Muriel Rukeyser 101
Muriel Rukeyser begins “Poem Out of Childhood”—the first poem in her first book—with the line “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” It is an apt description of how her remarkable career sprang from an unconventional life. Born in New York City just before World War I, Rukeyser took flying lessons as a teenager, covered the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama, found herself in Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War, and organized protests against the Vietnam War. Her leftist activities garnered her a 121-page FBI file and provided her with fertile material for an innovative body of work. Across the whole of her wildly varied verse, at least one thing remains consistent: a commitment to her own experience—as a woman, a Jew, a queer person, a single mother—regardless of cultural norms or taboos. This commitment, both personally and formally, led Adrienne Rich to call her “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more.” “I am in the world / to change the world,” Rukeyser writes in her feminist masterpiece “Käthe Kollwitz.” In her work and writing, she advanced the modern women’s movement and helped change the face of American poetry.
“Effort at Speech Between Two People”
Rukeyser was only 21 when she won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets prize for her first book, Theories of Flight, but this poem from that collection demonstrates just how fully formed her poetic vision already was. For Rukeyser, poetry really is speech between people—even her most abstracted, experimental work genuinely attempts to connect readers and writer, to employ verse not only as a means of expression and transformation but also of listening. At once intimate and anthemic, urgent and quiet, this poem repeatedly asks “what are you now,” inviting us to find ourselves in her experiences and leaving space to answer her disclosures with our own.
from “The Book of the Dead”: “Praise of the Committee”
Rukeyser’s best-known, most celebrated work might be “The Book of the Dead,” a long sequence from her second book, U.S. 1, published in 1938. A pioneering piece of documentary poetics, its 20 poems blend an array of voices—legal briefs, persona poems, lyrical descriptions, Egyptian mythology—to tell the story of the 1931 Hawk’s Nest Tunnel incident, one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters. This powerful poem from early in the cycle serves a kind of choral function: it provides an overview of the corporate malfeasance by embodying the committee resisting it and offering quotes from their charter, Congressional testimony, and lyrical retellings of their story.
These poems, first published in Poetry magazine in 1948, engage in a different kind of documentation and a more personal, feminist politics. Addressed to Rukeyser’s then-unborn son, the poem cycle treats the experience of pregnancy with an honesty and a complexity that was then unheard of. Whether writing about single motherhood, gay desire, or poverty, Rukeyser often broke cultural taboos in her work. But mastery of form was always part of her achievement, as it is here, when she puts the meditative mode of the sonnet—a historically male-dominated form—to radically different ends.
Originally published in Poetry in 1962, the first and last sections of this poem describe an event from Rukeyser’s own biography: she was meeting a friend at the Museum of Modern Art when a fire broke out in the galleries, destroying one of Monet’s famous waterlily paintings. But the poem also draws on Buddhist writings and bears the clear influence—in both its subject and outlook—of fellow poet and New Yorker Walt Whitman. Such intellectual promiscuity was typical of Rukeyser, whose sources were as encompassing as her life experience. Between the covers of her books, readers might encounter anything from Greek myth to Talmudic stories to translations of Octavio Paz or Inuit songs.
“Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)”
Though written in 1968, this short lyric from The Speed of Darkness feels more relevant than ever, considering just how much information “[pours] out of various devices” in the digital era. Such prescience was, in some ways, Rukeyser’s project. Though deeply involved in the politics of her moment, here she inhabits a speaker outside them, who looks back from such remove that views the 20th century was just the first century of “these wars.” If her assessment feels pessimistic, consider the ambitions she has for her poetry, which she addressed to readers “unseen and unborn” and hoped might “construct peace.”
“The Speed of Darkness”
Rukeyser returned again and again to the construct of the poetic sequence because its larger canvas offered her space to articulate a broad, unifying vision that smaller, tidier lyrics might not. Indeed, space is a key word in this famous 1968 sequence, whose brief, oracular sections use imagery of dark skies and stars to create constellations among apparently disparate things. “Ends of the earth join tonight,” she prays, and they do here, in this masterpiece that imagines everything from the most intimate erotic encounters to the Vietnam War as parts of “the world thinking and reaching.”
Rukeyser was a master portraitist, capturing figures ranging from the composer Charles Ives to Jewish sage Akiba over the course of her career. This poem from the “Lives” section of The Speed of Darkness pays homage to another portraitist, Käthe Kollwitz, whose paintings and prints depicted “the faces of the sufferers / in the street, in dailiness.” Its five sections are often ekphrastic, drawing on the German artist’s expressionist images of weavers. But Rukeyser was also interested in the artist herself, whose frank ideas about artistic process, sexual desire, and gender fluidity mirrored Rukeyser’s own.
“Ballad of Orange and Grape”
If Rukeyser’s sensibilities were decisively shaped by Modernist innovations such as collage and montage, she also consistently riffed on inherited forms. This poem from Breaking Open (1973) operates, in many ways, as a traditional ballad; it explores race and liberal conscience through story, and the poem hews so closely to its rhyme scheme (day/say/way, in the first stanza) that it feels, at times, like farce. But the final few stanzas complicate her play: her rhymes veer off course (street/GRAPE, rape/hope), formally challenging what she so often did throughout her career: the limits of any “binary system.”
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.