More About the Author
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is only recently gaining the recognition she deserves. Hers is the story of a brilliant and prolific writer, and it is the story of twentieth-century America, born on the eve of World War I, witness of injustices around the world. Despite Rukeyser's major literary contribution, she was rarely included among the influential modernists such as Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Her expansive writing style, subjects, and unique capacity for embracing contradiction make her work difficult to classify, and many critics have dismissed her for that reason.
Poets such as Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, and Alice Walker however, praised Rukeyser as a mentor and role model. Rich, in her introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (1994), writes,
"To enter this book is to enter a life of tremendous scope, the consciousness of a woman who was a full actor and creator in many ways. Muriel Rukeyser was beyond her time--and seems, at the edge of the twenty-first century, to have grasped resources we are only now beginning to reach for: connections between history and the body, memory and politics, sexuality and public space, poetry and physical science, and much else."
In addition to publishing fifteen collections of poetry, Rukeyser wrote numerous articles and books of prose. But writing in the mid-twentieth century, she chose very different means of expressing the conflict between her female identities. Her first book of poems, Theory of Flight, written when she was twenty-one, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Already in this early collection she writes in her "Poem of Children," "Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry." This is precisely what she continues to do in her work, chronicling her personal experiences alongside those of the entire planet. Her rich and inspiring life led her to Alabama to report on the Scottsboro trial, to Spain on the eve of Civil War, and to North Vietnam to speak out in the 1960s. All of her political actions was recorded in her poetry and prose. "The Book of the Dead," a poem written in response to miners in West Virginia, represents a new way of writing poetry, in which Rukeyser's voice intertwines with the minutes of meetings, workers' letters, graphs and equations, stock quotations, and even X-rays. Rukeyser saw poetry as a necessary way to combat the terrible silence of nations in the face of Word War II and other tragedies. She believed that poetry could make human beings more compassionate and that it could help to create peace.
While she experimented with a range of traditional and new forms, her most innovative work captures the rapid, disjunctive movements of modern life. Rukeyser herself compared this type of writing to the collage of camera angles used in film. In her book The Life of Poetry (1949, 1996), Rukeyser is able to contain the full multiplicity of the self--vast, paradoxical, and infinitely rich. The book not only offers up a philosophy of what poetry can mean, but also a unique perspective on what poetry can do. As Rich wrote, "What does poetry have to do with democracy? Read it here."