Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834
Article abstract: Known as something of a veteran literary “freedom fighter,” Rukeyser helped to promote social justice in many areas and showed women how they could improve their lives by improving the lives of others.
Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York City on December 15, 1913. Her father, Lawrence B. Rukeyser, was a successful businessman, her mother, Myra Lyons Rukeyser, was a former bookkeeper. She grew up surrounded by skyscrapers, factories, tenements, and machinery. Muriel’s spare, functional poetry was to reflect this cold, manmade environment. She entered Vassar College in the fall of 1930, when she was only seventeen. Her main interests were literature and music. Later, she attended Columbia University, but did not receive a degree.
At Vassar, she served on the Vassar Review and the Vassar Miscellany News, the two major student publications. She also had poems published in Poetry and in the New York Herald Tribune. Like many intellectuals of her generation, she developed strong left-wing political views in college. Most of her early poetry, however, was of a strictly personal nature, and she continued to write about personal themes throughout her life. One of her outstanding characteristics as a writer was her tendency to project her personality into her subject matter.
Rukeyser admired poets such as John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman who wrote with the moralistic fervor of prophets. As a child, she told her father that she wanted to be “someone like Joan of Arc.” It was her belief that poets were inspired leaders whose mission was to encourage humankind to realize its highest potential. She did not believe that a poet should live in an ivory tower producing art for art’s sake but should be actively involved in worthy causes. As early as the age of nineteen, she caught typhoid fever while being held in a police station in Alabama, where she went to attend a protest meeting during the famous Scottsboro trial, in which eight young black men were convicted of raping two white women and sentenced to death.
Little is known about Rukeyser’s personal life except for the information she revealed through her poetry. She was married for a short time and had one child by a second man whom she did not choose to marry. Her poems suggest that she was unhappy as a child and remained so most of her life. She was always remarkably candid about expressing her personal feelings, and the following lines from a poem entitled “Effort at Speech Between Two People” are quite revealing:
When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,
I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping toward death:
if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,
if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.
I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.
Muriel Rukeyser’s life and writings were dominated by her anger at social injustice and her desire to change the world through political activism. Her career as a published poet began in 1935, when her work Theory of Flight was published by Yale University Press after winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. For the next forty years she produced a steady steam of poetry and translated poetry from French, German, Swedish, and Italian.
Rukeyser was a Marxist-inspired activist all of her life. As such, she aroused considirable hostility from conservative critics. Even after her death, attitudes toward her writing continued to be colored by readers’ political persuasions.
The following lines from “Facing Sentencing” reveal much about Rukeyser’s poetry and personality:
But fear is not to be feared
Numbness is To stand before my judge
Not knowing what I mean.
The indifference to orthodox punctuation, the gap in the second line indicating a pause similar to a rest in musical scoring, and the starkly prosaic diction exemplify her modernist technique; while the thought expressed represents the attitude she exhibited all of her life. She believed that a poet should be an activist, that poetry should be a way of life rather than a vocation or an avocation.
One of the most famous incidents in Rukeyser’s life occurred when she went to South Korea to protest the imprisonment of the poet Kim Chi-Ha. When she was refused admission to see the condemned prisoner, she stood outside the prison gates in silent protest to draw attention to the reactionary government’s suppression of free speech. This incident was expressive of Rukeyser’s belief that a poet should be a social activist. She describes her experiences in South Korea in her last published book of poetry, The Gates (1976).
Rukeyser remained remarkably active even after she became seriously ill with diabetes and had suffered two strokes. Her outstanding qualities were her strength of purpose and her powerful drive. She aspired to be a prophet rather than a mere poet. She admired and wrote about people who were innovators and revolutionaries. Perhaps the literary figure whom she most closely resembles is the illustrious John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), who continued writing poetry and essays in the service of the cause he believed in even after he had gone completely blind and was in danger of being prosecuted for treason by the vindictive inquisitors of the restored monarchy.
Rukeyser was an experimentalist in poetry. She wrote elegies, odes, lyrics, documentary poems, epigrams, and dramatic monologues. She was more intelligent than most of her contemporaries and could not be beguiled or coerced into following any established political line. She was guided by her own intelligence and her own conscience. This attitude made her a loner and an individualist; she did not have any faction to support, encourage, or defend her and, as a result, has tended to be ignored while inferior poets receive undue praise.
Rukeyser was a prolific writer. Her collected poems, published in 1978, fill a book containing 538 pages. She also wrote a novel, some plays, television scripts, juvenile books, biographies, and essays; it is as a poet, however, that she will be remembered. She also taught writing and poetry appreciation at Vassar, Sarah Lawrence College, and the California Labor School. She gave countless campus and public readings all over the United States before her death in New York City, her lifelong home, on February 12, 1980.
Muriel Rukeyser was a feminist poet who worked diligently on behalf of human rights. Unlike many feminists of the generation that followed hers, she did not display conspicuous hostility toward the male sex or express resentment of woman’s historical role. She encouraged women writers to seek their unique feminine identities, not only through their writing but through taking active roles in the never-ending struggle for social justice. She had a strong impact as a writer, a teacher, a scholar, and a social activist. Her life demonstrated that she concurred wholeheartedly with Milton’s sentiments expressed in his essay Areopagitica (1644):
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
Rukeyser demonstrated through her life and work that writing, in order to be of value, must be an integral part of one’s total life. Throughout her life, she struggled to find herself as an individual and to express that unique individuality in her writing—especially in her poetry. She believed that women had not only the ability but also the duty to influence the course of history through their activities in every field of human endeavor.
She was regarded as a courageous fighter, even by her bitter adversaries; she inspired many other women to follow her example and continues to be regarded as an influential figure in the feminist movement. Her refusal to follow any party line or subscribe to any dogma brought her into conflict with factions on both the left and right of the political spectrum. The final decision as to her importance as a poet remains unresolved, but she is sure to be remembered as an individualist with a powerful will who followed her own conscience and encouraged others to do the same.
Bernikow, Louise. “Muriel at Sixty-five: Still Ahead of Her Time.” Ms. 7 (January, 1979): 14-18. An interview published in a popular feminist magazine not long before the poet’s death. Rukeyser discusses her later poems and her views on recent developments in the feminist movement.
Gardinier, Suzanne. “A World That Will Hold All People: On Muriel Rukeyser.” Kenyon Review 14 (Summer, 1992): 88-105. 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.” Many quotations from Rukeyser’s early and later poems.
Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. A comprehensive book about Rukeyser that traces the progress of images and themes in her work decade by decade. Explores her traditions and contemporaries and also records the critical reception of her published works over the years. Excellent bibliography and footnotes. Illustrated with photos of Rukeyser at various stages of her life.
Rich, Adrienne. “Beginners.” Kenyon Review 15 (Summer, 1993): 12-19. In this beautifully written essay, Rich, a prominent poet herself, discusses Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Muriel Rukeyser, calling them all “beginners . . . openers of new paths . . . who take the first steps . . . and therefore seem strange and ‘dreadful.’”
Rosenthal, M. L. “Muriel Rukeyser: The Longer Poems.” In New Directions in Prose and Poetry, No. 14, edited by James Laughlin. New York: New Directions Books, 1953. 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 Collected Poems. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978. Rukeyser compiled and edited this collection of poems 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 Life of Poetry. New York: 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.” Saturday Review (August 10, 1940): 11-13. A distinguished American author and editor discusses the early career of the young Rukeyser, 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 22 (June, 1993): 297-308. An extensive analysis of The Gates (1976), 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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