Rukeyser, Muriel (1913–1980)

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Rukeyser, Muriel (1913–1980)

American poet, student of contemporary affairs, and political activist. Pronunciation: ROO-kaiser. Born in New York City on December 15, 1913; died on February 12, 1980, in New York City; daughter of Lawrence B. Rukeyser (an engineer and businessman) and Myra Lyons Rukeyser; attended Ethical Culture Center and Fieldston School, 1921–30, Vassar College, 1930–32, Columbia University, 1931–32; married Glynn Collins (a painter), in 1945 (annulled 1945); children: William Laurie Rukeyser (b. 1947).

Arrested while attending Scottsboro trial in Alabama (1933); won Yale Series of Younger Poets competition (1935); visited West Virginia, witnessed early stage of Spanish Civil War (1936); held post in Office of War Information (1943); moved to California (1945); returned to New York (1954); taught at Sarah Lawrence (1954–67); suffered first stroke (1966, some sources indicate 1964 or 1968); made trip to Hanoi (1972); named president of PEN, and journeyed to South Korea (1975); won Copernicus Prize of American Academy of Arts and Letters and suffered second stroke (1977).

Major works:

(poetry) Theory of Flight (1935), U.S. 1 (1938), A Turning Wind (1939), Wake Island (1942), The Green Wave (1948), Body of Waking (1958), Breaking Open: New Poems (1973), The Gates (1976); (prose) Willard Gibbs (1942), The Life of Poetry (1949), One Life (1957), The Orgy (1966), The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1971); (translation) Selected Poems of Octavio Paz (1963).

Muriel Rukeyser was a significant and often controversial American poet and prose writer in the middle decades of the 20th century. In addition to her poetic output, she also produced three biographies, a novel, and essays, as well as translating the work of poets from a number of other languages into English. Although born to an affluent American Jewish family, she turned much of her attention to political and social injustices in the United States and abroad. An activist as well as a writer, Rukeyser found herself jailed on several occasions.

Many critics have evaluated Rukeyser's work largely in terms of its political elements, and, in fact, her political concerns were in evidence throughout her writing career. Others such as fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth have taken a larger view of her literary achievement. They point out that Rukeyser also delved deeply into aspects of her own personality. Notes Virginia Terris , most critics have focused so exclusively on "themes of social protest" in her work that they have missed the fact "that her greatest creative strengths have manifested themselves in her poems of intimate human relationships and myth-making." For example, Rukeyser produced a body of verse that explored such issues as her experiences as a woman, and some critics interpret a number of her poems as the attempt of a lesbian or bisexual to confront her hidden identity.

Rukeyser's last years coincided with the rise of modern feminism in the United States, and her relationship to those interested in defining, and perhaps changing, women's social roles has been an important issue for scholars seeking to interpret her life and work. She was not among those in the 1970s and 1980s who criticized men and their behavior and the traditional social roles which women had been forced to accept. Thus, she has been interpreted by some feminists as something less than a committed member of their ranks. Nonetheless, a fellow poet, Anne Sexton , greeted her as "Muriel, mother of everyone," and novelist Erica Jong has called her the "mother of us all." Louise Bernikow , in a tribute to Rukeyser shortly before the poet's death, castigated earlier critics for playing down "the female-centeredness of her work."

Rukeyser's personality showed few signs of the tragic melancholy many readers associate with modern poetry. On the contrary, she expressed her optimism about personal and social transformation and was openly critical of poets like Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot who seemed oppressed by their experiences. Her omnivorous hunger for experiencing as many aspects of the world around her as possible, ranging from aviation to various unpopular political causes, has led some students of her work to compare her to the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman.

