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.
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.
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.
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."