Muriel Rukeyser Rukeyser, Muriel (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser 1913–1980

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

Although Rukeyser was for some time known mainly for the political nature of her poems, in recent years critics have begun to address the aesthetic qualities of her work. Her career, which began with the publication of Theory of Flight, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1935, has been marked by a growing poetic refinement and the development of an intensely personal philosophy of life.

The thematic and stylistic changes that evolved over the course of Rukeyser's career dramatized her passionate, Whitmanesque quest for self-unification. What began as strictly political and impersonal grew into a subjective experience of the social, personal, and physical, as well as the political self.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 10, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 93-96 [obituary]; and Something about the Author, Vol. 22.)

Harold Rosenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Rukeyser's first book [Theory of Flight] is remarkable for its self-confidence and lack of hesitation. At twenty-one, she has already covered much of the technical ground of modern American verse, and has learned how to pick up everything she feels capable of consolidating into a poem. The result is a big book, in the quantitative sense; a book on an exceptionally even level of accomplishment; and her dexterity and energy in finding an approach to a great variety of contemporary material deserves respect. (pp. 107-08)

In her seventy-five close-packed pages appears a succession of city and country landscapes, narratives of a sentimental order, sensations, social sermons, self-revelations; conceived, most of them, from the vantage-point of American Marxist writing. In the main, her images are urban and her tonalities firm and impersonal, with occasional efforts towards the pure flash of modern surfaces.

Miss Rukeyser's verse, however, unlike that of the immediately preceding generation of modernists, does not emanate from the decorative or phenomenalistic fascination alone; it contains a moral will, a will to make itself useful as statement, and a will to warm itself against the major human situations of our day. Thus the subjective, rarely quieted in her, is redirected towards recurrent themes of class-oppression, death, the historical background, revolution. (p. 108)

It is to be expected...

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Louis Untermeyer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Muriel Rukeyser is—as I believe she is—the most inventive and challenging poet of the generation which has not yet reached thirty, it is because of her provocative language fully as much as because of her audacious ideas. The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts, but it is the accent which insures poetry's surviving genius….

Muriel Rukeyser, though only a few months more than twenty-six, has already had her disciples and her detractors. Her three volumes have disclosed an accumulating strength of purpose and an increasing originality of idiom. She first challenged attention with "Theory of Flight."… "Theory of Flight" pronounced a new symbolism as well as a new speech. The style was swift, abrupt, syncopated; it matched the speed of the strepitant post-war world, the crazy energy of murderous machines, the "intolerable contradiction" of flight….

For her the images of war and industry are all too natural; for the city girl the early Mack truck pushing around the corner, tires hissing on the washed asphalt, is a more valid symbol of dawn than the ship of sunrise stranded on the eastern rims or the lark at heaven's gate…. It is significant that the tensity of feeling and the intensity of utterance pronounced in "The Tunnel" and "The Structure of the Plane," followed a course at the Roosevelt School of the Air, and that the curiously choked, painfully mature "Effort at Speech between Two People," one of the period's most moving love poems, was written when Muriel Rukeyser was still an undergraduate.

Even at this time the vocabulary was pointedly her own. The opening poem in "Theory of Flight," one of the preparatory records mingling fragments of emotion and experience, constructed a person and a period…. The emotion, too powerful for its object, fumbled its way through the verse, but the language was certain of itself….

[Her] second volume, "U.S. 1," [is] an assimilation of influences and an effort at adult integration. Echoes could be recognized—chiefly reminders of Hart Crane and W. H. Auden—but her own voice came through with conviction if not always with clarity…. The main feature of her second volume is "The Book of the Dead," a study of a place, a many angled portrait which is also a portent. Miss Rukeyser shows the West Virginia village riddled with silicosis, coughing to death, while the huge power plant (the reason for which it is dying) stands idle, empty,...

