February 12, 1980(1980-02-12) (aged66) New York City
Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913 – February 12, 1980) was an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. Kenneth Rexroth said that she was the greatest poet of her "exact generation."
One of her most powerful pieces was a group of poems entitled The Book of the Dead (1938), documenting the details of the Hawk's Nest incident, an industrial disaster in which hundreds of miners died of silicosis.
Her poem "To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" (1944), on the theme of Judaism as a gift, was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books, something Rukeyser said "astonished" her, as she had remained distant from Judaism throughout her early life.
Rukeyser was active in progressive politics throughout her life. At age 21, she covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama, then worked for the International Labor Defense, which handled the defendants' appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker and a variety of publications including Decision (payne), Life & Letters Today (London) for which she covered the People's Olympiad (Olimpiada Popular, Barcelona), the Catalan government's alternative to the Nazis' 1936 Berlin Olympics. While she was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out, the basis of her Mediterranean. Most famously, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate the recurring silicosis among miners there, which resulted in her well-regarded poem sequence The Book of the Dead. During and after World War II, she gave a number of striking public lectures, published in her The Life of Poetry (excerpts here). For much of her life, she taught university classes and led workshops, but she never became a career academic.
In 1996, Paris Press reissued The Life of Poetry, which had been published in 1949 but had fallen out of print. In a publisher's note, Jan Freeman called it a book that "ranks among the most essential works of twentieth century literature." In it she makes the case that poetry is essential to democracy, essential to human life and understanding.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a time when she presided over PEN's American center, her feminism and opposition to the Vietnam War (she traveled to Hanoi) drew a new generation to her poetry. The title poem of her last book, The Gates, is based on her unsuccessful attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha on death row in South Korea. In 1968, she signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Barber, David S. "Finding Her Voice: Muriel Rukeyser's Poetic Development." Modern Poetry Studies 11, no. 1 (1982): 127–138
Barber, David S. "'The Poet of Unity': Muriel Rukeyser's Willard Gibbs." CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History 12 (Fall 1982): 1–15; "Craft Interview with Muriel Rukeyser." New York Quarterly 11 (Summer 1972) and in The Craft of Poetry, edited by William Packard (1974)
Daniels, Kate, ed. Out of Silence: Selected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1992), and "Searching/Not Searching: Writing the Biography of Muriel Rukeyser." Poetry East 16/17 (Spring/Summer 1985): 70–93
Gander, Catherine. Muriel Rukeyser and Documentary: The Poetics of Connection (EUP, 2013)
Gardinier, Suzanne. "'A World That Will Hold All The People': On Muriel Rukeyser." Kenyon Review 14 (Summer 1992): 88–105
Herzog, Anne E. & Kaufman, Janet E. (1999) "But Not in the Study: Writing as a Jew" in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser.
Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age (1953)
Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser (1980)
Levi, Jan Heller, ed. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1994)
Myles, Eileen, "Fear of Poetry." Review of The Life of Poetry, The Nation (April 14, 1997). This page includes several reviews, with much biographical information.
Pacernick, Gary. "Muriel Rukeyser: Prophet of Social and Political Justice." Memory and Fire: Ten American Jewish Poets (1989)