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Muriel Rukeyser was one of the twentieth century’s most productive and articulate poet-activists, concerned with a range of social and political justice issues. She saw poets as gifted leaders with a mission to encourage all human beings to realize their greatest human potential.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Passion for Social Justice
Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York City in 1913. She attended Vassar College, where she co-founded and edited the undergraduate literary magazine the Student Review. She also briefly attended the Roosevelt Aviation School and Columbia University. At a young age, her life was marked by a strong commitment to social activism. While working at the Student Review at Vassar, Rukeyser covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama in which nine African American youths were accused of raping two white girls. She based her poem, ”The Trial,” on this experience. Rukeyser’s career as a published poet began in 1935 when her collection of poems Theory of Flight, inspired largely by her flying lessons at aviation school, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition and was published by Yale University Press. The collection established Rukeyser as an energetic writer, concerned with social injustice and the search for ways to discover the fullest human potential. Theory of Flight was also, in many ways, a template for the type of poetry Rukeyser would write her entire life. The poems were mostly written in free verse with syntax that is more like prose than song. She very often wrote sequences or clusters of poems grouped by single situations, characters, or themes.
After college, Rukeyser wrote a steady stream of poetry and taught at Vassar and Sarah Lawrence College. She also wrote plays, television scripts, children’s books, biographies, and essays, and translated poems from several languages. She was married briefly and, on her own, raised a son, whom she had had by another man. Yet, it is her poetry about political and social issues, as well as her attempts to synthesize poetry into her own journey of self-discovery, that form the basis of her literary life.
Poetry of the Personal and Political
Rukeyser’s second book, the 1938 collection, U.S. 1—named after the highway that runs from Maine to Florida—cemented her reputation as a proponent of social causes. In U.S. 1, Rukeyser wrote movingly about the West Virginia Gauley Bridge tragedy, in which thousands of workers died of the lung disease silicosis, while their employer ignored the hazards of inhaling glass particles the workers encountered while tunneling. The poems from this cycle are commonly referred to as The Book of the Dead.
With her next book, A Turning Wind: Poems (1939), Rukeyser maintained her passion for social justice, but she also focused on more personal issues. She was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1943, and continued to explore a balance of her political and personal subjects over her next few books. She made a conscious choice to focus on very personal topics with the 1944 collection Beast in a View. Beast in a View contains the poem “Ajanta,” which many critics still regard as her finest work. The title refers to a series of painted caves in India, which represent the poetic journey she undertook to delve deep into her inner, mysterious life to pursue self-knowledge. She continued this psychological and literary journey in her next two major works of poetry, The Green Wave (1948) and Body of Walking (1958).
A Renewed Commitment to Activism
During the 1960s and 1970s, Rukeyser renewed her commitment to political and social activism. She was jailed briefly for protesting the Vietnam War on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. She also stirred up controversy by visiting Hanoi, Vietnam, at a time when the United States was waging a war against the North Vietnamese government and its forces, which were based in Hanoi. Her poetry during this time, published in the notable collections The Speed of Darkness (1968) and Breaking Open: New Poems (1973), reflect a strong undercurrent of political passion along with personal topics. Many of her poems reflect her personal and emotional journey in the larger context of the political and social movements she supported. Rukeyser was also considered a contemporary of many of the feminist poets who emerged during the 1970s, including Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton.
At almost sixty, nearing the end of her life and in deteriorating health, she became president of the American Center for PEN, an organization that supports the rights and free expression of writers throughout the world. As a representative of PEN, Rukeyser traveled to South Korea to voice her opposition to the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha. When she was denied a meeting with the poet, she stood outside the prison gates in protest. Her last collection of poetry, The Gates, published in 1976, is based on that experience. The Gates also contains a deeply personal poem about recovering from a paralyzing stroke, ”Resurrection of the Right Side,” which is admired by many critics. Despite her failing health, Rukeyser did see The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser go to publication in 1978. In 1979, she was honored at the annual New York Quarterly Poetry Day for her outstanding contribution to contemporary poetry. In 1980, Rukeyser died in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
Although her work borrows from a number of genres and traditions, including lyric and experimental poetry, Rukeyser is widely recognized for helping to usher in a new modern poetic style: documentary poetry. Documentary poetry is a dynamic type of poetry that informs as it reflects and provides real facts and knowledge while imagining their emotional and psychological dimensions. Rukeyser’s most famous series of documentary poems is The Book of the Dead in U.S. 1. The Book of the Dead documents the silicosis poisoning of workers in West Virginia and draws upon actual legal testimony, first-person interviews, and facts about the event while exploring the emotional devastation of the tragedy. Documentary poetry derives its power from being able to articulate the “real” while elevating it to the artistry of poetry.
Works in Critical Context
While Rukeyser’s poetry exhibits an exuberant passion and outrage over political injustices, critics’ assessments of that passion have varied. Many critics have found her more political work to be overly preachy and technically lacking, even simplistic. Most critics agree that her lyrical and personal poetry is, technically and artistically, more sophisticated. Critics also generally agree on her ability to reflect the changing social and political landscapes of her time and to articulate her own passionate experience of them. As Richard Eberhart wrote, ”The poems of Muriel Rukeyser are primordial and torrential. They pour out excitements of a large emotional force, taking in a great deal of life and giving out profound realizations of the significance of being.”
Published in the collection, Beast in a View, ”Ajanta” is a long poem of self-discovery inspired by a set of Buddhist cave temples in Ajanta, India. Critics praised the work as a departure from much of Rukeyser’s earlier, more political pieces, and it remains one of her most critically acclaimed poems. Critic Virginia R.Terris calls the work Rukeyser’s ”first statement of this sense of achievement of integration with herself,” noting, ”In this inner exploration, she is released from the bonds that have held her, her involvement with society. She recognizes, at last, that self-knowledge must precede all other kinds.”
”Resurrection of the Right Side”
One of her last poems, ”Resurrection of the Right Side” is an account of Rukeyser’s battle to recover after stroke. Praised by critics for its striking ability to engage the reader and document the physical and psychological dimensions of her battle, ”Resurrection of the Right Side” is also considered a strong restatement of Rukeyser’s poetic philosophy. When writing about the poem as a culmination of her attempt to find an authentic and inspired poetic voice, critic Davis S. Barber concludes, ”Rukeyser’s intimately personal but objective voice is also evident in her treatment in a major article of faith: her belief in the power of creativity.”
- Dayton, Tim. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
- Herzog, Anne F. and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. “How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?”: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana University Press, 1979.
- Rosenthal, M. L. ”Muriel Rukeyser: The Longer Poems.” New Directions in Prose and Poetry 16. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1953, pp. 201-229.
- Barber, David S. ”Finding Her Voice: Muriel Rukeyser’s Poetic Development.” Modern Poetry Studies 11,1 &2 (1982): 127-38.
- Bernikow, Louise. ”Muriel at 65: Still Ahead of Her Time.” MS, 2 (April 1974): 35-36.
- Eberhart, Richard. ”Personal Statement.” The New York Times Book Review (June 23, 1968): 24, 26.
- Solotaroff, T. ”Rukeyser: Poet of Plenitude.” Nation 230 (1980): 277-278.
- Terris, Virginia R. ”Muriel Rukeyser: A Retrospective.” The American Poetry Review 3 (May-June 1974): 10-15.
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