Despite her early success when she won the Yale Prize for Younger Poets in 1935, Rukeyser's reputation fell short of consistent, official acclaim during her lifetime. The optimism she displayed as well as the clear political message in much of her work put her out of step with her most honored contemporaries, and she was sometimes the target of bitter and personalized attacks. In 1953, for example, one scholarly student of Rukeyser's work, M.L. Rosenthal, wrote critically of the poet's lack of irony, her tendency to include areas of her personal life in her verse, and also of her "unaccountable optimism." Notes Louise Kertesz , "A woman Whitman, a woman whose work recalls the boldness and scope of Whitman's, was offensive to critics of the forties and fifties." More recently, critics like Suzanne Gardiner have accented the value in Rukeyser's approach, praising her role in "a poetic tradition that insists on including within its scope the workings of power and history." It is a tradition that "does not accept the given world as it is, injustices intact, but insists on transformation."

She saw poets as gifted leaders with a mission to encourage all human beings to realize their greatest human potential … and she prodded them—and herself—to do it.

—Alberta Turner

Rukeyser was born in New York City on December 15, 1913, the daughter of Lawrence Rukeyser, an engineer by training who was a partner in a construction firm, and Myra Lyons Rukeyser , who claimed to be the direct descendant of a famous Jewish sage of the 1st century, Rabbi Akiba. As the child of an affluent Jewish family in New York's Upper West Side, Rukeyser received a stellar education at such renowned institutions as the Ethical Culture Center and the Fieldston School. Even as a teenager, she expressed an interest in both writing and political concerns. As she recorded in a poem about her childhood, Rukeyser noted that she answered her father's query about her ambitions by stating she wanted to be someone like Joan of Arc . Also in later years, she recalled how her parents hoped she would become "a bridge-playing, golf-playing woman," and a doctor's wife.

Rukeyser's early years were disrupted by both family and public difficulties. Like many young people in the 1920s, she became fascinated and troubled by the Sacco-Vanzetti murder trial in which two Italian immigrants were convicted by an apparently biased court in Massachusetts. Her father and especially her mother were disturbed by her rejection of their world of wealth and privilege. Then, in an ironic turn, the Rukeyser family's circumstances changed with a series of financial difficulties. This brought Muriel's schooling to an abrupt halt after she had spent two years at Vassar and Columbia, and she ended her formal education after her sophomore year. The family fortunes were eventually restored, but friction between the young woman and her parents apparently continued. Some sources indicate that Muriel and her sister were eventually disinherited by their father.

Rukeyser drifted into left-wing journalism and covered the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" in 1933. Nine African-American youths, ranging in age from 13 to 21, were convicted of raping two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates , and sentenced to be executed in Alabama. The trial led to Rukeyser's arrest by the local police for the crime of talking to black reporters and carrying in her suitcase a set of posters publicizing a conference for black students at Columbia. While in jail, she fell ill with typhoid. In 1936, she went on to work as an investigative reporter in West Virginia, studying the effects of lung disease on the local miners. As Rukeyser discovered in 1978 when she obtained a copy of her FBI file, such activities had put her and her family under government surveillance since the early 1930s.

Rukeyser had begun writing poetry as a high school student, and she had even managed to have some early poems published in a particularly prestigious outlet, Harriet Monroe 's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Despite her financial difficulties and work as a journalist, she continued to put her spare hours into writing poetry in the early 1930s. With the aid of poet Stephen Vincent Benet, she refined her most recent work and submitted it successfully to the Younger Poets competition held by Yale University Press. The resulting published volume began with poems about her childhood and adolescence; it then went on to consider the wonders of technology such as aviation that had now become commonplace. She herself had learned to fly in the early 1930s. Theory of Flight concluded with Rukeyser's concern for the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys."

The overall message of Theory of Flight was an optimistic assertion of human ability. Individuals could overcome their personal fear, whether it be of learning to fly or of protesting social injustice. Writes Kertesz: "The technological achievement of flight is here urged as a symbol

of what can be accomplished in human relationships, private and public." At the time some critics like Eunice Clark in Common Sense responded with notably enthusiastic praise to her expression of contemporary concerns. She declared that Rukeyser's poetry "is the kind that makes people act a little more valiantly when they have understood it" and cited her "deep positive humanity."

