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Rukeyser, Muriel 1913–1980

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Rukeyser was an American poet, novelist, playwright, biographer, screenwriter, translator, and children's book author termed by Louis Untermeyer "the most inventive and challenging poet of her generation." She is noted for her ability to imbue all of her poetic themes—the historical, social, and political, as well as the personal—with an intensity derived from her subjective stance. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 93-96.)

Louise Bogan

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[Muriel Rukeyser] is interested in the state of society to the almost complete exclusion of any conscious "personal expression." She is highly gifted. She can range freely over the insane manifestations of a world infected with a suicidal death wish; she can fuse the early Auden manner with the brilliant snapshot technique of Surrealism. She is earnest, and she has language. After a single reading of … A Turning Wind, one is uncertain what ingredients of life and poetry are lacking. After one has reread it, the suspicion arises that Miss Rukeyser is deficient in a sense of human life. A certain amount of rough joy and silly pleasure, of lying and lust and horseplay, existing in humanity, however ill it may be, is overlooked. Miss Rukeyser has rubbed off the soiled and silly edges which mean nothing, and everything. Her world is at once too nightmare and too noble; it is static and literary. She does not realize that such a world could not last overnight, that the sense of injustice is only relevant when applied to living human beings, and that human beings, although oppressed and cruelly crazy, are also wonderfully funny and healthily vulgar (even to themselves). The day of chaste and noble proletarian myths should be about over. [There] is something hideously oversimplified in crude oppositions and blind idealism. Miss Rukeyser can write with great complexity. She should come into herself completely when she lets down a little, masters a wider range of feeling, and mixes some loud laughs with her high scorn. (p. 173)

Louise Bogan, "America Was Promises" (1939), in her Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry (copyright, 1955 by Louise Bogan), The Noonday Press, 1955, pp. 171-74.∗

Jane Cooper

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[In The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser] is the great curve, still being completed, of a superb poet's accomplishment and the deep organ music of her experience.

The "Preface to the Reader" speaks of the "film strip of a life in poetry" and the Asian idea of the "long body"—"one's lifetime body" (as she wrote elsewhere) seen as a "ribbon of images, all our changes … in process." "Film," "long body," "ribbon"—these words tell us how the work can be approached. It has been a work difficult to quote in short snatches, therefore always difficult to anthologize fairly. For one thing there is its sheer amplitude. Then, from the very first book, Theory of Flight (1935), long poems and sequences have been central. (Why, oh why do we think of poetry as only the short lyric?) Finally, this is a poetry of faith, and faith convinces us most by its organic nature, underground repetitions, the refusal ever to let the sources of energy and forms of communication tear apart….

"Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry," declares the first line of Theory of Flight, with amazing authority, and so begins The Collected Poems. Already in this first book her imagination was ranging wide and deep. Poems out of childhood, family struggles, literary references, efforts at speech between lovers, here open onto the technology of flight and politics of mining, Kitty Hawk, Scottsboro. Again and again one wants to use an imagery of discovery. (p. 1)

The life itself used as a means of discovery and also as the new world awaiting our discovering. The "Preface" speaks of "two kinds of reaching in poetry," through "document" and through "unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream," where we dive deep and sometimes "reach that place where … we all recognize the secrets." She has dived into herself as one woman in history, as a physical body in its relations, as a psychic mystery whose myths and images can, with trust and daring, be rescued and brought back up to the conscious world. At the same time, she has never not been in touch with that world. How much of it, in fact, she seems always to have known! She has loved science and history and modern technology, enjoying their puzzles and solvings much as she enjoys the puzzles and solvings of poetic form. (pp. 1, 4)

The best thing the publication of The Collected Poems can do is to right a balance, to set the work of Muriel Rukeyser where it belongs, at the center of the poetry of her generation written in America. Once again now we can read all the poems of that first dazzling decade and understand why they were celebrated. Can we also manage to understand why, in the 15 or so years between the end of World War II and the publication of Waterlily Fire, the work came to be neglected, even disparaged? Our health depends on this understanding, too. My guess is that the New Criticism set up exactly the wrong standards by which to measure a poet of Muriel Rukeyser's concerns. In the McCarthy era her political material was suspect. Was her very openness to the truths of her inner experience, "as in sex, dreams," equally suspect? What did people want from a poet in the 1950s, especially from a woman poet?

