Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913 – February 12, 1980) was an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. Kenneth Rexroth said that she was the greatest poet of her "exact generation".
One of her most powerful pieces was a group of poems entitled The Book of the Dead (1938), documenting the details of the Hawk's Nest incident, an industrial disaster in which hundreds of miners died of silicosis.
Her poem "To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" (1944), on the theme of Judaism as a gift, was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books, something Rukeyser said "astonished" her, as she had remained distant from Judaism throughout her early life.
She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930 to 32, she attended Columbia University.
Her literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, based on flying lessons she took, was chosen by the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series.
Activism and writing
Rukeyser was one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair.
— Adrienne Rich
Rukeyser was active in progressive politics throughout her life. At age 21, she covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama, then worked for the International Labor Defense, which handled the defendants' appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker and a variety of publications including Decision (payne), Life & Letters Today (London) for which she covered the People's Olympiad (Olimpiada Popular, Barcelona), the Catalonian government's alternative to the Nazis' 1936 Berlin Olympics. While she was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out, the basis of her Mediterranean. Most famously, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate the recurring silicosis among miners there, which resulted in her well-regarded poem sequence The Book of the Dead. During and after World War II, she gave a number of striking public lectures, published in her The Life of Poetry (). For much of her life, she taught university classes and led workshops, but she never became a career academic.
In 1996, Paris Press reissued The Life of Poetry, which had been published in 1949 but had fallen out of print. In a publisher's note, Jan Freeman called it a book that "ranks among the most essential works of twentieth century literature." In it she makes the case that poetry is essential to democracy, essential to human life and understanding.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a time when she presided over PEN's American center, her feminism and opposition to the Vietnam War (she traveled to Hanoi) drew a new generation to her poetry. The title poem of her last book, The Gates, is based on her unsuccessful attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha on death row in South Korea. In 1968, she signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
In addition to her poetry, she wrote a fictionalized memoir, The Orgy, plays and screenplays, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöf. She also wrote biographies of Josiah Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot. Andrea Dworkin worked as her secretary in the early 1970s. Also in the 1970s she served on the Advisory Board of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, a New York City based theatre group that wrote and produced plays on feminist issues.
Rukeyser died in New York on February 12, 1980 from a stroke, with diabetes as a contributing factor. She was 66.
In other media
In Jeanette Winterson's novel Gut Symmetries (1997), Rukeyser's poem "King's Mountain" is quoted.
Rukeyser's translation of a poem by Octavio Paz was adapted by Eric Whitacre for his choral composition "Water Night". John Adams set one of her texts to music in his opera Doctor Atomic, and Libby Larsen set the poem "Looking at Each Other" to music in her choral work Love Songs.
Writer Marian Evans and composer Chris White are currently collaborating on a play about Rukeyser, Throat of These Hours, titled after a line in Rukeyser's Speed of Darkness.
The Journal of Narrative Theory dedicated a special issue to Rukeyser in Fall 2013.
- Rukeyser's original collections of poetry
- Theory of Flight. Foreword by Stephen Vincent Benet. New Haven: Yale Uni. Press, 1935. Won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1935.
- U.S. 1 : Poems. 1938.
- A Turning Wind : Poems. 1939.
- Wake Island. 1942.
- Beast in View. 1944.
- The Green Wave : Poems. (with Octavio Paz) Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948.
- Elegies. 1949.
- Selected Poems. 1951.
- Body of Waking : Poems. NY: Harper, 1958.
- Waterlily Fire: Poems 1935-1962. NY: Macmillan, 1962.
- The Outer Banks. (Sea poetry). Santa Barbara CA: Unicorn, 1967.
- The Speed of Darkness : Poems. NY: Random House, 1968.
- 29 Poems. 1972.
- Breaking Open : New Poems. 1973.
- The Gates: Poems. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
- Fiction by Rukeyser
- Savage Coast : A Novel
- Plays by Rukeyser
- Houdini. 1973.
