Rukeyser, Muriel 1913–1980
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.)
[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.∗
[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...
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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...
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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.
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.
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...
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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...
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