Starting with Waterlily Fire …, the poems move in clear procession through the last four books, generous, rugged even, delicate also, speaking for the necessity of accepting the whole human being, speaking for non-violence, speaking for the child. It is these poems that, since the '60s, have been welcomed and deeply comprehended by the young, by younger feminist critics in particular. But the stream of the work is still larger, and so is the potential audience for The Collected Poems. As usual she leaves us with questions that open toward the future…. (p. 4)

Jane Cooper, "A Ribbon of Images," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 21, 1979, pp. 1, 4.

Anne Stevenson

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Not only is Rukeyser one of those poets American literature would seem impoverished without, but, like William Carlos Williams, she has been an indestructible force for the good of poetry and poets for decades…. For all that the poems have changed over the years, it is impossible to say that there has been a technical development. Miss Rukeyser seems to have been born poetically full-grown, and for this reason it is as rewarding to open ["The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser"] at any point as to proceed systematically from beginning to end.

But wherever you begin, there is no sense in being niggling about Miss Rukeyser's rhapsodies in language. Yes, there are faults of construction. Yes, there are poems—such as "Tree of Rivers"—that begin, so to speak, in one key and end surprisingly in another. Never mind. However surprising, disturbing or rhetorically long-winded Miss Rukeyser's poems seem, they never bore you. It is always the same passionate and compassionate poet writing out of her extraordinary, iridescent imagination who confronts you, and although some of the earlier poems may seem dated (history itself is dated), what textbooks still pigeonhole as "social realism" makes for moving stories. Miss Rukeyser is fortunate in being among those poets who can tell stories in verse.

Miss Rukeyser is most realistic, generally, when she is most bitterly critical. The long sequence at the core of "U.S.I" (1938) called "The Book of the Dead" (concerning the Gauley Bridge disaster in West Virginia in which workers on the tunnel and dam were democratically allowed to die of silicosis) makes a poem out of what in less imaginative hands would be committed journalism. The poems in "One Life" (1957) re-create in an almost Poundian fashion the lives of Wendell L. Willkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt interspersing narrative poems among "pieces of documentary evidence, statistics, quotations used as humor, headlines." Miss Rukeyser's collage method is effective, her indictment of war and American capitalism biting, and her feeling for the American wilderness and man's place in it is as fine as Faulkner's….

[Like] Melville's, Miss Rukeyser's realism is really a bridge to an intensely visionary state of awareness. The line between world and world is indistinct. The threshold of the miraculous and mystical is never far away. It is as if life were always happening to her on two or three levels. Beneath her passion for social justice and her empathy with all sufferers lie deeper apprehensions of what existence and its paradoxes can lead to….

It is inevitable that Miss Rukeyser will be compared with Whitman; indeed, "Leaves of Grass" must have shown her part of the way. Among modern poets she is the equal of Pablo Neruda, and like him, committed to a vision of humanity that acknowledges pain but leaves little room for despair. She is also patently a feminine poet—feminist but not bitchy. Love poems stud the volume. One of the most beautiful is "Song, The Brain Coral" …, which is more than a love poem. It condenses into one lyric a whole philosophy of linked humanity. (p. 12)

"No more mask! No more mythologies!" Miss Rukeyser cries in a poem called "Orpheus"…. But in truth, the coherent body of her poems composes a mythology that poetry cannot do without. The body of symbol and belief which she has nurtured over the years has worn its masks memorably. All have been worth keeping, as Yeats's masks were worth keeping, despite his late resolution to lie down in the "foul rag and bone shop of the heart." That is a shop Miss Rukeyser has not forgotten. For all her political energy, her poetry remains the poetry of the heart. (p. 13)

Anne Stevenson, "With Head and Heart," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1979, pp. 12-13.

Harry Marten

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[As] the twelve books of verse now gathered in this important edition of Collected Poems suggest, Miss Rukeyser's work has never been easy to place…. Miss Rukeyser has offered an often jarring mix of communicative possibilities: colloquial diction together with formal; the reportorial with the visionary; didactic melodramas with philosophic meditations; extreme privacies and public proclamations: poems whose structures tremble under the weight of rhetorical gesture and poems that are little more than catalogues of names, things, places; lines tense with imagistic spareness and diffuse with shimmering implications. Reading through these nearly six hundred pages is by turns irritating, exhilarating, exasperating and extraordinarily satisfying.

Miss Rukeyser's literary "sins" of discomforting variety and extravagance are, in fact, her saving graces…. Miss Rukeyser's songs of self and society are unprotected, honest, charged with passionate intensity that widens and deepens our knowledge of human pains and pleasures. From beginning to end her poems offer the qualities she often praised in the works of her master poets Melville and Whitman: "the truths of outrage and the truths of possibility."

