Although poet Muriel Rukeyser often provoked a varying critical response to her work, there was never any doubt during her five-decade literary career that a resounding passion was on display. Of her first book, the award-winning collection Theory of Flight, W. R. Benet remarked in the Saturday Review of Literature : "She is a radical politically, but she writes as a poet not a propagandist. When you hold this book in your hand you hold a living thing." Some forty-five years later, Gramercy Review contributor Jascha Kessler labeled Rukeyser "the heroic, the bardic, the romantic. . . . Poets who are bardic . . . take on mankind and the whole cosmos as the field of their utterance, . . . [and] try to carry whole nations forward through the urgency of their message. . . . Wherever there are hot spots that journalists blow up on the front page—strikes, massacres, revolutions, tortures, wars, prisoners and marches—there is Rukeyser, in the very front line, a spokesperson, or spokespoet perhaps, speaking up loudly for freedom in the world." Though her outspoken nature obviously displeased certain critics, Rukeyser remained a "spokespoet" all of her adult life.
In the critical commentary on Rukeyser's more than a dozen poetry collections, such phrases as "social activist" or "poet of social protest" are common. Alberta Turner explains in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Rukeyser was a native of New York City and "by her own choice her life was not bland or sheltered." In the 1930s Rukeyser attended Vassar College and became literary editor of the leftist undergraduate journal Student Review . As a reporter for this journal, Rukeyser covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama in which nine black youths were accused of raping two white girls. According to Wolfgang Saxon in his New York Times obituary of Rukeyser, the Scottsboro incident was the basis of Rukeyser's poem "The Trial" and "may have been the genesis of her commitment to the cause of the underdog and the unjustly condemned."
Following the Scottsboro trial, Rukeyser moved within very broad social circles for the remainder of her years. Among other things, she supported the Spanish Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War; she was once jailed in Washington for her protest of the Vietnam War; and, as president of the American Center for PEN, she travelled to South Korea in the 1970s to rally against the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha, the incident which later became the framework of one of Rukeyser's last poems, "The Gates." Since she aligned her creative capacities so closely with the current events of her day, a number of reviewers believe the history of the United States for several decades can be culled from Rukeyser's poetry.
Though frequently incensed by worldly injustices—as is apparent in both the subject matter and tone of her writing—Rukeyser had an optimism that at times surprised her critics. According to Roy B. Hoffman in his Village Voice review of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, Rukeyser's distress with injustice was "mingled with a romantic's belief in the perfectibility of the universe, and a young patriot's belief in the perfectibility of her nation. . . . Perhaps it is this belief of Rukeyser's—in a radiant epiphany behind the pain of conflict—that both dates her and makes her refreshing to read. Her idealism is unmarked by heavy irony, cynicism, or an intricacy of wit that characterizes much contemporary poetry." Because of her optimism, reviewers compared Rukeyser's style to that of nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman. In an assessment of Waterlily Fire: Poems, 1935-1962, a Virginia Quarterly Review critic explained that "like Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser has so much joy that it is not to be contained in regular verse but comes out in lines that are rugged and soaring." In much the same vein, New York Times Book Review's Richard Eberhart judged Rukeyser's poems in general to be "primordial and torrential. They pour out excitements of a large emotional force, taking in a great deal of life and giving out profound realizations of the significance of being. . . . She belongs to the Whitman school of large confrontations and outpourings."
In opposition to those who appreciated this poet's ability to merge her outrage with hope, some reviewers considered Rukeyser's optimism a weakness or a mere posturing. For instance, Thomas Stumpf in the Carolina Quarterly found that Rukeyser's later collection Breaking Open contains an "indefatigable optimism, hand-clasping brotherhood, and love for all ethnic groups . . . [which] feed[s] a poetry that is without muscle. . . . It is poetry that is fatally in love with exhortations and public promises, with first person posturings." What Stumpf ultimately detected in this particular collection was "the stuff of bathos." In turn, Louise Bogan criticized Rukeyser for creating a world in her poetry that, in reality, "could not last overnight." In her book Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry, Bogan described the world in Rukeyser's A Turning Wind as "deficient in a sense of human life. . . . Her world is at once too nightmare and too noble. . . . She does not realize that such a world could not last overnight, that the sense of injustice is only relevant when applied to living human beings. . . . [There] is something hideously oversimplified in crude oppositions and blind idealism." Apart from complaints such as these, many reviewers fondly supported Rukeyser's optimism, an optimism grounded in what Kenneth Rexroth had labeled in a Los Angeles Times essay "the Community of Love."
