Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a prolific American writer and political activist. Defying gender, genre and disciplinary boundaries, she wrote poems, plays, screenplays, essays, translations, biographies, history, journalism and fiction, at times combining multiple forms, on an equally wide variety of subjects. In 1935 her first collection of poetry, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and she went on to publish twelve more volumes of poetry. Coming of age in the radical 1930s, she used the documentary style of social realism, and often the documents themselves, while at the same time deploying aesthetic and experimental modernist techniques. Her work consistently documented, contextualized and archived stories of injustice, resistance, interconnection, invention and possibility, stories of the people and histories that were marginalized by the master narratives of war, capitalism, patriarchy and nationalism. She witnessed and wrote on the trial of the Scottsboro nine, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam war, and the imprisonment of poet Kim Chi-Ha in South Korea, to name only a few examples, and became a key figure for the women’s liberation movement. She taught at the California Labor School in 1945, was a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College from 1955-1967, and served as the president of the P.E.N. American Center from 1975-76. There is no doubt that throughout her life she remained at the forefront of 20th-century political and artistic culture, influencing Ann Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Marilyn Hacker, to name a few. Despite a cold-war backlash and long-term FBI surveillance, she continued to write, teach and publish, receiving a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Levison Prize for Poetry, and the Shelly Memorial Award, among other accolades. The Life of Poetry (1949), perhaps her most famous work, is very much a text of the cold-war era, and in it Rukeyser challenges us to examine the violent binaries that produce wars and prevent thinking, calls us to look for the “history of possibility” that exists always, “around and above and under” the other histories. That the text resonates still is an indication not only of her extraordinary critique of the nature of art in times of crisis, but also an indication that the times have changed not nearly enough.

Muriel RukeyserDrew Stevens