Miss Rukeyser has always been fascinated by biography; and some of her most telling poems ("Double Dialogue: Homage to Robert Frost," "Akiba," "Kathe Kollwitz," "Ryder") are short lives which become illuminating images. (pp. 385-86)

Oskar Kokoschka once said that "there will be no portrait left of modern man because he has lost his face and is turning towards the jungle." Miss Rukeyser, a master portraitist, puts back the human lines. And in exploring such subjects as a visit to an imprisoned poet in Vietnam, war in Spain, a tunnel tragedy in West Virginia—in giving us the "Place-Rituals" of New York City, New England, California, together with a good many "Poems Out of Childhood," poems of old age and death, works expressing the full sexual, psychological and public dimensions of men and women—she has created a broad and moving tableau of our times. In her poems the "risen image shines, its force escapes, we are all named." (pp. 386-87)

Harry Marten, "Review of Muriel Rukeyser, 'Collected Poems'," in New England Review (copyright © 1979 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.; reprinted by permission of New England Review), Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 385-87.

Victor Howes

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Her muse is a mighty river in her torrential verse, half prose, half poetry, she sweeps before her the possessed and the dispossessed, the victim and the victimizer, like so many chicken coops before a flood Muriel Rukeyser, poet, earth-mother, prophet. "She is," said Erica Jong in a characteristic hyperbole, "the mother of us all."

Surely, not all of us all, but perhaps of the confessional poets, and the poets of social protest….

The poems of Rukeyser are hard to quote with justice. They must be taken in their great, long-breathing lines, like music wafted from a distance. They must be felt as they go down, like gulps of ocean air….

Rukeyser's "Collected Poems" is a strong, vibrant uneven but compelling book. Her manner dwarfs her matter. She towers overpowers, whatever she touches. Hers is the personality that projects across the page. None of John Keats's "chameleon poet," self-effaced before even a sparrow pecking a grain of corn, for her. No subtle surprises, no skillfully managed ambiguities here. Direct statements, cyclic repetitions, apocalyptic visions are the order of the day for this Joan of Arc among the poets.

Victor Howes, "Rukeyser: A Presence in the Lines," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; (© 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), April 5, 1979, p. 18.

Elizabeth Sewell

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A dark mirror: one that reflects obscurity, full of shadows, a magic mirror in a particular way…. A dark mirror when you look into it may show you something altogether other, and darker, than the familiar daylight reflection you looked for.

Muriel Rukeyser, to me, is like this: beyond the apparent, some other appearance, almost an apparition. (p. 51)

In a long series of poems and clusters of poems such as we have [in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rykeyser], one looks especially for recurring themes, and intimations of method. It has become customary, almost obligatory, to use the term "development" in such an inquiry, with its attendant context of "evolution." Yet what is most fascinating in truly directed works and lives is how much they begin as they mean to go on, advancing not so much by development as by repeated metamorphosis of a vision and a self already fully present from the beginning. You do the work and then you have to do it again and again, splitting and shedding the skin season by season, the whole yet reappearing again each time, renewed but fundamentally unchanged. So in Muriel's first book of poems, Theory of Flight, the life-work as theme and method is already there, to be confirmed and carried forward in her second volume, U.S.I., and thereafter.

To take the themes first: there is the interest in, and identification with, science and technology; a note of the Thirties in some ways, the "pylon poetry," but leading, with her, into the whole process of discovery and exploration. Then America, vast subject and appearing in so many forms—landscape and city, the lives of men but then increasingly the lives of women and their significance, war, democracy, the social struggle, labor, the South…. (pp. 52-3)

[But my reading of her work becomes less concerned] with themes as such than with method, though the two are never easily divisible, particularly in the work of a poet such as this. There seemed to be four aspects to this method: more than one voice in the poem (or call it dialogue); a narrative quality or a giving of information; a tendency toward lists; a recurrence of brightly colored and vivid images.

Early, middle, and late these come. What are we to make of them, the mind asks—are they unified in some way, or just coincidental? (p. 54)

In many of the poems dialogue broadens out into larger forms, as for instance in the courtroom transcriptions in "The Book of the Dead" from U.S.I., so quietly arresting, or appalling, as they piece out the story of a silica mine in West Virginia where workmen died in droves for the Company, with glass dust in their lungs. Later there are voices from other courtrooms, and from jail, the draft protesters, the demonstrators, in the collections of the late Sixties and early Seventies. One could think of this device of hers as an element of drama entering constantly…. Associated with this must be narrative, information, juxtapositions of images: it is not easy to keep these facets of her method separate, but we will go on to the second.

