Muriel Rukeyser Rukeyser, Muriel (Vol. 6) - Essay

Rukeyser, Muriel (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rukeyser, Muriel 1913–

An American poet and the author of a novel, a play, biographies, and books for children, Muriel Rukeyser has been dubbed "the mother of us all" by Erica Jong. The "feminism" for the expression of which Ms Rukeyser is regarded as "one of the living totems of the women's movement," though, is a complex sensibility that is as much social and political as feminist. Her poetic themes, often subjective, always elaborated with force and intensity, are "appropriate to one born in a period of national struggle." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Muriel Rukeyser is a forcible writer with a considerable talent for emotional rhetoric; but she works with a random melodramatic hand, and with rather unfortunate models and standards. One feels about most of her poems almost as one feels about the girl on last year's calendar, and prefers to think of Miss Rukeyser only as the poet who wrote "Ajanta."…

It is hard not to feel indifferent toward any particular poem in The Green Wave, since you can see that Miss Rukeyser—and not just Miss Rukeyser—could turn out a thousand more quite like it. The poems are, essentially, improvisations, easy reworkings of the automatic images of a rhetorical-emotional trance-state in which everything slides into everything else, in which everything is no more than the transition to everything else: if my reader will get as woolly-headed and as oracularly emotional as he can—as if, say, he were listening to Tristan with complete sympathy and empathy—and then utter, in a slow wavy voice, joined by ands, the most powerful and troubling images he can think of on the spur of the moment, he will get the raw material of one of Miss Rukeyser's elegies…. (p. 148)

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© copyright 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of the literary estate of Randall Jarrell), Knopf-Vintage, 1953.

Muriel Rukeyser was never assimilated by the Establishment. Perhaps it is her lack of frivolity which makes them angry. That and her total lack of provincialism. Few poets of her time have been more at home as internationalists and her translations of writers like Octavio Paz or Paul Éluard are distinguished by their capacity for natural, effortless, identification with their subjects. (p. 124)

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971.

"Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen in the world, it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future." Muriel Rukeyser wrote this over 20 years ago in the introduction to her biography of Willard Gibbs; the words apply perfectly to her moving achievement in her 11th book of poems, Breaking Open….

What Rukeyser is breaking open are the living moments of her life, our lives, a conscious affirmation of meaning and energy that our best poetry has always given us….

In the face of a society that seems bent on self-deception and self-destruction, Breaking Open stands as a testament of human toughness and compassion, even against over-whelming odds…. (p. 25)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 24, 1973.

Muriel Rukeyser's collection of poems, Breaking Open, is the dry product of a careful cultivation of the poetic reflex and many years spent thinking the right thoughts and lingering over the right feelings. It has all the liberal virtues: high seriousness, indefatigable optimism, hand-clasping brotherhood, and love for all ethnic groups. There is even a section of translated Eskimo poetry, some of which sounds like a hilarious parody of Hiawatha,

           Well you rascal, you rascal you—
           Know what they said, they said you did?
           Came sneaking in to your little sister,
           Sneaked in to screw your little sister.

and some of which falls with the dull thud that is not unlike Rukeyser's native cadence:

How very hard, how very hard it all is, yes, alas.

Even for a poet who is all heart, it must be difficult to identify with long distance caribou hunting, hunkering down over an ice hole, or making love in an igloo; but Rukeyser is nothing if not sympathetic, loudly proclaiming her identity with the blacks ("my black voice bleeding") and, of course, the Vietnamese, proclaiming it with a passion that can reduce poetry to prose. (p. 101)

This is verse that, like rolled oats, is unappetizing but good for you. It is nice to be against death and oppression, to feel that there is a new dawn breaking and that the good people will soon be at the head of the parade. If you're worried about blacks and whites, listen to the nerveless parable of the soft drink seller.

       On a corner in East Harlem
       garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
       forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
       misery, withered hope,
       a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
       and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
       pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.

It is nice to know what we have to do.

      And for this communication to endure,
      men and women must move freely. And to make
      this communication renew itself always
      we must renew justice.
      And to make this communication
      lasting, we must live to eliminate
      violence and the lie.