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John Malcolm Brinnin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, as represented in three volumes published between 1930 and 1939, it is possible to trace the history of a movement in American letters that was at the same time literary and political. Since her range is wide, and her methods pliable, she has expressed in these volumes the sentiments of many in her generation, and has suggested certain influences that reshaped and ultimately transformed them. (p. 554)

One of the most interesting phases of the transformation of the social poet in years of stress is the change in his use of language. In the case of Muriel Rukeyser, it moves from that of simple declarative exhortation, in the common phrases of the city man, to that of a gnarled, intellectual, almost private observation. In her earlier usage, images are apt to be simple and few; the whole approach is apt to be through the medium of urban speech. In the latter work, images become those of the psychologist, or of the surrealist, charged with meaning and prevalent everywhere. Parallel with this change is the increasing complication of symbols; the first are public, the last, even though they may represent universal issues, are privately conceived and privately endowed. In these changes may be found the central problem of the modern social poet. That is, how may he develop his talent in the full resources of the language and accumulated techniques, and yet speak clearly and persuasively to men about him. (p. 555)

Since the social poet is one to whom communication is the first and necessary virtue, his attempts to be strong and clear without seeming banal, and his attempts to use the complex resources of the English language in an original way, are twin problems that are as yet unresolved. Since the work of Muriel Rukeyser demonstrates both of these extremes, a careful examination of the shifts and expansions of her method and thought may lead to a meaningful resolution.

With the publication of her first volume, Theory of Flight,… American poetry found its first full-blown expression of the rebellious temper that prevailed on American campuses and among the younger intellectuals. Its success was immediate, and it took its place as the American equivalent of such work as that published by the new revolutionary group of English poets exemplified by Auden, Spender, and Lewis…. Miss Rukeyser was praised for the ruggedness of her technique, her experimentalism, and for the powerful utterance which, from a woman, seemed unique. (p. 556)

The first indication of a concern that becomes major in her succeeding work occurs in the poem, Effort at Speech Between Two People. Here, with overtones of Eliot and the personal frustrations of the twenties, is a suggestion that communication is ultimately impossible. (pp. 559-60)

This poem, in its isolation from the political temper of the rest of [Theory of Flight], seems unrepresentative. Its attitudes are adolescent, its sense of tragedy superficial and commonplace. However, in the light of Miss Rukeyser's later development, it assumes importance. It is the individualistic anchor in the first book which holds the author to her own emotions. When those emotions are forced to play upon the hazards of political action, a new conflict becomes manifest.

Soon after the personal acceptance of a place in the revolutionary movement, the author puts by the sheer expression of exhilaration in an attempt to realize an intellectual objectification of her position. One of the choices for this is the concept of flight in modern mechanical terms…. In this instance, all of history is seen as an attempt at human expansion in the terms of flight. And though the author knows that this attempt has produced no release from the human condition, she rejoices in the fact that it has produced an increasingly complex, and increasingly able, human community…. (pp. 560-61)

[In the first volume,] Miss Rukeyser manages, in a few passages, to incorporate into respectable poetry some of the more profound tenets of dialectical materialism. In this attempt, she succeeds in retaining a durable and clear language and, though her images are neither new nor particularly arresting, the quiet yet passionate expression of faith holds them together. They are, consequently, not significant in themselves, but in unfamiliar juxtapositions. (p. 562)

In The Lynchings of Jesus, Muriel Rukeyser makes use, in poetic terms, of a tendency that was evident in the politics of the Popular Front movement of the early and middle years of the decade, i.e. the trick of rediscovering popular heroes as partisans of modern issues. The Marxist aspects of Lincoln's thought, for instance, or at least those aspects which could be shown as parallel to modern Marxist sentiments, were re-examined and publicized. Thus, in Passage to Godhead, Miss Rukeyser reinvokes the Christian legend…. The effect, though attained through methods that must remain suspect, is often rich both as drama and as poetry. Since any new interpretation of old mythology will have a local interest, that is part of the success here…. The strength of her partisanship assures a passionate viewpoint, while the new symbols, and the necessity for new imagery, test her poetic ingenuity.

Another strain in this book that, beginning unobtrusively, leads toward later complexity, is that suggested in the poem Eccentric Motion. This poem is similar to many of Auden's and of the English group of Oxford radicals who came to prominence in the early thirties. The language of the popular ballad, of the music-hall song, is used to make serious observation. There is a foreign ring here, quite alien to the body of Miss Rukeyser's work, yet one which persists through all of her books…. Perhaps more important than the suggestion of foreign influences, this poem shows that Miss Rukeyser retains, even in the days of her most outspoken commitment to a social program, a detached viewpoint: she is able to speak of herself and the society she abhors as "we." Thus, a completely minor poem suggests the whole turn of her latter work.

