Rukeyser, Muriel

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Born 15 December 1913, New York, New York; died 12 February 1980, New York, New York

Daughter of Lawrence B. and Myra Lyons Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser was educated at the Fieldston schools, Vassar College, and Columbia University. She was vice president of the House of Photography, New York (1946-60), taught at Sarah Lawrence College (1946, 1956-60), and later served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Teachers-Writers Collaborative in New York, a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and president of PEN.

Rukeyser wrote and published a play, TV scripts, a novel, juveniles, biographies, criticism, translations, and fourteen volumes of poetry. Her poems have been translated into European and Asian languages, and her readings from Waterlily Fire: Poems 1932-1962 (1962) have been recorded for the Library of Congress. Rukeyser's first book of poems, Theory of Flight (1935), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 1935.

From Rukeyser's poems we can study much that has happened in modernist and postmodernist poetry in the last 50 years—from distance to confession, social protest, and feminism; from Yeats and Eliot to Ginsberg, Bly, and Levertov. Rukeyser's personality is manifest in the exuberant, hyperbolic, and generally optimistic tone dominating her work. She insists on experiencing and feeling everything, private or social, from the smallest physical sensation to transcendence of the physical. She treats sex, a cockroach, social injustice, and mystical self-dissolution with equal exuberance; being is its own excuse.

The result is that Rukeyser's poetry, but not the individual poems, is multidimensional. Some poems are almost pure sensation ("Stroking Songs"); some are explanation ("Written on a Plane"); some are vituperation ("Despisals"); and some are pure fun ("From a Play: Publisher's Song"). Both her personal and artistic credos are expressed in the poem "Whatever."

For each mood or concept, Rukeyser selects or creates a perfectly suitable form. She is skillful enough so that her forms embody rather than contain their meanings: "Afterwards" is a poem that reaches into the unconscious for a "deep-image" ("We are the antlers of that white animal") expressed inbreath rhythm, "Flying There: Hanoi" uses the incremental repetition and the rhythm of nursery rhyme to rededicate a poet. "Two Years" uses three terse stream-of-consciousness lines to express the dislocation of grief. "Rational Man" is a list of man's tortures of his kind in the rhythm of a dirge, ending in a prayer.

Rukeyser's temperament and talent are best suited for writing the Dionysian sort of poems written by Bly and Levertov at their best—sensation, the concrete and physical, in ecstasy, rage, or prayer. Rukeyser weakens when she philosophizes and explains, and she frequently explains more than is necessary. For a poet whose published volumes of poetry spanned more than 40 years, Rukeyser's range and energy were remarkable. Her changes were toward greater variety and flexibility and personal involvement.

Other Works:

Mediterranean (1938). U.S. 1 (1938). A Turning Wind: Poems (1939). The Soul and Body of John Brown (1940). Wake Island (1942). Willard Gibbs (1942). Beast in View (1944). The Children's Orchard (1947). The Green Wave (1948). Elegies (1949). The Life of Poetry (1949). Orpheus (1949). Selected Poems (1951). Come Back Paul (1955). One Life (1957). Body of Waking (1958). I Go Out (1961). Selected Poems of Octavio Paz (translated by Rukeyser, 1963). Sun Stone by O. Paz (translated by Rukeyser, 1963). The Orgy (1966). Bubbles (1967). The Outer Banks (1967). Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf (translated by Rukeyser, with L. Sjöberg, 1967). Three Poems by Gunnar Ekelöf (translated by Rukeyser, 1967). Poetry and Unverifiable Fact: The Clark Lectures (1968). The Speed of Darkness (1968). Mayes (1970). Twenty-nine Poems (1970). The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1971). Breaking Open (1973). Brecht's Uncle Eddie's Moustache (translated by Rukeyser, 1974). The Gates (1976). The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1978).


Blumberg, B. L., "A voice of their own": An Inquiry into the Theme of the Discovery of the True Self in the Writings of Helen Yglesias, Muriel Rukeyser, and Tillie Olsen (thesis, 1982). Daniels, K. ed., Rukeyser Out of Silence, Selected Poems (1992). Jarrell, R., Poetry and the Age (1953). Kertesz, L., The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (1979). Rexroth, K., American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971).

Reference works:

CP (1975). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995).

Other references:

American Poetry Review (May/June 1974). Carolina Quarterly (Spring 1974). Christian Century (21 May 1980). LJ (1 Oct. 1976). Ms. (April 1974). Nation (19 March 1977, 8 March 1980). NR (24 Nov. 1973). NYTBR (25 Sept. 1977). Poetry (Oct. 1974). Poetry East (special Rukeyser issue, 1985).


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