- Children's books
- Come Back, Paul (children's play)
- I Go Out (1962 children's picture book)
- Bubbles (1967 children's picture book)
- Mazes (1970 children's picture book/poem)
- More Night (1981 children's picture book)
- Memoir by Rukeyser
- The Orgy: An Irish Journey of Passion and Transformation. (1965) Paris Press; reprint (1997) ISBN 0-9638183-2-5
- Works of criticism by Rukeyser
- The Life of Poetry. NY: Current Books, 1949. 1974. Paris Press; reprint (1996) ISBN 0-9638183-3-3
- Biographies by Rukeyser
- Willard Gibbs: American Genius, 1942. Reprinted by the Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge CT. Biography of WIllard Gibbs, physicist.
- One Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957. Biography of Wendell Willkie.
- The Traces of Thomas Hariot. NY: Random House, 1971. Biography of Thomas Hariot.
- Houdini: A Verse Drama To Be Spoken or Sung (aka: Houdini: A Musical)
- Rukeyser's translations
- Early poems, 1935-1955. Octavio Paz. Translated from the Spanish by Muriel Rukeyser et al. NY: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1973.
- Edited collections of Rukeyser's works
- The collected poems. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
- Out of silence: selected poems. edited by Kate Daniels. Evanston IL: TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University; Oak Park, IL: Distributed by ILPA, 1992.
- A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. W W Norton.
- The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
- Other works by Rukeyser
- The Colors of the Day: A Celebration of the Vassar Centennial (1961)
- Yale Younger Poets Award (1935) with Theory of Flight
- Harriet Monroe Poetry Award (the first)
- Levinson Prize
- Copernicus Prize
- Guggenheim Fellowship
- References and further reading
- Herzog, Anne E. & Kaufman, Janet E. (1999) "But Not in the Study: Writing as a Jew" in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser.
- Myles, Eileen, "". Review of The Life of Poetry, The Nation (April 14, 1997). This page includes several reviews, with much biographical information.
- Thurston, Michael, "." Modern American Poetry, retrieved January 30, 2006
- Barber, David S. “Finding Her Voice: Muriel Rukeyser’s Poetic Development.” Modern Poetry Studies 11, no. 1 (1982): 127–138
- Barber, David S. “‘The Poet of Unity’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Willard Gibbs.” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History 12 (Fall 1982): 1–15; “Craft Interview with Muriel Rukeyser.” New York Quarterly 11 (Summer 1972) and in The Craft of Poetry, edited by William Packard (1974)
- Daniels, Kate, ed. Out of Silence: Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1992), and “Searching/Not Searching: Writing the Biography of Muriel Rukeyser.” Poetry East 16/17 (Spring/Summer 1985): 70–93
- Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (EUP, 2013)
- Gardinier, Suzanne. “‘A World That Will Hold All The People’: On Muriel Rukeyser.” Kenyon Review 14 (Summer 1992): 88–105
- Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age (1953)
- Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (1980)
- Levi, Jan Heller, ed. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1994)
- Pacernick, Gary. “Muriel Rukeyser: Prophet of Social and Political Justice.” Memory and Fire: Ten American Jewish Poets (1989)
- Rich, Adrienne. “Beginners.” Kenyon Review 15 (Summer 1993): 12–19
- Rosenthal, M.L. “Muriel Rukeyser: The Longer Poems.” In New Directions in Prose and Poetry, edited by James Laughlin. Vol. 14 (1953): 202–229;
- Rudnitsky, Lexi. , Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, v.27, n.2 (Fall 2008), pp. 237–257, DOI: 10.1353/tsw.0.0045
- “A Special Issue on Muriel Rukeyser.” Poetry East 16/17 (Spring/Summer 1985);
- Turner, Alberta. “Muriel Rukeyser.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography 48, s.v. “American Poets, 1880–1945” (1986): 370–375; UJE;
- “Under Forty.” Contemporary Jewish Record 7 (February 1944): 4–9
- Ware, Michele S. “Opening ‘The Gates’: Muriel Rukeyser and the Poetry of Witness.” Women’s Studies: An Introductory Journal 22, no. 3 (1993): 297–308; WWWIA, 7.
- Ongoing project by Eastern Michigan University featuring creative content by Rukeyser as well as critical resources and creative responses by artists and scholars.
- at the Library of Congress
- by Michael Thurston, Modern American Poetry, retrieved January 30, 2006
- by Muriel Rukeyser
- Notes by Marian Evans for writing Throat of These Hours, a play about Muriel Rukeyser.