Theory of Flight makes a single impression: emotional, unhesitant affirmation. Though there are marginal suggestions of many new influences, none is realized in any distinctive poem. The poet's emphasis is clearly upon the thing said, and not the manner of expression. The volume is plethoric and sprawling, full of extravagances, yet rich and evocative. It would be only natural for the author of such a work to seek development in control.

In 1938, Muriel Rukeyser published her second book of poems, [U.S. 1], deriving its title from...

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Oscar Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser's latest book [Beast in View] is also her best, if for no other reason than that it contains her finest poem, "Ajanta." Here she has really achieved the height of a permanent poem, complete in its own logic and unity. Otherwise her book is a collection of forms which she has essayed to use in her assiduous search for techniques: lyric, sonnet, elegy, etc. These rhythmic shapes she uses much like planks being tested by the foot of an elephant about to cross a chasm. Miss Rukeyser's acumen over matters of choosing the right folklore, her fireworks of imagery, strain these forms without allowing them properly to shape a complete poem. Her general fault is an overabundance of material. In the midst of one poem she habitually begins another, and though practising a perpetual literary sleight-of-hand, sometimes manages to cover a hatrack of form with a mammoth smothering wool comforter of vocabulary. Yet certainly "Ajanta" is one of the important poems of the decade, and, in spite of my rather severe objections to Miss Rukeyser's lengthy discourse, this fourth book of hers is living, resonant with the activity of a poet at work. (p. 534)

Oscar Williams, "Ladies' Day," in The New Republic (© 1944 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. III, No. 17, October, 23, 1944, pp. 534-36.∗

James R. Caldwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I find it difficult to repress the opinion that in Muriel Rukeyser the age is finding one of its major voices….

In a generation of artists all angry rejectors of this murderous world she rejects only arty rejection. In a time which declares … that the flux of experience is hopelessly intractable, and the only discoverable orders those self-contained in art or religion, she discovers an order intrinsic to both life and art. This is a radical integration, and while it appears in the warm and immediate apprehensions of a poet, it is responsible to the evidence of much modern knowledge and substantiated in excellent poetry….

[Of the works "The Life of Poetry," "Elegies," and...

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Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The primary virtue of Muriel Rukeyser's poetry has always been a kind of mood, an instinctive organic awareness. Her work has a peasant quality, like the Dorset dialect poetry of William Barnes, the sense of the processes of life all interconnected and spreading illimitably away. Many of her poems have the same sonority as Barnes', a soft rumble and murmur of consonants, "m"'s and "l"'s and "r"'s, with no sharp shifts of tonality in the vowels….

Mood, flavor, they last longer than information. It is hard to realize that it is eight years since Miss Rukeyser's last book. Its impression lingers, definite and so easily recalled. Of all my generation she is the least violent, the most quietly assured. Ever since her long poems, "Ajanta" and "Orpheus," she seems to have been working toward and around a kind of implicitly philosophical poetry, a species of unassuring, objectively presented but lucid and profound "wisdom literature." The meanings of like are not analyzed and explicated, they are responded to and embodied. Pre-eminently these poems are responses rather than reactions….

"Body of Waking"—it is a very good title, because that is just what the poems are about, the organism, filled and complete, rising out of dream to continuously widening and deepening levels of realization. This book does not differ from the poet's others except for the years. It is the work of a more mature, a wiser woman.

At the beginning she was something of a child prodigy, but there is nothing at all prodigious about her work today. The promises are fulfilled, the facilities are all accomplishments now. There is no message, no rhetoric, there are no answers, and yet, there is the awareness of that which only knows all the answers—"body of waking."

Kenneth Rexroth, "Poetic Responses," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1958, p. 46.

Colin Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From Muriel Rukeyser's first volume of poems, "Theory of Flight" …, to her most recent, "Waterlily Fire" …, is a span of twenty-seven years and nine books, the years among the most crucial in the history of the American republic and the books among the most indicative in the history of contemporary American poetry. They animate each other, the years and the books, for the electric vitality of Miss Rukeyser's art stems partially from the tightness with which her poems are plugged into the socket of American experience, and they, in turn, offer the sort of interpretive comment upon that experience which demonstrates that poets do, after all, have something significant to tell us about ourselves.


