Authors: Muriel Rukeyser

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet and activist.

December 15, 1913

New York, New York

February 12, 1980

New York, New York

Biography

The firstborn daughter of wealthy second-generation Jewish and politically conservative parents Myra Lyons and Lawrence Rukeyser, Muriel Rukeyser attended Vassar College for two years (1930–32); among her classmates were Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop. She left college for a more active and rebellious role as a journalist with marked communist sympathies, for which her father eventually disinherited her. At twenty she had decisively broken with her family; her career as a writer would be the pursuit of a tradition she could call her own.

Rukeyser covered the second Scottsboro trial in Decatur, Alabama, for Vassar's college newspaper, and while there was briefly jailed. Although she never joined the American Communist Party, her youthful romanticism persuaded her of the essential humaneness of American Marxist attitudes during the depth of the Depression. Her second book, U.S. 1 (1938), contained “The Book of the Dead,” a thirty-five-page John Dos Passos–like scenario in dithyrambic verses that reported the plight of miners in a 1936 Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, industrial catastrophe and corporate cover-up. The poem evolved from personal on-the-scene interviews and congressional investigation documents. Assigned by a British left-wing group to cover the antifascist Olympic games in Barcelona (competing with the Hitler-hosted Berlin Olympic games of 1936), she was evacuated suddenly at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, leaving behind her German communist lover, Otto Boch, who was killed.

Muriel Rukeyser

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(Library of Congress)

Rukeyser retained her leftist sympathies, combined with a deep horror of militarism and violence, for the rest of her life, propagandizing in her prolific forty-year poetic output for progress through science, love, and peace. One Life (1957) is a sympathetic book-length treatment of politician Wendell Willkie, covering his simple midwestern origins, his corporate opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brand of government ownership of electric power (and his defeat by Roosevelt in 1940), and his conversion to a moderate “one world” vision of post–World War II peaceful progress. The Cold War postponed that vision. Teaching in the 1950s and 1960s at Sarah Lawrence College, Rukeyser (and the college) resisted an American Legion attack on her patriotism. She visited Hanoi with Denise Levertov during the Vietnam War, and she organized an International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, on behalf of Korean poet Kim Chi-ha, who was on death row for his political opinions.

Unmarried, Rukeyser had a son in 1947 and raised him as a single parent. Her embrace of dionysiac sexual freedom recalls the poetry of Walt Whitman; her book The Orgy (1965) is an account of her visit to the annual Puck Fair goat festival, an ancient and primitive fertility rite, in a village in Kerry, Ireland. Her robust feminism is clear in the “Nine Poems for the Unborn Child” sequence from The Green Wave (1948) and in many of the loosely versed lyrics in her later volumes The Speed of Darkness (1968), Breaking Open (1973), and The Gates (1976).

Rukeyser’s genuine journalistic strength is evident in her imaginative biographies of Willard Gibbs (Willard Gibbs, 1942) and Thomas Hariot (The Traces of Thomas Hariot, 1971). These individuals, to her, were heroic holistic scientists, symbolic of the possibilities of human progress—one (Gibbs) adumbrating modern mastery of nature through his “phase rule” at Yale University, the other (Hariot) anticipating René Descartes in algebra, atomic theory, and optics, pondering a brave new world as a contemporary of William Shakespeare and a member of Sir Walter Ralegh’s second expedition to Virginia. Both these volumes present, through exhaustive research and brilliant cinematic narratives, visionary moments in the American and Western past, which Rukeyser uses to support her hopeful view of the future.

Rukeyser's only novel, Savage Coast (2013), was written upon her return from Spain in 1936. It is an autobiographical novel, with protagonist Helen undergoing Rukeyser's own experiences during the Spanish Civil War. However, the novel was roundly rejected by her editor, who was unimpressed by its modernist aspects and described Helen as “too abnormal for us to respect.” While Rukeyser never pursued further fiction writing, she continued to work on Savage Coast for several years before abandoning it. The manuscript remained lost, misfiled in her archive at the Library of Congress, until it was discovered by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, then a graduate student in New York. Kennedy-Epstein edited the novel, and it was finally published in 2013, to overwhelmingly positive reviews.

William Butler Yeats once remarked, “Out of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric, out of our quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” Rukeyser’s whole work is thus basically rhetorical. When she left Vassar to go on the picket line, she had the conviction of youth in the rightness of her action, and she seldom questioned her sense of who and what the enemy was: ignorance, greed, violence, and “those others” who exhibited such sins, starting with her father. This passionate certainty vitiates much of her lyrical and imaginative energy. That energy has its admirable qualities; when she wished to compete with Hart Crane’s worship of modern technology, she took flying lessons. Her hands-on experiences in Alabama, West Virginia, Barcelona, Hanoi, and Seoul brought an undeniable authenticity to her rhetoric; like Whitman in the Civil War hospitals, she suffered, she was “there.”