Some students of her work point out that Rukeyser's poetic technique was fully formed by the time Theory of Flight appeared in 1935, giving her an initial burst of public recognition. Here as in her later work, Rukeyser employed long sentences in a free-verse style. She addressed the reader directly, and she used space in a deliberately provocative fashion. For example, she placed extra spaces between lines and separated punctuation marks from the sentences they were designed to regulate. The influence of Walt Whitman was evident in the style she adopted although her call for revolution differed from Whitman's celebration of the American reality that existed at his time.

Traveling in Europe in 1936, Rukeyser went to Spain to cover a series of athletic contests sponsored by a workers' organization. It was intended to stand in contrast to the official Olympics being held at the time in Nazi Germany. She soon found herself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and she wished to remain in the country in order to aid the Loyalist side. But her lack of useful skills made it clear to Rukeyser that she had to be evacuated with other foreigners. She left behind a German lover, Otto Boch, who was later killed fighting for the Loyalists.

Upon her return to the United States, the young poet moved to California to help put out an anti-Fascist magazine, Decision, headed by Klaus Mann, son of the distinguished German novelist Thomas Mann. That same year Rukeyser published U.S. 1, in which she presents a documentary in poetic form on the suffering from silica poisoning of the miners in Gaule Bridge, West Virginia, whom she had visited in 1936.

An interesting view of Rukeyser's early work has been presented by Kenneth Rexroth. He denies any propagandistic element, noting that Rukeyser's first writing "was overtly social in its concerns, but it was far removed in style from the approved utterances of the Left." Nor did Rukeyser, in his view, share the political activist's desire to agitate and to call others to action. Her poems were instead expressions "of responsibility, of abiding moral concern."

For a time, Rukeyser's poetry continued to receive recognition in the form of prizes and grants. In 1941, she received a prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for "Soul and Body of John Brown," her latest poem. Two years later, she obtained additional support for her work through a Guggenheim foundation grant. But the latest trends in American poetry, centered on the New Criticism movement, turned away from political and social concerns and rejected the possibility of human progress. New Criticism called for a poetry of irony and ambiguity, far different from the work Rukeyser insisted on doing. Notes Kertesz, Rukeyser's writing "in the forties and fifties flaunted standards then in vogue" and her stubbornness in clinging to her own standards in poetry "left her wide open to the attacks of the literary establishment."

During World War II, Rukeyser not only held a government post, working in the poster division of the Office of War Information in 1943, but turned her poetic talents to wartime subjects. She spoke out against the anti-Semitism of the time, declaring: "To be a Jew in the twentieth century" was to be offered "the gift of torment." In the poem "Wake Island," she lauded the heroism of the American fighting man. At the close of the war, however, she became a vocal critic of the use of atomic bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The wartime years also saw her produce an significant work of prose, a pioneering biography of the important 19th-century scientist Willard Gibbs. Her style offended some specialists in the field. One reviewer declared that it "borders on the cryptic," and another castigated Rukeyser for her "fragmentary sentences and round-robin chapters." More positive comments praised her daring in undertaking such a challenging work and her effort to picture the scientific mind at work and its lessons for inquiring minds in other fields.

Like many literary figures who took part in the Office of War Information, Rukeyser left disillusioned when she became convinced that it was presenting the public with propaganda rather than real information. She then lived in California for a number of years, teaching for a time at the California Labor School. These years also brought her a brief marriage, which she had annulled in short order.

In her postwar years, a new element came into Rukeyser's life as well as into her poetry when she gave birth to a child in 1947. Her personal life had been complicated by a love affair with a married man. When she discovered she was pregnant, Rukeyser rejected the possibility of an abortion and chose to raise her son as a single mother. Students of her life have failed to unearth much about the circumstances of her pregnancy. Nonetheless, becoming pregnant and giving birth drew her poetry emphatically toward an examination of her female identity. Her "Nine Poems for the Unborn Child" traced the experience of moving through pregnancy to the point when she could directly address her newborn child.