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May Swenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser has published a large body of work since her first collection, Theory of Flight, appeared when she was only twenty-one. It immediately marked her as an innovator, thoroughly American, Whitman-like in method and scope. Characteristic of her poetry, of which we now have a survey in Waterlily Fire (Poems 1935–1962), is the big canvas, the broad stroke, love of primary color and primary emotion. Her method is the opposite of the designer's, her vision is never small, seldom introverted. Her consciousness of others around her, of being but one member of a great writhing body of humanity surging out of the past, filling the present, groping passionately toward the future, is a...

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Helen Merrell Lynd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some reviewers may be disappointed that The Orgy does not provide the salaciousness its title suggests. Some may be embarrassed by an author who gives so much of herself in a book that is not labeled autobiography. More are bewildered by not knowing what label to put on it. It is not a novel, or a book about the Irish coast of Kerry, or a description of [the Fair,] an ancient ritual….

The impossibility of putting this book into a customary classification is one reason for reading it. (p. 668)

A first reading of this book left me overwhelmed with its colors and shapes and sounds. I had been to a part of the world of whose location I was hardly aware on the map, and I had...

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Richard Eberhart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 life of a strong mind….

Muriel Rukeyser for decades has consistently employed direct thrusts of strong emotion, a deep personal statement, in making her poems. It is not "confessional" poetry as we understand it in Anne Sexton, but massive awareness of large phases of existence. She has a remarkable variety of styles within her major style. She is artful and can be experimental. She belongs to...

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Laurence Lieberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser is a poet of dark music, weighty and high-minded. The Speed of Darkness, the title of her new book, is indicative of the oracular soothsaying quality of much of her writing—for me, a defeating tendency of her style which often nullifies any attentiveness to detail. Her mystical vision is so dominant in the mentality of some poems, the writing becomes inscrutable, as she packs her lines with excessive symbolism or metaphorical density.

Her firmest art is in the linear and straightforward delivery of her story-telling anecdotal poems, the longer biographical poems, and letter-poems to friends expressing an open declaration of personal faith. In all of these genres, her...

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Virginia R. Terris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] the seventies, [we have come] to define Rukeyser as a poet far different from the one she has traditionally been assumed to be. The neglect her poetry has suffered has delayed recognition of her work as deeply rooted in the Whitman-Transcendental tradition.

Her belief in the unity of Being, her reliance on primary rather than on literary experience as the source of truth and the resultant emphasis on the self, the body and the senses, as well as the rhythmic forms and patterns that inevitably emerge from such beliefs, tie Rukeyser to her forebears in the nineteenth century. At the same time, through her highly personal contemporary voice, they project her into our era which, with its radical...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In poems about women, politics and war, and myth [Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser] construct critiques of culture and ideology from a radical and often feminist point of view. The act of critique guides the central acts of perception in the poems. Their poems analyze women's assumptions and patterns of action, revealing the cultural norms that uphold traditional consciousness of women. The poets discuss the role of the individual in history, especially in the creation of social change. Their myths have an unusual dimension, for critique becomes the heart of the myth. Their myths are critical of prior mythic thought; they are historically specific rather than eternal; they replace archetypes by...

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Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muriel Rukeyser is the best poet of her exact generation. (p. xi)

It is curious to read [of] the attacks on Muriel Rukeyser by what were, in fact, political opponents, for her lack of "depth." Purely as a thinker, she is certainly more profound than anyone else in her generation. It's just that her thoughts were not their thoughts. She is one of the most important writers of the Left of her time, and now with the death of Neruda and the ever-increasing sterility of Louis Aragon, she ranks very high indeed. Unlike the other writers of the Left, she never paid much, if any, attention to the corkscrew twists of the party line. So the critics of the Left alternately embraced and damned her…. She does...

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John Tagliabue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The following poem, reprinted in its entirety, is a tribute to Muriel Rukeyser.]

It is difficult to see in this harsh light, in the glare of this machine place
with the ferocity of blandness, pollution, steel, trains and cars with tired people almost well adjusted to their lack of direction and their routine; Kafka is in
his grave; Camus lets out another call as he falls; the river is cold; the 385 dream songs are pieces of ice;
the Lewiston factories are making Marsden Hartley cumbersome and outraged again; once more he celebrates
the splash of the uplifted Atlantic wave and the terror and songs of Hart Crane; Homage to...

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