Narration, story-telling, the handing-on of information: one recalls her long career as a teacher—brilliant and highly unconventional as one of her students told me. Many of the poems tell stories, short or long. All of the "Lives" poems come in here, as does One Life, the biography (if that is the right word for it), part prose, part poetry, of Wendell Willkie…. Whatever this method of hers is, it is common to both poetry and prose.

Third, there is a constant use of lists or catalogues or series. Some of the poems which most struck me [such as "For My Son" and "Woman as Market"] were constructed almost entirely in this way…. (pp. 54-5)

Fourth …, single instances or whole successions of strong, sharp images, emblematic and brightly colored, "the roaring flowers of the chimney stacks … at their lips in fire" ("The Book of the Dead"), "Will see these trees as they were in spring, wild black rooted in light, / root-deep in noon, the piercing yellow noon of mustard-blossom" ("The Children's Orchard").

In close adherence, it seems to me, to this fourfold method which emerges out of her work lies the poems' excellence and strength. Where other modes are assayed, the poetry falters. Where teaching becomes preaching, as from time to time it does, in "Despisals," for example, in Breaking Open; where dialogue gives way to monologue, sapping much of the energy which carries the reader forward, as in the Fifth Elegy in A Turning Wind; where the colorless hollow words of much of our daily living encroach so much that one comes upon "erotic" twice over in one love poem, "sexuality" in another, "values" in a poem on what we believe. Sometimes lines of prose shoulder their way in, unburnished and untransformed … lines exhibiting an absence of music which is almost palpable, a positive non-music of expression of thought. Actually Muriel is not, I believe, a musical and consequently a lyric poet, and the numerous short songs in her work, "sex-songs, love-poems, freedom-songs," as she characterizes them for another culture in "The Lost Romans," even the poems of passion and dream from her own intensely lived experience, do not to me represent her at her very best. Where, then, if not in these quintessentially poetic modes as one might suppose, does her undeniable poetic power lie?

Somewhere in a method is the only suggestion we have so far. But the question arises even more sharply when we turn to themes—America, woman, the poet's life public and private—because, if I am to judge by various statements made about her by others ("the relation of poetry … to political commitment," "among the greatest poets of human concern and compassion of our time"), her work at this point has come to be considered as her most shining achievement. Yet our affirmation of Muriel Rukeyser's courage and generosity may have had the effect of fusing life and work almost prematurely in this noonday light of public action, while something darker and deeper waits in the mirror for elucidation. (pp. 55-6)

Poems of engagement, political, social, religious, are, we all know, among the most difficult to write. It is a truism that noble and intense convictions do not necessarily produce good poetry, any more than the rightness of a cause as we see it…. I mentioned earlier "The Book of the Dead" from U.S.I. which is heavily political, and one of the reasons why that early poem interests me so much is that it is so unpredictably successful. Her four-part method can be seen very clearly in it, and perhaps the method upholds the subject matter in its weight and difficulty. But there is another reason, too…. (pp. 56-7)

In that long poem about an infamous mine in West Virginia the poet is everywhere, but nowhere very clearly and directly, present as herself. As over the years the long political struggle goes on—Pentagon, Hanoi, South Korea—her presence in the poems becomes intensified, and is matched by a similar increase in direct self-revelation of a more personal kind. In one of the "Clues," "The Poem as Mask: Orpheus," she seems to reject any kind of transformation or translation of the self. "No more masks! No more mythologies!" she cries…. Yet the refusal, even if only momentary, of mask and myth in this highly mythological and darkly reflecting poet seems perverse. Is she not at her best when most masked, as many good poets are, seen only in the dark and not in the clear looking-glass? The direct and apparently deliberate self-revelations in her work, up to and including the most recent, are not her most vital and beautiful productions. A distressing sprightliness, an overplus of personal references …, a degree of self-revealing which may tell us more than we desire to know—these seem to me to flaw the poems.

