Muriel Rukeyser wrote that in 1968, even though she’d been splitting the world open for decades already. She’d gone from literary wunderkind to lefty pariah to feminist heroine precisely because of her commitment to telling the truth–about one woman’s life, yes, but also about many, many women’s lives, about the lives that weren’t yet celebrated in poetry. The girl cutting her brother’s hair before his job interview. The mother burying her sons. The pregnant woman. The suicidal woman. The woman who loves sex. The women written out of myths and legends: the girl waiting for Icarus to come back; even the Sphinx and her infuriating riddle. Muriel Rukeyser died in 1980, and if there is any justice in literary history (and let’s be real, there is not much), her name will outlive mine and yours by hundreds of years. Anne Sexton called her “Muriel, mother of us all,” and Adrienne Rich named her “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more.”
So why didn’t you read any of her poetry in college?
Muriel Rukeyser was unruly. Her writing was impolite and thus inconsistent: her poetic style and her political ideas evolved across her lifetime. When this happens with a brilliant male poet, we (and by we I mean people who have somehow managed to make talking about poets our real, honest to god jobs) tend to tell a story of maturation or of breakthrough: he grew up and is now wise or brave. When women’s writing or thinking evolves, “we” tend to tell a story about a before and an after, in which one of those phases is dismissed as naive or inadequate or overly mannered or not mannered enough. Someone tells this version of the story, and someone else repeats it, and then thirty years later mouthy feminist grad students say “But seriously, ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ is an incredibly fierce poem even though it rhymes, how are we even arguing about this” and then those grad students drink too much and their professors probably do too.
Here is a thing the eminent midcentury poet-critic Randall Jarrell once wrote about Muriel Rukeyser (who, mind you, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize at age 21): “One feels about most of her poems almost as one feels about the girl on last year’s calendar…. Miss Rukeyser almost asks us to be unjust to her.”
That is just an example. I could give you more, but you can probably guess most of them. Even today, many anthologies that do include Rukeyser’s work introduce her by emphasizing a line from “Poem Out of Childhood”: “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” Okay, fine. That’s a great poem, and a great line. But that is also the first line of the first poem in the first book of a woman whose Collected Poems is over 600 pages. That is a line written by a woman who, today, would not be old enough to buy a bottle of wine in the US. That is a line from a poem that is ABOUT BECOMING AN ADULT. Why on earth should we stop there? Why would anyone?
Born in 1913 to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, Rukeyser grew up in a world of privilege. This made her commitment to social justice and her dabbling in socialism a surprise: where did a young, relatively sheltered woman get the drive to learn how to fly planes, to travel down to West Virginia mining country as an investigative journalist, or to go to Spain to cover the People’s Olympiad, the alternative to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics? She seems almost like a fictional character herself, a heroine who seemed too good to be true in a YA novel about the 1930s. (Speaking of which: go read Code Name Verity. Dang that book is good.) Rukeyser seemed to have a very early sense that the privilege and talent she had should be used in support of radical ideas, and that as a woman writer she wanted to be fully involved in the tumultuous present: “not Sappho, Sacco.”
By the time she was 25, she had gone to jail for her attempts to report on the Scottsboro Boys, conducted first-hand and archival research into the Gauley Bridge Tunnel disaster, witnessed the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and, by the way, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. She’d written multiple books of poetry and plenty of other work. (In fact, a “lost” novel of hers from this era has just been published by The Feminist Press.) She was well-known enough as a leftist writer that she caught the attention of the FBI. The FBI files on Rukeyser are rather surreal, in fact, a combination of surveillance, bureaucratic wheels turning, and poetry reviews. I keep picturing gray-suited feds poring over New Masses or the Saturday Evening Post. “Miss Rukeyser, are you now or have you ever been the most promising poet of your generation?”
In the 1940s, unlike many others on the artistic left, Rukeyser was an early supporter of the US entry into WWII: she saw it as part of the global struggle against Fascism, which she had seen in Spain. And, of course, she was a Jewish woman, acutely aware of the specifically anti-Semitic nature of this war. In her 1944 poem “To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” she writes:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
When I say Rukeyser supported the war, I don’t mean she just said “good idea, folks” in letters to the editor. She actually went to work for the Office for War Information (OWI), where she was involved in the creation of propaganda posters for the home front. This is the kind of thing that feels weird to us, I think, since “propaganda” is a word that usually invokes pernicious or at best simplistic disinformation. (I’m a little obsessed with propaganda posters, especially unintentionally homoerotic ones, but these are not the kind that Rukeyser worked on.) Rukeyser saw the potential to treat the poster as a new art form, one that could speak to the public in a way that acknowledged the intelligence of the citizenry. From her essay “Words and Images”:
“It is the single image, as used in a photograph or a painting—or the frame of film—to which words have been added to enlarge the context. The method is not the same as that by which most paintings are named. It is closer in its performance to what the dialogue does to a movie, to what the caption does to a good poster. The point is not in the naming of a picture, but in a reinforcement which is mutual, so that the words and the picture attack the same theme from slightly different approaches [….] the sharp text adds life to the pictures as the pictures add life to the words themselves, and a new and expressive form is before us.”
