Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
Cary Nelson and Janet Kaufman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The earliest poem here, taken from Rukeyser's second book, dates from
1938; the most recent poems, taken from her last book, date from 1976.
These poems thus range across forty years of a career and forty years of
American culture and American history. Though there are very strong continuities
in Rukeyser's work, it would be a mistake to imagine that all these poems
were written by a single consciousness in a single historical moment. Their
diverse forms and rhetorical styles represent the work of a poet who sustained
her core beliefs and commitments while responding to changing historical,
aesthetic, and cultural opportunities and pressures. She wrote long sequence
poems, documentary poems, short lyrics, and elegies. Of all the responses
one might make to this selection, the simplest one--and the one most to
be hoped for-- is the decision to read more widely in her work. That is,
in a way, almost necessitated by this particular selection, since two of
the poems, "Absalom," and " Les Tendresses Bestiales,"
are taken from longer poem sequences. Certainly the instructor should read
those sequences in their entirety and give the class some sense of each
poem's context. The sequences, "The Book of the Dead" and "Ajanta,"
are available in both her Collected Poems (1979) and the Selected
Poems (1992). Readers should be warned that her earlier Selected
Poems is not a very successful representation of her work.
Since a number of these poems combine states of consciousness and physical
sensation, it is important for students not only to analyze them rhetorically
but also to place themselves empathetically inside the poems and read them
phenomenologically. What does it feel like to be the mother in "Absalom"
who has lost her family to industrial exploitation? What does it feel like
to speak in the two very different voices Rukeyser gives her? How can one
elaborate on the closing lines of "Martin Luther King, Malcolm X":
"bleeding of my right hand/my black voice bleeding." What is
the effect of identifying with the visionary and erotic ecstasy of "Poem
White Page White Page Poem"? These poems are at once gifts to the
reader and demands made of us. In "Then," a poem published shortly
before her death, Rukeyser wrote, "When I am dead, even then,/I will
still love you, I will wait in these poems."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Some of Rukeyser's major concerns are summarized in the headnote to
the poems themselves. Her biography, however, is not, so we sketch it briefly
here: Rukeyser was the elder child of upwardly mobile, Jewish, American-born
parents. In 1944, at the very moment when the outlines of the Holocaust
were becoming known, she opened the seventh poem in her sequence "Letter
to the Front" with the startling lines, "To be a Jew in the twentieth
century/Is to be offered a gift." Her father was a partner in a sand-and-gravel
company in New York. Seeing the concrete poured for sidewalks and skyscrapers
made her feel part of the city; later, somewhat like Hart
Crane, she would celebrate technology. From the Ethical Cultural and
Fieldston Schools in New York, she went on to study at Vassar and Columbia
until her father's supposed bankruptcy prevented her from continuing. Her
mother had expected her to marry and write poetry only as an avocation.
Instead, Rukeyser made poetry the focus of her life, traveled, lived in
New York and California, and bore and raised a son as a single mother.
Her career as an activist began when she traveled to Alabama to cover
the trial of the Scottsboro boys and was arrested. In 1972 she went to
Vietnam with Denise Levertov
on an unofficial writers' peace mission. She taught at the California Labor
School in the mid-forties and from the mid-fifties through the sixties
at Sarah Lawrence. She taught children in Harlem and led writing classes
for women in the seventies. Especially in her later years Rukeyser broke
taboos about female sexuality. In poems like "Waiting for Icarus"
and "Myth" she rewrote classical myths from a woman's perspective.
Here in "Rite" she dramatizes the culture's investments in gender
and in "The Poem as Mask" overturns gender dichotomy by treating
it as a constructed myth. In a culture that does not recognize the sexuality
of old age, Rukeyser celebrated it. She never labeled her sexuality, but
in poetry and letters she celebrated her intimate relations with both women
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"Absalom" is the ninth of twenty poems in Rukeyser's "The
Book of the Dead" in her 1938 book U.S. 1. A number of the
poems are given over to the perspective of individual figures in the Gauley
Tunnel tragedy. Stylistically, the poem is unusual for shifting from journalistic
reportage to interior monologue to lyrical description. It mixes public
rhetoric and private speech, judges America's history and its contemporary
institutions, and interrogates natural and industrial power. It is one
of the most important modern poems in mixed forms and one of the major
achievements of her career.
" Les Tendresses Bestiales " is the third of five poems
in Rukeyser's "Ajanta" sequence in her 1944 book Beast in
View. The Ajanta caves in India are a series of twenty-nine Buddhist
cave-temples and monasteries cut into cliffs in the north, near Ajanta,
Maharashtra. Built over several centuries beginning in the second century
b.c., they were abandoned in the seventh century and rediscovered in 1819.
Most of the cave walls have large-scale tempura murals depicting the lives
of the Buddha, while the ceilings are decorated with flowers and animals.
The compositions are rhythmic, naturalistic, and generally drawn with soft,
curving lines. Rukeyser had not see the caves themselves, basing her descriptions,
as in " Les Tendresses Bestiales," on a large portfolio
of reproductions. In her sequence the caves are not only a space for collective
narrative representation but also a space of the body and of the self.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
As with all socially conscious and progressive poetry read within a
discipline that has doubts about its viability, it is important to raise
both general intellectual issues and questions that lead students to read
closely. Here are a few examples:
1. Compare and contrast how several white poets and several black poets
deal with issues of race--perhaps Rukeyser, Genevieve
Taggard, Kay Boyle,
Jean Toomer, Gwendolyn
Bennett, Claude McKay,
and Langston Hughes.
2. Rukeyser's "Absalom" is a 1930s poem that would have been
read at the time as part of the proletarian literature movement. Compare
this with the 1930s poems in " Modern
3. Read about the classical myths behind "The Minotaur" and
"The Poem as Mask: Orpheus" and discuss how Rukeyser adapts and
4. What model of political action is put forward in "How We Did
It"? What does the poem say about means and ends?
5. "Rite" manages with its economical phrasing to both describe
a rite and enact one. Are they different?