I am not arguing for any heavy mythologizing or striking of attitudes. But look at a marvelous poem such as "Foghorn in Horror," where she becomes the foghorn and it in its turn becomes a mythic figure blindingly revealed by the sheer grotesqueness of the mask…. The poem suggests that some at least of the great vital themes of hers and ours (for themes are coalescing with method here and it is becoming increasingly impossible to keep them apart) will be most clearly perceived when looked at indirectly, in the darkness of the mirror, the life fusing with method and themes and vanishing into them. (pp. 57-8)

A different term may be helpful here, one which Muriel herself uses …: the word is "system."… Muriel uses the word in a passage in The Life of Poetry in which she is trying to make modern poetry more accessible to the reader: "This gathering together of elements so that they move together according to a newly visible system is becoming evident in all our sciences, and it is natural that it should be present in our writing. Wherever it exists, it gives us a clue as to a possible kind of imagination with which to meet the world." A possible kind of imagination—it is a key phrase which recurs in another form later in the same book, "a clue to the idea of the unity of imagination, the meeting-place between science and poetry." The life of the imagination, of the mind thinking and exploring, of memory and prophecy—is this what we are looking for, at the heart of this poet's poetry? Something about her method may strike us here, for its aspects, dialogue, narrative information, lists, emblem clusters, is a curiously exact description of how the thinking and imagining mind works; I do not mean so much our day by day experience but something more strenuous and perhaps always hidden, though our ancestors knew more of it than we do and pursued some of it in the lost disciplines of Rhetoric or Topics out of which Invention comes, the life of discovery in poetry or science, seen as one. (pp. 58-9)

In her introductory chapter to the full-length study of the scientist Willard Gibbs she remarks, "… The poets and scientists, those who have given themselves most closely to the creation and description of systems … live conscious that their own nature is to be translated into the terms of the system of which they speak" (my emphasis). So the method is the life, and to this there now join themselves the very first themes we listed for her in this inquiry: science and technology, and discovery. If we think that in turning to such apparently abstract or intellectual matters we are losing touch with her other preoccupations—America, active politics, the public weal—we shall be going astray. We merely have to move further in.

Into the very center of Muriel Rukeyser's life and work, in fact, insofar as we can grasp that. An image there at the beginning, in Theory of Flight, will lead us; it becomes a poem, "The Outer Banks," in 1967, and then becomes a book which is classed as prose, The Traces of Thomas Hariot … but which I mean to classify here as a full-length poem.

The image is of a place, and of the people associated with it in time. "Kitty Hawk is a Caesar among monuments," it runs in "The Structure of the Plane," and a few lines later come Orville and Wilbur Wright. So science and discovery make their entry together, with, and as, a landscape. We are present at "the experimental trance of the Wright brothers, tracing the wingwork of gulls on the sky over Hatteras," as it runs in Willard Gibbs; and here we begin to see the doing and redoing of an initial or, more properly, initiatory theme over a lifetime which we conjectured earlier to be the poet's vocation. (pp. 59-60)

In The Traces flight becomes moon-flight, American once again though linked with Hariot's observation of the moon by telescope years after his return to England, and the delicately accurate drawing of its surface which he made. So the sea of this land-and-seascape is indeed the Sea of Time and Space in Blake's words, and takes us back to the era "when America stood to England as the moon stands to us" (Traces, introduction), yet real sea too to those venturing sea-captains, Drake and the rest who enter here, plying up and down these coasts, linked and kin to others, star-captains as Muriel calls them, Hariot among them, while Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno accompany her since her earliest poems. Here lies, between poetry and science, the veritable and unified landscape of imagination, of Ocean's Love to Cynthia, of myth and prophetic power. It must be plain by this time that this is where, as I believe, Muriel Rukeyser by right belongs. (pp. 60-1)

In The Traces of Thomas Hariot she speaks of the understanding that may be possible "once the buried history is lit and brought to the surface." In that same book she expands the phrase a little, "a history of the buried life of the imagination." We begin now to see more of what is buried in the depths of the mirror. Her chosen subjects, each a "hero of the buried imagination" …—Hariot, Gibbs, James Gates Percival the forgotten Nineteenth Century poet of science who figures at some length in Willard Gibbs and The Life of Poetry as do also, in similar vein, Whitman and Melville—each takes on the form of "lost poet of meeting-places." That meeting-place is the imagination where science and poetry meet and are one.

It is also the place of loss, of failure, and Muriel Rukeyser enters here as yet one more embodiment of this "buried life" and its history which she must both narrate, in others, and live, in herself. (p. 63)

What confronts us now, some part indeed of the buried life of the imagination, is that mysterious and compelling portent in a poet's life: its conformity, beyond all quotidian and practical detail, with its true and vital subject. So an earlier mythic poet says, "Such price the gods exact for song: / To become what we sing."…

The necessity of reuniting imagination as both poetry and science is, if I read it at all rightly, Muriel's most central, and most political, conviction. Without it, she warns, we are going to be left only with the "disease"—her word—of our institutions "which let the kinds of knowledge fall away from each other, and waste knowledge, and time, and people …".

