(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The poem “Searching/Not Searching” carries an epigraph attributed to the poet Robert Duncan: “Responsibility is to use the power to respond.” This might almost be taken as Rukeyser’s motto, as her entire adult life and most of her poems responded sharply to the world events that she witnessed.

The first of the fourteen sections of “Searching/Not Searching” asks, “What kind of woman goes searching and searching?/ . . . or what man? for what magic?” The answer is that Rukeyser’s kind does. Throughout the world, she “searched for that Elizabethan man,/ the lost discoverer, the servant of time.” This reference is to the latter part of the sixteenth century, when classical humanism (providing a noble vision of the dignity of humanity) and the medieval tragic sense of life (providing an awareness of death) were united into a heroic picture of humanity that was circumscribed by the sense of human mortality. This unification parallels Rukeyser’s unification of the personal and the political; in the light of her unflagging optimism and her sense of reality, Rukeyser might almost be called Elizabethan.

Rukeyser’s commitment to speaking out (or bearing witness) is renewed in the poem’s second section, “Miriam : The Red Sea.” The section’s title refers to a prophet of the Old Testament, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron who led the celebration of the Hebrew women after the crossing of the Red Sea. Rukeyser, as Miriam,...

(The entire section is 500 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ciardi, John. Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.

Herzog, Anne F., and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Moss, Howard. The Poet’s Story. New York: Macmillan, 1973.