This “new and expressive form,” by making “clear statements” about the meaning of the war, “will strengthen our lives, for war and for peace.”
After a while, all the poets and intellectual artists got kicked out of the OWI and replaced with ad men, proto-Don Drapers who gave us things like Loose Lips Might Sink Ships and When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Hitler! So Rukeyser’s vision of propaganda work didn’t come to pass, and other writers and critics occasionally used her time at the OWI to demean her work and her intelligence: one particularly vicious article about her was called “The Perils of a Poster Girl.”
Rukeyser bucked social norms in other ways: she was a single mother in the 1940s and 50s and unapologetic about it. She taught both in prestigious colleges and community workshops. She wrote poems about having sex with women as well as men, and she published weird, hybrid prose books: a travelogue/novel called The Orgy, a biography/artistic treatise on a 19th-century mathematician, and so on. Like I said: unruly.
Changing politics within the literary world, echoing changing politics of the country at large, meant that Rukeyser’s work fell out of print for some time. Thankfully, her work was revived by those infuriating fairy godmothers, the second wave feminists, who celebrated her as a predecessor and championed her contemporary work. Some of Rukeyser’s most remarkable poems, in fact, were written in the 1960s and 70s. An activist even as she aged and her health grew frail, Rukeyser traveled to Vietnam to protest the war; she stood outside prison gates in South Korea to protest the incarceration of the poet Kim Chi-Ha (described in her poem “The Gates”). Rukeyser even turned a devastating stroke into beauty, in ”Resurrection of the Right Side”:
A whisper attempts me, I whisper without stammer
I walk the long hall to the time of a metronome
set by a child’s gun-target left-right
the power of eyesight is very slowly arriving
in this late impossible daybreak
all the blue flowers open
So who counts as an important poet? Who gets to decide what matters to history, and who gets to decide what “only” matters to people?
There’s a thing we don’t talk about much in the lit crit world, and that’s liking things. Those of us who live right here on the internet know, maybe more than anyone else, that you can make a smart, intellectually informed critique of something while still being an obsessive, gif-loving, drooling fangirl of it. (Let she who has not bookmarked a gif of Benedict Cumberbatch cast the first stone.) It seems obvious to anyone outside the weird world of academia, but those of us who study artistic history of various sorts usually do so, at least in part, because we LIKE it. We like it, we obsess over it, we critique it, we write about it, we teach it, we hope to bestow some of its fascination to the future. And sometimes, maybe most of the time, we love it.
Love of the work is what allows us to know the great Muriel Rukeyser today. The tireless work of writers and scholars like Adrienne Rich, Kate Daniels, Janet E. Kaufman, and Anne F. Herzog has resulted in new scholarly editions of Rukeyser’s poems, and online resources at Eastern Michigan University and The Poetry Foundation provide accessible introductions to her life and work.
I recently attended a symposium celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rukeyser’s birth, and let me tell you, you have not really experienced academia until you’ve found yourself at a conference where you realize that everyone is secretly a fangirl as well as a scholar. You let your guard down. You imagine extravagant, international galas celebrating your idol. You talk honestly about what a privilege it is to teach something this brilliant, and you enjoy your own humility. (My student, last quarter, on reading “The Book of the Dead“: “I’ve never read poetry like this. I’ve never read anything like this.”)
The whole reason we read poetry is that it changes you, it gets in your head and in your mouth and in your blood, and you are different after. Some kinds of different are considered intellectually important. Some are not. Women writers have had to fight for centuries against the notion that they only ever make differences that don’t matter, to people who don’t matter. To the people who do matter, they are like calendar girls: they ask us to be unjust to them.
But Muriel, like Walt Whitman, knows that the people who listen do matter, that the poet’s job is to speak to those who are waiting for her words. In 1978–forty years after her first book was published!–she told us so:
When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems,
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will still be making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.
Plaque photo credit via Flickr
Laura Passin is a writer, professor, and feminist at large. She holds a PhD from Northwestern and an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her writing has recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Bellevue Literary Review, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Archipelago, and Best New Poets 2013. She also writes a quasi-regular newsletter about feminism, poetry, and pop culture called Postcards from a One-Woman Army. Laura lives in Portland with too many cats.