Muriel Rukeyser Rukeyser, Muriel - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser 1913–1980

American poet, biographer, translator, dramatist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.

Rukeyser is known for her poems exploring the causes and consequences of social and political injustice. Throughout her career she was concerned with the effects of technology, war, and social inequality on everyday life. In recent years some commentators have suggested that Rukeyser's complex, thoughtful verse has positioned her as a role model for subsequent generations of feminist and pacifist writers.

Biographical Information

Rukeyser was born in New York City and attended Vassar College and Columbia University. In the early 1930s, she began the political activism that characterized her life and work. Her first collection of verse, Theory of Flight, won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize in 1935. For the next forty-one years, Rukeyser published steadily, and her poetry, biographies, and essays reflected her involvement in teaching, child-rearing, and anti-war protests. In the early 1970s she flew to Hanoi to protest the imprisonment of Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha, an experience that would become the subject of her long poem, The Gates. She received the Copernicus Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her lifetime contribution to poetry. Rukeyser died in 1980.

Major Works

Rukeyser's first three books—Theory of Flight, U.S.1, and A Turning Wind—respectively recount her first-hand experiences witnessing the Scottsboro trial in Alabama, mining disasters in West Virginia, and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Critics note a parallel between Rukeyser's early "documentary" poems to the proletarian novel of the same period. Rukeyser's subsequent poetry is characterized by the incorporation of surreal and mythic elements. Her later poems, such as those collected in The Speed of Darkness, Breaking Open, and her long poem The Gates, focus on a single image, such as a paramecium or the backside of a school and reveal a personal poetic voice and a concise, economical style.

Critical Reception

Reaction to Rukeyser's work during her lifetime was mixed. Initially she was praised for her eloquent exploration of social and political issues, but this appreciation was qualified by critics who were suspicious of her radical political

vision and found her poems simplistic and didactic. In the 1940s and 1950s, commentators often deemed the poems of her surrealistic and mythical period as abstract and pretentious. Her later poems, however, were commended for their lack of rhetorical posturing and informal, discerning style. Summarizing her significance, Alberta Turner maintains: "Though she never received whole-hearted and uniform critical acclaim, at least during her lifetime, the extent, quality, seriousness, and vitality of her work assure her a permanent place in the history of modern American poetry."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Theory of Flight 1935

U.S. 1 1938

A Turning Wind: Poems 1939

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

The Speed of Darkness 1968

Mazes 1970

Twenty-nine Poems 1972

Breaking Open: New Poems 1973

The Gates 1976

The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser 1978

Out of Silence: Selected Poems 1992

Other Major Works

Willard Gibbs (biography) 1942

The Life of Poetry (essays) 1949

One Life (biography) 1957

The Traces of Thomas Hariot (biography) 1971

Ruth Lechlitner (essay date 1936)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Theory of Flight, in Partisan Review and Anvil, Vol. 3, March, 1936, pp. 29–30.

[Lechlitner is an American poet and critic. In the following review, she provides a mixed assessment of Theory of Flight.]

Muriel Rukeyser's poems are as a collection the most outstanding to be published within the last decade by a younger woman poet. And from a critical viewpoint, Theory of Flight should be of special significance to anyone interested in the advancement of modern poetry.

Undoubtedly the most vital (perhaps the only) contribution being made today to the art of poetry is the shift from the romantic-personal, individual consciousness to a collective, mass-identification with a universal consciousness. The true "revolutionary" poet is one who has grown beyond self-love sufficiently to discount the importance of his personal survival, and who is not only intellectually in sympathy with Marxian, or socialistic, beliefs, but is also emotionally identified with the class struggle. Judging from this critique, the reviewer must state, regretfully, that Miss Rukeyser is not as yet a "revolutionary" poet, though she is moving in that direction. There is real danger, however, that this poet, whose intellectual attainments are above the average, will encounter difficulty in effecting an essential transition from the "I" sympathiser type to the "we" collectively working, emotionally unconfused poet. For among the best and most sincere, emotionally, of her poems in this collection are those which draw from the romantic-lyric tradition.

Perhaps an analysis of the Preamble to Theory of Flight (the title poem) will help make this clear. This Preamble, like the main body of the poem, is composed of separate lyric chunks, or static verse-statements with no stanzaic building-up. It opens with some embracing, cosmic phrases that denote at least a mind capable of grasping more than small, factual happenings:

Earth, bind us close, and time; nor, sky, deride
how violate we experiment again
In many Januaries, many lips
have fastened on us while we deified
the waning flesh.

Here, because the poet is expressing an abstract idea in physical imagery, the thought is clear, the form good. But as the poem progresses, her fondness for large words, her abrupt transitions and lack of integration...

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William Carlos Williams (essay date 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muriel Rukeyser's US 1," in The New Republic, Vol. XCIV, No. 1214, March 9, 1938, pp. 141–42.

[Williams was one of America's most renowned poets of the twentieth century. Rejecting, as overly academic, the Modernist poetic style established by T. S. Eliot, he sought a more natural poetic expression, endeavouring to replicate the idiomatic cadences of American speech. In the following review of U.S. 1, he praises Rukeyser's use of documentary evidence in her political poems.]

[U.S. 1] is all to the good, three longish, subdivided poems and a group of lyrics relating almost without exception to the social revolution. There are moments in...

