devastation of the planet from the perspective of a woman speaker caged in the technological “network tension” of a contemporary, consumerist home replete with all possible modern domestic and communication appliances.[18] The speaker refuses to entertain the “nostalgic [. . .] dream / of rooms cordless, with candle or lamplight” (54), and escapes instead to the dubious freedom of the American highway. But this symbol of American mobility and liberty is both a dangerous pollutant and a vista onto the environmental degradation of the landscape:  

adding more car stench to the already  

fart-stinking air. And my smogged eyes can still  

see those ditch-held cartons of garbage (54)   

The damaging effects of American consumption are foregrounded here: the “stench” and “smog” produced by the car contaminates the air, while takeout food cartons litter the roadside. The roadside ditch, a liminal zone between the built and natural landscape, becomes the focus of the next stanza: 

A new layer of beer cans, foil, broken glass  

replaces what school kids on Earth Day picked up,—along with  

a new word: Ecology.  

But what I like best are those countryside  

Kleenex bushes—twig-caught scraps  

of rose, white, and blue like the faded  

and tattered remains of Old Glory .  .  .  (54)

The inevitability of human pollution—a “new layer”—is realized and even Earth Day, founded on April 22, 1970, when 10% of the US population participated, seems a tokenistic gesture, “picked up” along with “Ecology,” an empty “new word.” [19] Instead of the gesture politics of Earth Day, the poem ironically celebrates the beauty of the “countryside / Kleenex Bushes.” Where Carson’s Silent Spring concerns itself with the life of roadside wildflowers as evidence that human beings could increase biological diversity, Lechlitner’s poem enjoys the “twig-caught scraps / of rose, white, and blue.” (54).[20] The used tissues, abjected trash of the nation, adorn the natural word in a simile for the decline of the (mythical) New World, imagined metonymically through the “tattered remains” of the star-spangled banner. The pioneering dream of America leads inevitably to the environmental catastrophe of extractive capitalism and discloses the need for a profoundly new relation between human and planet. 

Lechlitner’s poem disparages the pleasures of consumer culture, the newfound environmental awareness of the American people, and a recent intellectual investment in the counterculture movement as a source for radical change:   

—I could order a new cord for  

the 7-speed Marvel blender,  

—or scan the mag digest of  

a book called “America’s Greening,”  

—or I might let my heart flow freely out  

toward simple wholeness,  

to find on the untouched edge  

of otherness, something complete  

in itself: beyond my kitchen door   

[. . .]  

Inside or outside,  

the fraction of time that’s left me  

tells me survival can still be  

a matter of choice. (A Changing Season, 55)  

Charles A. Reich’s best seller, The Greening of America (1970), offered an indictment of corporate consciousness and celebrated the power of American hippie counterculture. Reich, a Yale law professor who had spent 1967 in San Francisco, proposed the existence of a new “Consciousness III” that “seeks restoration of the nonmaterial elements of man’s existence . . . seeks to transcend science and technology, to restore them to their proper place as tools of man.”[21] Just as the facile deployment of the term “Ecology” fails to encourage Lechlitner’s speaker, so too does the notion of an anthropocentric, hippie-inspired “America’s Greening.” Instead, the poem reaches for an “untouched edge / of otherness” that resides “beyond” the individual human. Rearticulating the collective consciousness of Lechlitner’s previous poetry, in which human and nonhuman nature are intermeshed in her anticapitalist vision, this poem poses a choice about the “survival” of the human. Against the hubristic attempts of America to save its vision of human exceptionalism, “Inside and Outside” seeks a “wholeness” in the kind of “nonhierarchical” “unity” Bookchin’s social ecology proposes. The choice is to turn from anthropocentrism and instead to engage with the matter of the world; not “inside or outside” but, as the poem’s title has it, “Inside and Outside.” This is a turning to the coextensiveness of human and nonhuman world, the intra-connection of me and not-me, or, in the terms of Jane Bennett’s twenty-first century vibrant materialism, a “more refined sensitivity to the outside-that-is-inside-too.”[22] 