What is disturbing is that these healthful sentiments feed a poetry that is without muscle, without alertness, a poetry that substitutes rhetorical poses for sudden grace and quickness of motion. It is poetry that is fatally in love with exhortations and public promises, with first person posturings,

           Washington! Your bombs rain down!
           I mourn, I lie down, I grieve.

with dead but genteelly sonorous polysyllables like "communication," "transformation," and "perceiving." Rukeyser is a great yea-sayer, and for democratic poets everything is grist for the imagination's mill. What she would like to do is to convert her daily bread—the streets of New York, the hospital rooms, the soft drink vendors—into food for the soul, to see the sublime in the particular, the infinite in a grain of sand. What she succeeds in doing is merely juxtaposing the mean with the magniloquent, Muriel the hot-dog muncher with Muriel the martyr. That, however compassionate the motive, is the stuff of bathos. (pp. 101-02)

Thomas Stumpf, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1974 Carolina Quarterly), Spring, 1974.

On a Manhattan street one day, [Muriel Rukeyser] said to me that since we had last met she had been to Hanoi and to prison; said it as one might say, "I have been to Newark and to the supermarket." That kind of balance in her voice, that way of not making too much of what she is saying, produces startling meditations on history as the unconscious ("The collective unconscious is the living history brought to the present in consciousness"), on childbirth, and Sphinxes, and war poems equally [in Breaking Open: New Poems]. It is all political; it is all personal; it is all fusion.

In her life's work so far, Rukeyser has accomplished extraordinary kinds of fusion…. [Her] learned and magical sense of the past … is woven in her poetry and in the prose books she has published where both history and science have come to life—The Traces of Thomas Hariot and Willard Gibbs. And I have seen her give herself to the public reading of women poets of the past, free, because it was important to her….

The "breaking open" that is both title and theme of her new book has been her focus for a long time. Here is a record of the struggle, an occasional notation of the triumphs, of living with openness in the fragments of being "a violent woman in the violent day," trying to be nonviolent; of opening the self from prisons of sex, class, and race to "see" others; of opening the heart to turn militant opposition to warlords into a process whereby:

            we protest
            we will go planting
            Make poems
            seed grass
            feed a child growing
            build a house
            Whatever we stand against
            We will stand feeding and seeding.   (pp. 35-6)

Rukeyser has always been, continues to be, the she-poet speaking of femaleness, the strength of woman creating. She is among the best of this country's poets, in possession of a voice that has for so many years been speaking everything from bawdy ballads to tender love songs to spare and chilling metaphysical and political verse. She, because she does not cease searching, brings forth this book that is of this time particularly, a sharing of extraordinary consciousness in a language we speak in common, language refined by the poet and aimed, like the arrows of the Amazons, at the heart of things. (p. 36)

Louise Bernikow, "'Rare Battered She-Poet'," in Ms. (© 1974 Ms. Magazine Corp.), April, 1974, pp. 35-6.

Muriel Rukeyser is, and has been for years, a most accomplished technician. Breaking Open shows no diminishment of her early mastery of the Williams manner … or of her own very special sort of satiric voice—comic, easy, good-natured, but with a fine cutting-edge. (p. 49)

Breaking Open is rightly confident of its ability to handle a wide range of subjects and styles. Yet the book is decidedly uneven, and I suspect this has something to do with Rukeyser's evident desire to speak in a present tense. She seems to feel that her audience has so changed that she must search for it and its new, peculiar localities. ["Searching/Not Searching"], one of the central pieces in the book, takes a significant epigraph from Robert Duncan: "Responsibility is to use the power to respond." The poem is about "Searching/not searching. To make closeness." The poem moves outward, to the reader, but behind it is an insight which Rukeyser takes to be very significant.

  Hallie it was from you I learned this:
  you told the company in dress-rehearsal
  in that ultimate equipped building what they lacked:
  among the lighting, the sight-lines, the acoustics,
  the perfect revolving stage, they lacked only one thing
  the most important thing. It would come tonight:
  the audience the response

But clearly, as Rukeyser's career shows, she did not learn this lesson from Hallie, any more than she really had to find a way to "break open" or to "make closeness." These are simply the most evident qualities of her best work. Rather, her preoccupation with these subjects, in this book, is frequently a rhetorical pose for the benefit of an audience which she has imagined for herself. "My life is flying to your life," she says, but Breaking Open is largely a onesided book because Muriel Rukeyser is real whereas her audience here is largely an abstraction allowed into the poetry. (pp. 49-50)

Jerome J. McGann, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1974.