Rukeyser raised her son, returning to New York to continue her part-time work as a college teacher at Sarah Lawrence. Her duties as a parent somewhat limited her literary output in the 1950s, but when she returned to active publishing—with Body of Wakening in 1958—her experiences in giving birth continued as a major part of her literary vocabulary. The year before she had again turned to a biography, One Life, the story of Wendell Willkie. Written in an imaginative, poem-like fashion, One Life features a fictional German child whose experiences are used to highlight the very different ones Willkie faced.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, Rukeyser suffered a stroke, and, by the close of the decade, the poet was in failing health. She gave up her teaching position at Sarah Lawrence in 1967. Her physical difficulties—she was at times partially paralyzed and suffered a speech impediment—became a topic she explored in her poetry. Despite her illness, Rukeyser became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. In 1972, she went to Washington to protest against the Asian conflict. Placing herself on the floor of the U.S. Senate led to her arrest and a short stint in jail. Her son William (sometimes known as Laurie) likewise protested the war, going to Canada rather than accept a call from his draft board.

The United States was only one location in which Rukeyser made political statements in the form of flamboyant actions. In 1975, she was elected the leader of PEN, the international organization of authors, and, in that capacity, she went to South Korea to protest the imprisonment of poet Kim Chi-Ha. Kim had been condemned to death for his political poetry, and it is possible that Rukeyser's protest—she stood a vigil in front of the Westgate Prison near Seoul where he was confined—helped to save his life. Moreover, many of her poems continued to move along political lines with open praise for young activists. In her last collection, The Gates, published in 1976, she directly complimented those who protested the Vietnam War in Washington demonstrations, and she went on to describe her experiences in South Korea. But this collection contained as well an eloquent description of her recovery from her stroke.

Despite her illnesses, Rukeyser was as productive in her final decade as in her early years. She presented the public with three volumes of poetry—The Speed of Darkness (1968), Breaking Open (1973), and The Gates (1976)—as well as her novel The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1971). Terris has written that the first two of these works are notable for Rukeyser's love poems and the exploration of her own emotions they present. Nonetheless, some reviewers continued to emphasize and to castigate the political element in her work. Thomas Stumpf in Carolina Quarterly criticized Breaking Open, with its references to the war in Vietnam and racial oppression in the United States, as poetry that "like rolled oats, is unappetizing but good for you.… Poetry that is fatally in love with exhortations."

In 1977, Rukeyser was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Copernicus Award for "her lifetime achievement as a poet and her contribution to poetry as a culture force." The citation also lauded her commitment to "ideas of freedom" and her actions, including her poetry, in defense of such freedom.

Muriel Rukeyser died in New York City on February 12, 1980. Her complete collected works had appeared in print the year before. Nevertheless, for many students of her work she remains an unjustly neglected writer. Writes Adrienne Rich : "How do we reach her? Most of her work is out of print.… Included in a major current anthology, her poems are preceded by patronizing and ignorant commentary." In an earlier evaluation of Rukeyser's writing, Terris took a more optimistic position. She expected an eventual revival of interest in Rukeyser. Precisely because "so many explorations [into Rukeyser's writing] remain to be undertaken," she wrote, "is the surest way I know to say Rukeyser is a significant poet of our century, one whose place is assured."

sources:

Bernikow, Louise. "Muriel at 65: Still Ahead of Her Time," in Ms. January 1979, pp. 14–18.

Davidson, Cathy N., and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Gardiner, Suzanne. "'A World That Will Hold All the People': On Muriel Rukeyser," in The Kenyon Review. Vol. 14. Summer 1992, pp. 88–105.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English. NY: W.W. Norton, 1985.

Gould, Jean. Modern American Women Poets. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1984.

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

Myers, Jack, and David Wojahn, eds. A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Quartermain, Peter, ed. American Poets, 1880–1945. 2nd Series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Rexroth, Kenneth. American Poetry in the Twentieth Century. NY: Herder and Herder, 1971.

Rich, Adrienne. "Beginners," in The Kenyon Review. Vol. 15. Summer 1993, pp. 12–19.

Terris, Virginia A. "Muriel Rukeyser: A Retrospective," in American Poetry Review. Vol. 3. May–June, 1974, pp. 10–15.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California