In accordance with her impassioned nature, many of Rukeyser's earlier poems contain an intrepidness and exhortative voice that will surely be remembered. "Her intense tone, angry but also tender, jubilant, even exalted, which was to be dominant throughout her career, [was] already apparent in her first book," stated Turner; in it "she makes little use of silence." Some critics were inspired by this vigor. Poetry contributor John Malcolm Brinnin explained that with the publication of Theory of Flight, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, "American poetry found its first full-blown expression of the rebellious temper that prevailed on American campuses and among the younger intellectuals. Its success was immediate. . . . Rukeyser was praised for the ruggedness of her technique, her experimentalism, and for the powerful utterance which, from a woman, seemed unique." Other critics could do without her brashness. "This passionate, innocent young woman . . . talks so noisily and so hurriedly that it never occurs to her that other people have seen these things before, and have learned to speak more calmly," wrote Michael Roberts in his Spectator review of Theory of Flight. When Turner remarked in her Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that Rukeyser would probably not be remembered as one of this century's greatest American poets, she based this statement, at least in part, on her belief that Rukeyser "wrote too much that was intense but fuzzy, trusting intensity to create a magic rather than selecting and juxtaposing fresh powerful words or images. But at times she was able to find the right image." Other critics of Rukeyser's early collections felt stimulated by her energy but, like Turner, professed that Rukeyser's methods needed perfecting. As one Kirkus Reviews contributor put it, "[Rukeyser] has achieved considerable reputation among those to whom lucidity is not a necessary factor."
Although Rukeyser's early poetic voice tended toward that of a sloganist, most critics sense that with time Rukeyser was able to develop greater sophistication and control in her poetry. Whereas Anne Stevenson commented in her New York Times Book Review critique of The Collected Poems that Rukeyser "seems to have been born poetically full-grown," others considered various developments in Rukeyser's craft important enough to analyze in their reviews. Brinnin, for instance, explains that "one of the most interesting phases of the transformation of the social poet in years of stress is the change in his use of language. In the case of Muriel Rukeyser, it moves from that of simple declarative exhortation, in the common phrases of the city man, to that of a gnarled, intellectual, almost private observation. In her earlier usage, images are apt to be simple and few; the whole approach is apt to be through the medium of urban speech. In the latter work, images become those of the psychologist, or of the surrealist, charged with meaning and prevalent everywhere." Albeit, her conviction was still strong, Brinnin added. Along the same lines, Turner found the later Rukeyser more relaxed, less rhetorical, "and though the poems still end firmly with clearly stated, strong opinions, they are less likely to pummel their readers."
Another change involved the movement toward shorter poems in contrast to the cluster poems, or collage poems, that were somewhat of a trademark for Rukeyser, poems centered on a single theme but developed in "separate, autonomous bits, [and] varied in line length and stanza form[,] . . . the parts of each book roll[ing] toward the reader in a series of waves, each of which crashes firmly," explained Turner. This movement toward more concrete images and shorter poems coincided rather closely with Rukeyser's increased devotion to the personal as well as to the political in her poetry.
Even though Rukeyser would continue to write poems that attempted to "carry whole nations forward through the urgency of their message," political poetry was not the be-all and end-all for Rukeyser, who explored a myriad of topics during her literary career. Many of her poems, particularly after her first few collections, were very personal, speaking on her role as a mother and daughter, speaking on sexuality, on creativity, on the poetic process, speaking also on illness and death. One of her poems from The Gates, "Resurrection of the Right Side," details the human body's slow recovery after a debilitating stroke: "I begin to climb the mountain on my mouth, / word by stammer, walk stammered, the lurching deck of earth. / Left-right with none of my own rhythms." In her book Beast in View, the poem "Ajanta" is "purportedly" a poem about painted caves in India, "but when she wrote it," noted Rexroth, "Muriel had never been to India. . . . 'Ajanta' is an exploration . . . of her own interior—in every sense. It is the interior of her mind as a human being, as a poet, and as a woman. It is the interior of her self as her own flesh. It is her womb." Virginia R. Terris goes to some length in her American Poetry Review article to chronicle Rukeyser's movement from the social to the personal, or from theory to actual experience. Regarding Rukeyser's biography of business magnate Wendell Willkie entitled One Life and comprised partly of poems, Terris felt Rukeyser was "able to focus single-mindedly on what she [had] only tentatively explored in earlier volumes. . . . Although Rukeyser [was] exploring many of the themes she had earlier explored—family tensions, social and technological issues and women exploited—she [moved] into experiences that [were] hers uniquely."