Author Works Poetry: Theory of Flight, 1935 U.S. 1, 1938 A Turning Wind: Poems, 1939 The Soul and Body of John Brown, 1940 (privately printed) Wake Island, 1942 Beast in View, 1944 The Green Wave, 1948 Elegies, 1949 Orpheus, 1949 Selected Poems, 1951 Body of Waking, 1958 Waterlily Fire: Poems, 1935–1962, 1962 The Outer Banks, 1967, 1980 The Speed of Darkness, 1968 Mazes, 1970 29 Poems, 1972 Breaking Open: New Poems, 1973 The Gates: Poems, 1976 The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, 1978 Out of Silence: Selected Poems, 1992 (Kate Daniels, editor) Long Fiction: Savage Coast, 2013 (Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, editor) Drama: The Middle of the Air, pr. 1945 The Colors of the Day: A Celebration for the Vassar Centennial, June 10, 1961, pr. 1961 Houdini, pr. 1973 Nonfiction: Willard Gibbs, 1942 The Life of Poetry, 1949 One Life, 1957 The Orgy, 1965 Poetry and the Unverifiable Fact: The Clark Lectures, 1968 The Traces of Thomas Hariot, 1971 Translations: Selected Poems, 1963 (of Octavio Paz’s poems) Sun Stone, 1963 (of Paz’s poems) Selected Poems, 1967 (of Gunnar Ekelöf’s poems; with Leif Sjöberg) Three Poems, 1967 (of Ekelöf’s poems) Early Poems, 1935–1955, 1973 (of Paz’s poems; revised version of Selected Poems; with Paul Blackburn et al.) Uncle Eddie’s Moustache: Twelve Poems for Children, 1974 (of Bertolt Brecht’s Onkel Ede hat einen Schnurrbart) A Mölna Elegy, 1984 (of Ekelöf’s En Mölna-elegi; bilingual edition, 2 volumes; with Leif Sjöberg) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Come Back, Paul, 1955 I Go Out, 1961 Bubbles, 1967 More Night, 1981 Miscellaneous: A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, 1994 (Jan Heller Levi, editor) Bibliography Gardinier, Suzanne. “‘A World That Will Hold All the People’: On Muriel Rukeyser.” Kenyon Review, vol. 14, no. 3, 1992, pp. 88–105. Poetry & Short Story Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=prf&AN=9301050988&site=prc-live. Accessed 11 May 2017. An in-depth discussion of Rukeyser’s poetry as reflecting her life experiences and her political beliefs. Gardinier states that “Rukeyser wrote the poetry of a believer—in an age of unbelief.” Includes many quotations from Rukeyser’s early and later poems. Herzog, Anne F., and Janet E. Kaufman, editors. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A collection of tributes to and essays about Rukeyser by poets and literary scholars. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Kennedy-Epstein, Rowena. "Recovering Muriel Rukeyser's Savage Coast." The Paris Review, 11 June 2013, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/06/11/recovering-muriel-rukeysers-savage-coast/. Accessed 2 June 2017. An article from the discoverer and editor of Savage Coast that discusses Rukeyser's experiences in Spain and her publisher's reaction to her novel at the time. Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Foreword by Kenneth Rexroth, Louisiana State UP, 1980. The first book-length critical evaluation of Rukeyser’s work. Flawed in that much of Kertesz’s analysis is abandoned in favor of an angry defense of Rukeyser’s work against critics who misunderstood it, but valuable for placing Rukeyser in the context of her time and place. Rich, Adrienne. “Beginners.” Kenyon Review, vol. 15, no. 3, 1993, pp. 12–19. Poetry & Short Story Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=prf&AN=9401194369&site=prc-live. Accessed 11 May 2017. A beautifully written essay in which Rich, a prominent poet herself, discusses Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Muriel Rukeyser, calling them all “beginners” who are “openers of new paths, those who take the first steps, who therefore can seem strange and ‘dreadful’ to their place and time.” Rosenthal, M. L. “Muriel Rukeyser: The Longer Poems.” New Directions in Prose and Poetry, edited by James Laughlin, vol. 14, New Directions Books, 1953, pp. 202–29. A detailed examination of Rukeyser’s longer poems. Rosenthal acknowledges Rukeyser’s faults, such as her occasional “muddy emotionalism,” but claims they are by-products of real achievements. Rukeyser, Muriel. “The Club.” 1950. The Poet’s Story, edited by Howard Moss, Macmillan, 1973, pp. 173–82. A short story by Rukeyser, collected in a volume of short stories by twenty writers who are much better known for their poetry. Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems. McGraw-Hill, 1978. A collection of poems compiled and edited by Rukeyser herself. They are drawn from twelve previously published books and represent the best single-volume collection of her poetry available. Index of titles and first lines. Some footnotes. Rukeyser, Muriel. “The Genesis of Orpheus.” Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, Twayne Publishers, 1950, pp. 50–54. Rukeyser's recollections of the process of developing and composing her extended poem Orpheus, recently completed at the time of writing. The article is followed by eight of Rukeyser's poems. Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Current Books, 1949. Rukeyser’s explanation of her conception of the role of the poet in society, drawing on such diverse authorities as English mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, German philosopher Georg Hegel, and American physicist Willard Gibbs. As the title suggests, Rukeyser believed that poetry should be a way of life. Untermeyer, Louis. “The Language of Muriel Rukeyser.” The Saturday Review, 10 Aug. 1940, pp. 11–13. Discusses Rukeyser's early career, identifying what is unique in her use of language and comparing her with poets Hart Crane and W. H. Auden. Ware, Michele S. “Opening ‘The Gates’: Muriel Rukeyser and the Poetry of Witness.” Women’s Studies, vol. 22, no. 3, 1993, pp. 297–308. Academic Search Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9307295911&site=ehost-live. Accessed 11 May 2017. An extensive analysis of The Gates, the last volume of Rukeyser’s new poetry to be published before her death. Praises her oracular characteristics and lyricism while maintaining the integrity of her political and social messages.

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