Lechlitner also directly poses the question of the survival of the human in the face of the extinction threat of nuclear annihilation—what Bookchin, in Our Synthetic Environment, warns of as “a future war [that] will virtually extinguish human life” (154). Daniel Cordle suggests nuclear texts evince an “ecological sense of an uncontainable precariousness, shared across boundaries,” serving to “unsettle our sense of the human” and expose the “enmeshment of humans, technology and the planet.”[23] Lechlitner’s nuclear poetry, bound up with her vision of the human-nonhuman bionetworks of the planet, preempts these concerns of late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In the postwar poem “Myth for December,” Lechlitner’s sense of impending “planetary doom” transforms the pastoral landscape into a portent of the crisis of human technological hubris. Thus a late winter sunset becomes a “red atomic ember” that “the bearded sun / Drops on blind hills,” “a “ghost-penned warning—this December / Myth of the world’s end” (The Shadow on the Hour, 31). Lechlitner writes directly on the US deployment of atomic weapons in “Night in August (Hiroshima 1945)” where the “terrible” “new dimension” of the “split atom” “Opens” a vista onto the simultaneity and entanglement of macrocosmic and microcosmic (35). Thus, the “electronic voice” of a radio announcing the news fades into the “invisible nets hung over space” (34), while the “hazy swarming hordes / of unknown constellations” are contiguous to the “meek cell [that] feeds and grows, // Divides, shapes,” with their apposition signalled by the poem’s use of ellipsis (“. . .”) that marks their zone of contact (34).

Lechlitner’s most extensive treatment of the “uncontainable precariousness” heralded by nuclear technology is the radio play in verse she wrote in the late 1950s, Tale of a World’s End. This play was broadcast in Canada under the title Death and Resurrection on CBC in the Pacific Playhouse series in April 1959, and it imagines the apocalyptic implications of a nuclear holocaust and the extinction of the human race. The play focuses on Jonathon Adams, an ex-physics teacher and the sole survivor of a near-future nuclear apocalypse (the action is set in 1976), and it offers dramatic descriptions of nuclear explosion, fallout, and devastation. Adams’ daughter-in-law, just before her death, witnesses the blast as a monstrous, elemental techno-organism that brings the ubiquitous image of nuclear explosion to vivid embodiment:   

The huge cloud with a red heart, pulsing — 

The mushroom thing like the picture, It’s moving, alive! 

Like a snake-tree, writhing, 

Like a sea-beast with milky smoke blowing 

From tentacles churning blood-dark 

Through the purple sky-water. . . [24]   

The play poses the dilemma of whether to die alone or seek out other survivors, and thus the beginnings of a human community that might go on to replicate the egocentric anthropocentrism that brought about nuclear extinction—“to repeat in some future [. . .] the terrible pattern of self into self-destruction” (16). “A Winter’s Tale,” a poem from Lechlitner’s 1956 collection, The Shadow on the Hour, offers a variation on this theme, imagining a future, subterranean society of survivors of nuclear war. “Born in these metal tubes beneath / Abandoned cities where no seasons run,” these survivors live in “sealed rooms” of “bottled day.”[25] In this poem the memory of snow morphs into images of the “death-snow” of nuclear fallout (42). The parallel poems “The Atavist” and “To That Far Future,” from the same collection, draw on a distinctly Science Fiction imaginary to consider the fate of the human after earth’s extinction.[26] “To That Far Future” imagines “bold psychotic Davids,” the “final voyagers” of a cyborg-human race chasing the “last frontiers of glittering space” and leaving “behind them hemispheres in ash” (38). In “The Atavist,” Lechlitner poses an alternate, seemingly utopian future for the “survivors” of “vast atomic wars” (36). In this poem the future people appear angelic; “shadow-winged” and with “shining forms,” they have been “bred” to “one invariable / Genes-perfected pattern,” and they live in absolute equality, “shar[ing] / The channelled waters and the conquered sun” (36). This is a world without hate, fear, or famine, but to the contemporary human, whose perspective frames the poem, this unchanging utopia—bereft of love, tears, and death alike—that has “conquered” the planet is as horrific as the chaos and catastrophe of nuclear extinction (37). Such poems envisage, not so much the threat of nuclear precariousness, but the terrible implications of anthropocentric individualism and its blind domination of the nonhuman world.

Alongside her notes on Bookchin’s dire warnings about the degradation of the environment and extinction of the human, Lechlitner records, in the same spiral-bound notebook, her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.[27] Whitehead was important for modernists such as Gertrude Stein. However, rather than repeating the humanist concerns of earlier twentieth-century writers like Stein, Lechlitner’s engagement with Whitehead gestures forward to contemporary thinkers influenced by his work, including Karen Barad and Donna Haraway, who reject an anthropocentric ontology that reduces the nonhuman world to an inert materiality.[28] In his Science and the Modern World lectures from 1925, Whitehead charts the rise of scientific realism and presents his critique of scientific and mathematical abstractions, arguing that they are inadequate to concrete experience. Instead of a mechanistic (and ultimately anthropocentric) model, Whitehead proposes that concrete experience gives us nature as a living organism and temporality as epochal—that is, a duration of relations of actual entities. This is an account of reality that emphasizes process and becoming: “Nature is a structure of evolving processes,” Lechlitner quotes in her notebook.[29] 

