| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1913 - 1980)
From the outset, Muriel Rukeyser was at once a
political poet and a visionary. At times, those qualities were intensified, and
in those moments she was simultaneously a revolutionary and a mystic. But to
grasp the forces that drive her work—throughout the nearly 600 packed pages of
her Collected Poems—we have to come to terms with a visionary impulse rooted in
time, embedded in a struggle with lived history. Consider as cases in point the
rhapsodic images she crafts to voice the mother’s anguish at the death of her
sons in “Absalom,” and Rukeyser’s own shared sense of loss in “Martin Luther
King, Malcolm X,” two poems from the beginning and the end of a career that
spanned five decades of American history. But that is not all. To understand
her work, we must also embrace the larger, wiser notion of politics that
underlies all her poetry. For she understood early on what so many of us could
not: that politics encompasses all the ways that social life is hierarchically
structured and made meaningful. Politics is not only the large-scale public
life of nations. It is also the advantages, inequities and illusions that make
daily life very different for different groups among us. Thus Rukeyser
understood that race and gender are integral parts of our social and political
life. Never officially a feminist, she nonetheless devoted herself to voicing
women’s distinctive experience throughout her career.
Rukeyser was quite capable of writing short, tightly controlled poems—”The
Minotaur” in the book is a good example—it may well be that her most rich and
suggestive accomplishments are her poem sequences. Two of the poems in this
selection in the book are thus taken from longer sequences; “Absalom” is from “The Book of
the Dead” and “Les Tendresses Bestiales” (the bestial tendernesses) is from
“Ajanta,” a poem sequence that takes its title from the name of a famous group
of painted caves in India. “The Book of the Dead,” in particular, is one of the
major poem sequences of American modernism. Based on Rukeyser’s own research in
West Virginia, it combines historical background, congressional testimony, and
the voices of a number of victims in telling the story of a 1930s industrial
scandal: a company building a tunnel for a dam decided to double its profit by
rapidly mining silica at the same time (without any of the necessary
precautions). A great many workers died of lung disease as a result. “The Book
of the Dead” is thus also one of Rukeyser’s many poems that reflect and
contribute to her political activism. “How We Did It,” also reprinted in the book, is
another; it recalls a demonstration about the Vietnam War, a war that Rukeyser
experienced still more directly during a peace mission to South Vietnam in
the 1930s Rukeyser regularly wrote for Communist Party publications like New
Masses. She was in Spain to cover the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona when
the Spanish Civil War broke out. She described that experience in the long poem
“Mediterranean” and returned to the subject throughout her life. Years later,
in 1975, she went to South Korea to protest the poet Kim Chi-Ha’s imprisonment
and anticipated execution; the poem sequence “The Gates” grew out of that trip.
Rukeyser meditates on her poetics in The Life of Poetry (1949). She also
published a novel, The Orgy (1966), as well as two biographies, Willard Gibbs
(1942) and The Traces of Thomas Harriot (1971).
University of Illinois
In the Heath Anthology
The Poem as Mask
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X
How We Did It
Theory of Flight
"Craft Interview with Muriel Rukeyser," New York Quarterly 11
The Collected Poems
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Metaphor to Action
The text of Rukeyser's poem.
Modern American Poetry
Offers several critical essays, a biographical sketch, and relevant historical data.
The Academy of American Poets
Provides a photograph, a biography, and an electronic version of The Conjugation of the Paramecium.