InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Muriel Rukeyser
(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.

Although 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 1972.

During 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).

Cary Nelson
University of Illinois

In the Heath Anthology
Absalom (1938)
The Minotaur (1944)
Rite (1958)
The Poem as Mask (1968)
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X (1973)
How We Did It (1976)

Other Works
Theory of Flight (1935)
"Craft Interview with Muriel Rukeyser," New York Quarterly 11 (1972)
The Collected Poems (1979)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


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.

Secondary Sources