Though Lechlitner’s poetic conception of a vibrant world of interrelations and a universe of activity and change predates her early 1960s engagement with Whitehead, his process philosophy informs the environmental awareness of A Changing Season. In the final section of this collection, the poem “Textures of Time” opens with an epigraph from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World: “We must not proceed to conceive time as another form of extensiveness. Time is a sheer succession of epoched durations” (A Changing Season, 81).[30] This quotation points to Whitehead’s 1929 Process and Reality and his understanding of the dynamic “relational complex” and “extensive continuum” that constitutes the world.[31] For Whitehead, reality is not comprised of isolated agglomerations of matter that can be fixed at an instant or at a location; reality is a process of interdependent, interlaced occurrences or events. In “Textures of Time” Lechlitner takes the imbricated occurrences that constitute life on Earth and attempts to articulate their proximities and so gesture towards the durations in which our existence is enmeshed. The poem imagines a reaching out that is both a mental event (“brain’s cortex”) and an embodied contact (“hands”), touching the “variable fabrics” of our cosmic epoch. The poem extends outwards to consider the physical indications of extinction and geological change that are present in our daily existence: the “splinters,” “fossils,” and “fragments” of life on earth and “deserts once ocean” we “stumble” over (A Changing Season, 81). Presenting these “traces” as the concrete processes of things taking place, the poem turns to the extensive continuum of human existence, from early evolution to the electric age. What then emerges is a realization of the epochal simultaneity of all animal, vegetable, and mineral existence: 

There’s less than a friction-flick between 

Amoeba and billion-celled biped, 

Algae and sun-nimbused redwood, 

Soaring hawk and a rocket’s lift-off toward 

The far self-luminous stars (82)

The “friction-flick,” a gesture of propulsion and movement that rests firmly in a materiality of process and event, is a fundamental reimagining of gradualist evolutionary progress. There is no causal chain here, and no implicit hierarchy, and Lechlitner’s non-anthropocentric perspective imagines life as a confluence of organic and inorganic matter. In an echo of the devices of other poems, the images here trace out a mingling of microcosmic and macrocosmic (“amoeba” and “stars”) while gesturing, too, towards Whitehead’s sense of the atomicity, the “drops of experience, complex and interdependent,” that grow together to form the extensive continuum of reality (Process and Reality, 18). “Textures of Time” concludes, unlike Lechlitner’s nuclear poetry, in a positive vision of the energetic interdependence of reality. Thus, the metaphorical fabric of time that reoccurs as a motif in the poem is finally imagined as limitless energetic interconnection:

A mathematical interlace of threads 

Like a multiple-stranded tether, 

A discipline of energy holding the unbound 

Fabric called Life, together (A Changing Season, 83)

“Textures of Time” might imagine an “unbound / Fabric” that holds all life in relation, but there are limits to what we can read in Lechlitner’s extinction poetics. Regardless of her marginalization as a gendered, sexual subject and as a leftist, rural writer in the US, Lechlitner writes from a position of white privilege, and her work hardly acknowledges the complex intersections of race, ethnicity, and disability with both environmental concerns and the threat of extinction. As Kathryn Yusoff has highlighted, the Anthropocene is a concept that elides different incidents of, and relations to, extinction, particularly those “already undergone by black and indigenous peoples.”[32] Significantly, however, Lechlitner’s work does reach redolently beyond individuated modes of a human-nonhuman division. Thus, there is something to be gained from the textual, contextual, and theoretical excavations I have undertaken here, which may offer a tentative account of a (modernist) poetics of survival on and with the earth. 

In Lechlitner’s poetry, we can trace our own awakening to the limits of the anthropocentric imaginary, of our understanding of the sixth extinction, and of the uncertain future of human and nonhuman beings on the planet. In making the case for reading Lechlitner’s extinction poetics, I am not simply positioning Lechlitner as a marginal, forgotten, woman poet—a “lost” modernist voice that has yet to be recuperated; nor am I primarily interested in claiming her as an exemplum of a particular variant or outlier of what modernism is or was. Instead, Lechlitner should be read against the extinction event that is the literary-critical investment in modernism which, no matter how it is replenished by the new modernist studies, still impacts the biodiversity of twentieth-century literature as we receive it in our present. Lechlitner wrote about extinction, Lechlitner is extinct, and perhaps, before we too are extinguished, we should read some of her poetry.  



I am indebted to Mrs. Anne Corey for permission to quote from Ruth Lechlitner’s work. I would also like to thank the MSA for the generous support of a Travel Grant that enabled the archival research that was crucial for the writing of this article.

[1] Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), 3. 

[2] Andrew Goldstone, “Modernist Studies Without Modernism” (2019), 1–26, 17, 20. 

[3] See also the different “risks” of a colonizing expansion of modernist studies highlighted by the editors in their introduction to this Print Plus cluster.

