Muriel Rukeyser

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Muriel Rukeyser
Muriel Rukeyser by Imogen Cunningham, 1945.jpg
Muriel Rukeyser in 1945
Born(1913-12-15)December 15, 1913
New York City
Died February 12, 1980(1980-02-12) (aged 66)
New York City
Citizenship American

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."

Kenneth Rexroth American poet, writer, anarchist, academic and conscientious objector

Kenneth Charles Marion Rexroth was an American poet, translator and critical essayist. He is regarded as a central figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and paved the groundwork for the movement. Although he did not consider himself to be a Beat poet, and disliked the association, he was dubbed the "Father of the Beats" by Time Magazine. He was also a prolific reader of Chinese literature.


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.

Silicosis pneumoconiosis that is an inflammation and scarring of the uper lobes of the lungs causing nodular lesions resulting from inhalation of silica, quartz or slate particles

Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs. It is a type of pneumoconiosis.

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. [1]

Judaism ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. It is an ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text. It encompasses the religion, philosophy, and culture of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. Judaism encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

Reform Judaism Denomination of Judaism

Reform Judaism is a major Jewish denomination that emphasizes the evolving nature of the faith, the superiority of its ethical aspects to the ceremonial ones, and a belief in a continuous revelation, closely intertwined with human reason and intellect, and not centered on the theophany at Mount Sinai. A liberal strand of Judaism, it is characterized by a lesser stress on ritual and personal observance, regarding Jewish Law as non-binding and the individual Jew as autonomous, and openness to external influences and progressive values. The origins of Reform Judaism lay in 19th-century Germany, where its early principles were formulated by Rabbi Abraham Geiger and his associates; since the 1970s, the movement adopted a policy of inclusiveness and acceptance, inviting as many as possible to partake in its communities, rather than strict theoretical clarity. It is strongly identified with progressive political and social agendas, mainly under the traditional Jewish rubric Tikkun Olam, or "Repairing of the World". Tikkun Olam is a central motto of Reform Judaism, and action for its sake is one of the main channels for adherents to express their affiliation. The movement's greatest center today is in North America.

Reconstructionist Judaism denomination of Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism is a modern Jewish movement that views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization and is based on the conceptions developed by Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983). The movement originated as a semi-organized stream within Conservative Judaism and developed from the late 1920s to 1940s, before it seceded in 1955 and established a rabbinical college in 1967.

Early life

Muriel Rukeyser was born on December 15, 1913 to Lawrence and Myra Lyons Rukeyser. [2] She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930 to 32, she attended Columbia University.

Ethical Culture Fieldston School School in New York City

Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS), known as just Fieldston, is a private independent school in New York City. The school is a member of the Ivy Preparatory School League. The school serves approximately 1700 students with 325 faculty and staff. Jessica L. Bagby has been the Head of School since June 2016. Kyle Wilkie-Glass is the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Administrative Officer. The school consists of four divisions: Ethical Culture, Fieldston Lower, Fieldston Middle, and Fieldston Upper. Ethical Culture, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Fieldston Lower, located on the Fieldston campus in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, serve Pre-K through 5th Grade. The two lower schools feed into Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper —also located on the Fieldston campus in Riverdale. Ethical Culture is headed by Rob Cousins, Fieldston Lower is headed by Joe McAuley, Fieldston Middle is headed by Principal Chia-Chee Chiu, and Fieldston Upper is headed by Nigel Furlonge. Tuition and fees for ECFS were $48,645 for the 2017-18 school year.

The Bronx Borough in New York City and county in New York, United States

The Bronx is the northernmost of the five boroughs of New York City, in the U.S. state of New York. It is south of Westchester County; northeast and east of Manhattan, across the Harlem River; and north of Queens, across the East River. Since 1914, the borough has had the same boundaries as Bronx County, the third-most densely populated county in the United States.

Vassar College private, coeducational liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the United States

Vassar College is a private, coeducational, liberal arts college in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Founded in 1861 by Matthew Vassar, it was the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States, closely following Elmira College. It became coeducational in 1969, and now has a gender ratio at the national average. The school is one of the historic Seven Sisters, the first elite female colleges in the U.S., and has a historic relationship with Yale University, which suggested a merger with the college before coeducation at both institutions.

Her literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, based on flying lessons she took, was chosen by the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series .

Stephen Vincent Benét poet, short story writer, novelist

Stephen Vincent Benét was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War John Brown's Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for the short stories "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1936) and "By the Waters of Babylon" (1937). In 2009, The Library of America selected his story "The King of the Cats" (1929) for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub.

Activism and writing

Rukeyser was one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair.

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.

