Muriel Rukeyser

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Muriel Rukeyser
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."


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. [1]

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.

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 .

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.

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

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


  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