[4] The concept of vernacular modernism originates in Miriam Hansen’s article “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–71; see Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59; see Kristin Bluemel, Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009); see also the idea of “modernism-adjacent” discussed for example by Naomi Milthorpe, Robbie Moore and Eliza Murphy in “Modernism-Adjacent,” The Modernist Review 13, 2019,

[5] Sarah Ehlers, “What’s Left of Lyric: Genevieve Taggard and the Redefinition of Song,” in Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald, ed. Howard Brick, Robbie Lieberman, and Paula Rabinowitz (Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, 2015). For a discussion of We Are The Rising Wing, “Verse Drama for Radio: A New Direction” (New Directions in Prose and Poetry [Norfolk CT: New Directions, 1938], 110–15) and Lechlitner’s examination of the politics and power of radio media, see Alex Goody, Modernist Poetry, Gender and Leisure Technologies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 272–79.

[6] Alan M. Wald, Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 378n16.

[7] Louis Untermeyer, “New Meanings in Recent American poetry,” Virginia Quarterly Review 16, no. 3 (1940): 399–412, 405. 

[8] It would be useful to compare Lechlitner’s career and subsequent disappearance with Rukeyser’s career and reputation, and there are useful points of contiguity beyond Untermeyer’s yoking of the poets together in his list; for example, Lechlitner favorably reviews Rukeyser’s The Theory of Flight in Partisan Review 3, no. 2 (1936): 29–30. Lechlitner, like Rukeyser, was influenced by the ideas of Alfred Whitehead, and Lechlitner worked for many years in later life on an (unpublished) documentary long poem that recalls the forms and strategies of The Book of the Dead; both poets wrote feminist and political poems and wrote and published into the 1970s.

[9] Cary Nelson, The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press 2012), 31.

[10] Ruth Lechlitner, “Discussion,” Partisan Review 2, no. 7 (April–May 1935): 50–51.

[11] Ruth Lechlitner, Tomorrow’s Phoenix (New York: Alcestis Press, 1937), 3. 

[12] Ruth Lechlitner, Only The Years: Selected Poems 1938–1944 (Prairie City, IL: James A. Decker Press, 1944), 33–34.  

[13] Quoted in Douglas Wixson, “Looking for Paul Corey: Memory’s Loss and the Fall of Self-Reliance,” The North American Review 28, no.  3–4 (2003): 62–70, 69.

[14] Papers of Ruth Lechlitner. The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, IA, Box 16.

[15] Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment (New York: Knopf, 1962), published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber, 5, 18, 27.

[16] Murray Bookchin (1964), “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” In Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), 83; Murray Bookchin, Crisis in Our Cities (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965), 187.

[17] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books, 1982), 366, 356.

[18] Ruth Lechlitner, A Changing Season: Selected and New Poems 1962–1972 (Boston, MA: Branden Press, 1973), 53.

[19] See “The History of Earth Day,” The Environmental Protection Agency was founded, soon after the first Earth Day, in December 1970.

[20] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring [1962] (London: Penguin, 2000), 73–86. 

[21] Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970), 382–83. 

[22] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 120.

[23] Daniel Cordle “Climate Criticism and Nuclear Criticism,” in Climate and Literature, ed. Adeline Johns-Putra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 293, 295, 297.

[24] Ruth Lechlitner, Tale of a World’s End. Papers of Ruth Lechlitner. Box 18, Typescript p. 6. 

[25] Ruth Lechlitner, The Shadow on the Hour (Iowa City, IA: The Prairie Press, 1956), 41. 

[26] Whilst working on a further “New and Selected Poems” edition (provisionally entitled Of Endings and Beginnings) in the late 1970s, Lechlitner actually proposes titling the third section of volume “Science Fiction”; the poems listed for this section include, amongst others, “Of What Superb Mechanics,” “To That Far Future,” “The Atavist,” “Enspaced,” “Prehistoric, circa 1960,” “Recipe for Survival,” “A Winter’s Tale,” “Night in August (Hiroshima 1945),” and “First Walk in Space.”

[27] Lechlitner was reading an anthologized version of Science and the Modern World in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, ed. F. S. C. Northrop and Mason W. Gross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 359–466. 

[28] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99; Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). See also Whitehead’s significance for Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. 

[29] This statement appears in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, 429.

[30] Lechlitner is quoting from Whitehead’s lecture on “Relativity,” a chapter of Science and the Modern World, though she does rephrase Whitehead’s “epochal durations” as “epoched durations.” See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World: Lowell Lectures (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 183. That the “Relativity” lecture is not included in the 1953 anthology indicates that Lechlitner expanded beyond her initial reading of Whitehead.

[31] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929], ed. David Ray Griffin & Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Macmillan 1978), 66. 

[32] Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 51.