In the same way that Rukeyser's poetry was one of variety—for it could be labeled many things: romantic, political, feminist, erotic, Whitmanesque—her oeuvre explored a variety of genres. Although known particularly for her poetry, Rukeyser wrote biographical material (which was sometimes in the form of poetry), children's books, plays, and television scripts, and she also translated poetry from the Swedish, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. In addition, she taught and read her poetry at institutions nationwide.
Poetry aside, Rukeyser's biographical work received the most critical attention. As Jane Cooper noted in the Washington Post Book World, Rukeyser "loved science and history and modern technology, enjoying their puzzles and solvings much as she enjoyed the puzzles and solvings of poetic form." Thus, the fact that Rukeyser wrote about individuals other than the literary and artistic should not be too surprising. While it is true that Rukeyser wrote memorable poems about the German lithographer Kaethe Kollwitz, American composer Charles Ives, and mythological figures like Orpheus, at the same time she profiled New England eccentric Lord Timothy Dexter; nineteenth-century mathematician Willard Gibbs; English mathematician and scientist Thomas Hariot; and, as previously noted, lawyer and business executive Wendell Willkie, who ran for president on the 1940 Republican party ticket. Indeed, Rukeyser wrote full-length biographies of the latter three men.
According to Terris, one of Rukeyser's intentions behind writing biographies of nonliterary persons was to find a meeting place between science and poetry. In an analysis of Rukeyser's expository work The Life of Poetry, Terris notes that Rukeyser was of the opinion that in the West, poetry and science are wrongly considered to be in opposition to one another. Thus, writes Terris, "Rukeyser [set] forth her theoretical acceptance of science . . . [and pointed] out the many parallels between [poetry and science]—unity within themselves, symbolic language, selectivity, the use of the imagination in formulating concepts and in execution. Both, she believe[d], ultimately contribute to one another."
Some critics were skeptical of this poet's attempts at interpreting history, but for others Rukeyser's poetic angle brought something more to the reader than could be expected from a biography in the strict sense. Regarding Rukeyser's account entitled The Traces of Thomas Hariot, Washington Post Book World critic Vincent Cronin stated: "By her carefully controlled imaginative sympathy, by the dazzling range of her learning, and above all by the poetry of her style she leads the reader further than he is ever likely to go into the speculative seventeenth century, where daring men were trying, on half-a-dozen fronts, to break through into what was to become the modern world. . . . From now on, thanks to this highly enjoyable trail-blazing book, Thomas Hariot will never be 'just another minor Elizabethan.'" Commonweal reviewer E. L. Keyes viewed Rukeyser's biography of Willard Gibbs as an "intelligible collation of a mountain of mysteries."
Impassioned, self-confident, eclectic, a poet of powerful expression, a poet of the political and the personal—these and similar phrases have characterized the life and work of Muriel Rukeyser for decades. Although the critics in Rukeyser's earlier, more prolific decades seldom agreed on the value of her achievements, a new generation of reviewers had come along by the time Rukeyser published The Collected Poems; and in looking at the totality of her accomplishments, these critics found cause for rejoicing. A year before Rukeyser's death, Hoffman concluded that "poems like 'The Poem as Mask' make me wonder if Muriel Rukeyser is not our greatest living American poet. The Collected Poems . . . enable us to see a breadth of history, energy, and experience rarely matched in American letters." As for Kessler, "any reading of [Rukeyser's] poems will excite the best and most ingenious impulses of . . . people everywhere, who want goodness and freedom and love in the world and in their own personal lives. Rukeyser remained faithful and consistent with her own youthful visions, and all this work [in The Collected Poems]. . . testifies to that."
Two books published after Rukeyser's death attest to a resurgence in her popularity, which waned after 1980. With Out of Silence: Selected Poems, new readers were exposed to Rukeyser's poetry and literary historians were reminded of her contributions. Lee Upton observed in Belles Lettres: "The title of the selected poems . . . is particularly appropriate; Rukeyser . . . , emerging from relative neglect, gives voice to the repressed, particularly to the lives of women and the marginalized." According to Anne Herzog of The Women's Review of Books, Rukeyser "articulated the thoughts and feelings of the unnoticed and excluded" in the poems selected for Out of Silence. Rukeyser was "one of this country's most distinguished, misunderstood and undervalued poets," Herzog added. Of the second book reviving Rukeyser's prose and poetry, A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, Richard Gray wrote in Modern Language Review: "She has been neglected: but this generous and sensitive selection of her work will perhaps help redress the balance, introducing her to some and reminding others how good she can be."