It is in this wide context that I think the Collected Poems can best be read…. (p. 64)

Elizabeth Sewell, "Reflection in a Dark Mirror," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1979, pp. 51-65.

Jascha Kessler

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[What is striking about The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser] is the remarkable consistency of her writing over more than forty years.

When it is said that Muriel Rukeyser was consistent, it doesn't mean that she wrote in a narrow range of forms, or that she had a single obsessive theme that dominated her work…. In fact, the reader of these Collected Poems will find an incredible vast diversity of shapes of poems, methods of organizing lines and stanzas, varying from formal rhymed poems to the freest of free verse, and as many kinds of "open forms" as might be imagined. Rukeyser is nothing if not variable, and her voice speaks in the most private of meditations and even private jottings to the most public of orations, poems that are like murals or panoramas of historic landscapes and scenes, or running newsreels, documentary dramas, agit-prop works and sheer outpouring of broadcasts, narrations of important events in every decade she has touched upon, and what might be termed secular oratorios or cantatas in which she takes up themes of nature, landscapes, and historic actions woven upon them as if woven on tapestries.

The remarkable consistency of Muriel Rukeyser's work for more than forty years is that of the level at which she works, the manner of her approach to the world, the pitch of her voice. It might be characterized as being in the mode of the heroic, the bardic, the romantic. She speaks out, and she is outspoken. There are drawbacks to this kind of way of meeting the world in poetry, but Rukeyser was almost always flamboyant: the flags and trumpets, the loudspeaking voice, the public and propagandistic mode was very much hers. She always assumed the stance of the hymnist and praiser of great deeds or the modeller of great symbols…. Muriel Rukeyser's grandiosity and elevation of pitch are not unfamiliar or strange works. [The] poets who are bardic are in the tradition of the great revolutionary singers, the poets who take on mankind and the whole cosmos as the field of their utterance, who seem to try to carry whole nations forward through the urgency of their message. Often they tend to speak in vast, orchestral sounding rhetorical language, in easy generalities, and in the cliches of political propaganda. One sometimes wonders if the political rhetoricians, the propagandists, are not very bad poets, aping and mocking the bardic poets. For, although Muriel Rukeyser has always pictured herself as speaking out, shouting out, in protest against injustice, suppression of liberty and life, exploitation of the poor and voiceless, freedom for the person in the masses, spoken of as Man, of Woman, of the Child, the Worker, the Soldier, the Peasant, the Young Lovers, so have the manipulators of mass emotion and mass opinion, the people who march at the head of parades, the flagwavers, the antiflagwavers, the patriots and the rebels. In other words, reading through the 570 pages of the Collected Poems is like rereading the last forty years, not in terms of the arts or even of history, but in terms of the events and issues that are most typical of the times: wherever there are hot spots that journalists blow up on the front page—strikes, massacres, revolutions, tortures, wars, prisoners and marches—there is Rukeyser, in the very front line, a spokesperson, or spokespoet perhaps, speaking up loudly for freedom in the world.

A comrade in arms against injustice and oppression, as the old cliche has it, a comrade with a great heart and a tireless spirit, she was always the poet of good causes. However, it is a certain kind of leadership and a certain conscience, and one cannot help noticing that too: for in over forty years hardly a word was spoken against the suppression of peoples and poets in the world of the Soviet concentration camps. She always speaks of Humanity with a capital H, Sex with a capital S, Freedom with a capital F … but always too she was at war with capitalism only and our own wicked leaders … never a word against the wickedness of those others…. [Once] you march at the head of your armies of liberators, you are stuck with the consequences of life in the political world, and the politicians everywhere in the world find it hard to reconcile the absolute demands that poetry makes with their own kind of expedients. By not speaking against all the evils of the world, Rukeyser, who was a heroic poet, compromised her vision and demands. Why should that have been so? Why that kind of limited field of vision? (pp. 27-8)

One cannot fault Muriel Rukeyser too easily, though: her heart and her feelings have always been generous and kind, and any reading of her poems will excite the best and most generous impulses of young people everywhere, who want goodness and freedom and love in the world and in their own personal lives. Rukeyser remained faithful and consistent with her own youthful visions, and all this work … testifies to that. (p. 29)

Jascha Kessler, "The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser," in The Gramercy Review, Vol. III, No. 4, and Vol. IV, No. 1, Autumn-Winter, 1979–80, pp. 27-9.

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