The International Labor Defense (ILD) (1925–1947) was a legal advocacy organization established in 1925 in the United States as the American section of the Comintern's International Red Aid network. The ILD defended Sacco and Vanzetti, was active in the anti-lynching, movements for civil rights, and prominently participated in the defense and legal appeals in the cause célèbre of the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s. Its work contributed to the appeal of the Communist Party among African Americans in the South. In addition to fundraising for defense and assisting in defense strategies, from January 1926 it published Labor Defender, a monthly illustrated magazine that achieved wide circulation. In 1946 the ILD was merged with the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties to form the Civil Rights Congress, which served as the new legal defense organization of the Communist Party USA. It intended to expand its appeal, especially to African Americans in the South. In several prominent cases in which blacks had been sentenced to death in the South, the CRC campaigned on behalf of black defendants. It had some conflict with former allies, such as the NAACP, and became increasingly isolated. Because of federal government pressure against organizations it considered subversive, such as the CRC, it became less useful in representing defendants in criminal justice cases. The CRC was dissolved in 1956. At the same time, in this period, black leaders were expanding the activities and reach of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1954, in a case managed by the NAACP, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.

<i>Daily Worker</i> 20th-century American newspaper

The Daily Worker was a newspaper published in New York City by the Communist Party USA, a formerly Comintern-affiliated organization. Publication began in 1924. While it generally reflected the prevailing views of the party, attempts were made to reflect a broader spectrum of left-wing opinion. At its peak, the newspaper achieved a circulation of 35,000. Contributors to its pages included Robert Minor and Fred Ellis (cartoonists), Lester Rodney, David Karr, Richard Wright, John L. Spivak, Peter Fryer, Woody Guthrie and Louis F. Budenz.

The People's Olympiad was a planned international multi-sport event that was intended to take place in Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia within the Spanish Republic. It was conceived as a protest event against the 1936 Summer Olympics being held in Berlin, which was then under control of the Nazi Party.

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. [4]

In addition to her poetry, she wrote a fictionalized memoir, The Orgy, plays and screenplays, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöf. She also wrote biographies of Josiah Willard Gibbs, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Hariot. Andrea Dworkin worked as her secretary in the early 1970s. Also in the 1970s she served on the Advisory Board of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, a New York City based theatre group that wrote and produced plays on feminist issues.

Rukeyser died in New York on February 12, 1980 from a stroke, with diabetes as a contributing factor. She was 66.

In other media

In the television show, Supernatural , Metatron the angel quotes an excerpt of the poem, "Speed of Darkness," from Rukeyser. "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Speed of Darkness Library Walk 6.JPG
Speed of Darkness

In Jeanette Winterson's novel Gut Symmetries (1997), Rukeyser's poem "King's Mountain" is quoted.

Rukeyser's translation of a poem by Octavio Paz was adapted by Eric Whitacre for his choral composition "Water Night." John Adams set one of her texts to music in his opera Doctor Atomic , and Libby Larsen set the poem "Looking at Each Other" to music in her choral work Love Songs.

Writer Marian Evans and composer Chris White are currently collaborating on a play about Rukeyser, Throat of These Hours, titled after a line in Rukeyser's Speed of Darkness. [5]

The Journal of Narrative Theory dedicated a special issue to Rukeyser in Fall 2013. [6]

Rukeyser's 5-poem sequence "Kathe Kollwitz" (The Speed of Darkness, 1968, Random House) ( ) was set to music by Tom Myron for the composition, "Kathe Kollwitz for Soprano and String Quartet," "written in response to a commission from violist Julia Adams for a work celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Portland String Quartet in 1998." (

Rukeyser's poem "Gunday's Child" was set to music by the experimental rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.



Rukeyser's original collections of poetry
Fiction by Rukeyser
Plays by Rukeyser
Children's books
Memoir by Rukeyser
Works of criticism by Rukeyser
Biographies by Rukeyser
Translations by Rukeyser
Edited collections of Rukeyser's works

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  1. "On "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century"". Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved April 6, 2012.
  2. Unger, Leonard; Litz, A. Walton; Weigel, Molly; Bechler, Lea; Parini, Jay (1974-01-01). American writers: a collection of literary biographies. New York: Scribner. ISBN   0684197855.
  3. 'A Human Eye,' by Adrienne Rich by Michael Roth, San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2009
  4. "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
  5. "Throat of These Hours" . Retrieved 16 January 2014.
  6. "Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive". Eastern Michigan University. 4 December 2013. Retrieved 16 January 2014.[ permanent dead link ]
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 "Muriel Rukeyser", Jewish Women's Encyclopedia (last visited April 29, 2013).
  8. Rukeyser, Muriel; Kennedy-Epstein, Rowena (2014-01-01). Savage coast. ISBN   9781558618206.
  9. "Muriel Rukeyser". Poetry Foundation. 2017-03-07. Retrieved 2017-03-08.
  10. Spangler, David; Rukeyser, Muriel (2002-01-01). Houdini: a musical. Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press. ISBN   1930464045.
  11. Rukeyser, Muriel (1955-01-01). Come back, Paul. New York: Harper.
  12. Rukeyser, Muriel; Kessler, Leonard P (1961-01-01). I go out. New York: Harper.
  13. Rukeyser, Muriel (1967-01-01). Bubbles. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  14. Rukeyser, Muriel; Charles, Milton (1970-01-01). Mazes. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN   067165151X.

Further reading