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Randall Jarrell (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Green Waves, in Nation, Vol. 166, No. 19, May 8, 1948, pp. 512–13.

[Jarrell was an American poet, editor, translator, critic, and educator. Best known as a literary critic but also respected as a poet, he was noted for his acerbic, witty, and erudite criticism. In the following review, he objects to the emotional rhetoric in The Green Wave.]

Muriel Rukeyser is a forcible writer with a considerable talent for emotional rhetoric, but she has a random melodramatic hand and rather unfortunate models and standards for her work—one feels about most of her poems pretty much as one feels about the girl on last year's calendar, and prefers to...

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M. L. Rosenthal (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muriel Rukeyser: The Longer Poems," in New Directions in Prose and Poetry, No. 14, 1953, pp. 202–29.

[Rosenthal is an American educator, editor, and literary critic. In this excerpt from the first major essay on Rukeyser, he discusses the predominant themes of her early poems "Theory of Flight," "The Book of the Dead," Elegies, and Orpheus.]

To readers nourished on Eliot and Yeats and disciplined by analytical criticism, the faults in Muriel Rukeyser's work may seem more obvious than its merits. Though they do not define her work and are very often absent from it, these faults are real: the unearned triumphant conclusion, the occasional muddy...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Closest Permissible Approximation," in Poetry, February, 1963, pp. 358–60.

[Carruth is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following mixed review of Waterlily Fire: Poems 1935–1962, Carruth notes Rukeyser's ineffective use of language but commends her honest treatment of spiritual and moral issues.]

These are the opening stanzas of an early poem by Miss Rukeyser:

The drowning young man lifted his face from the river
to me, exhausted from calling for help and weeping;
"My love!" I said; but he kissed me once for ever
and returned to his privacy and secret...

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Richard Eberhart (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Personal Statement," in The New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1968, pp. 24, 26.

[An American educator and playwright, Eberhart is considered by many critics and readers to be one of the major lyric poets of this century. In the following review of The Speed of Darkness, he commends the passionate and deeply personal nature of Rukeyser's work.]

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. She has a natural force which for decades has built up monuments in words of the strong grasp on...

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Louise Kertesz (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Muriel Rukeyser—Before and Beyond Postmodernism," in The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, Louisiana State University Press, 1980, pp. 365–89.

[Kertesz is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, she compares Rukeyser's poetry to the work of several postmodern and contemporary poets.]

"Postmodernism" was first noted among the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance of the late fifties ([Allen] Ginsberg, [Gregory] Corso, [Robat] Duncan, [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, and others.) Critics identified postmodern sensibilities as those which departed from the ironic aloofness of the alienated poets of the forties and fifties who followed Eliot. In...

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David S. Barber (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Finding Her Voice: Muriel Rukeyser's Poetic Development," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. XI, Nos. 1 and 2, 1982, pp. 127–38.

[In the following essay, Barber traces the development of Rukeyser's poetic voice.]

The early poems of Muriel Rukeyser are often flawed in ways which diminish their impact. In these poems, written from the 1930's to the mid-fifties, the poet tends to speak in a transcendental language which on analysis may seem merely vague. At the same time, Rukeyser's goals and values are stated or implied so incessantly that one's response to the poetry may depend greatly on how one reacts to the poet's relentless identification with causes and...

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Kate Daniels (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Demise of the 'Delicate Prisons': The Women's Movement in Twentieth-Century American Poetry," in A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Jack Myers and David Wojahn, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 224–53.

[Daniels is an American poet, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in the Cimarron Review in Summer, 1990, she identifies several feminist themes that have characterized Rukeyser's work and have made her a central figure in the women's movement in American poetry during the 1960s and 1970s.]

If there is one poet who can be considered a predecessor—or matriarch—of the...

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Susan Schweik (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Letter and the Body: Muriel Rukeyser's 'Letter to the Front'," in A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 140–70.

[In the following excerpt, Schweik contends that "Letter to the Front" "self-conciously confronts and reenvisions conventions of both war poetry and love poetry. "]

Muriel Rukeyser's "Letter to the Front" (1944) signals from the first its declared relation to epistolary models then in vogue on the home front. The title of Rukeyser's long poetic series immediately places the text to follow in the tradition of the war poem as soldier's message—but with a crucial...

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Adrienne Rich (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994, pp. xi–xv.

[Rich is regarded as among the best of contemporary American poets. Her early poetry is praised for it stylistic control and restraint of individuality, while her later work is characterized by a thorough shift to personal, political, and feminist themes, and to experimental styles. Rich's poetry, considered by Hayden Carruth exemplary of a new aesthetic, is rooted in an existential view of the human condition and of the poet as self-creator. As a critic, Rich provides a strongly feminist perspective. In the following essay, she provides an overview of the major...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bernikow, Louise. "Muriel at 65: Still Ahead of Her Time." Ms. VII, No. 7 (January 1979): 14, 16–18.

Overviews Rukeyser's life and career. Bernikow includes personal reminiscences of Rukeyser.

Burke, Kenneth. "Return after Flight." New Masses XVIII, No. 6 (4 February 1936): 26.

Praises the evocative nature of Rukeyser's poetry.

Daiches, David. "Romantic in an Age of Would-Be Classicists." New York Herald Tribune Book Review 26, No. 45 (25 June 1950): 8.

Offers a mixed review of...

(The entire section is 588 words.)