Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). Courtesy GoodReads.

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".


Rukeyser was born in New York City. She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. From 1930 to 1932, 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 Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Rukeyser was active in progressive politics throughout her life. At age 18, 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 Catalonian 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 The Life of Poetry (excerpts here). For much of her life, she taught university classes and led workshops, but never became a career academic.

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.[1]

In addition to her poetry, she wrote a fictionalized memoir, The Orgy, and plays and screenplays, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöf. She also wrote biographies of Josiah Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot. Andrea Dworkin worked as her secretary in the early 1970s.

Rukeyser died in New York City of a stroke, with diabetes as a contributing factor. She was 66.


"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."

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.

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 Rukeyser makes the case that poetry is essential to democracy, essential to human life and understanding.


Her 1944 poem "To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century", 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.

In popular cultureEdit

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.



  • Theory of Flight (foreword by Stephen Vincent Benét). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1935; New York: AMS Press, 1971.
  • Mediterranean. Writers & Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, 1938.
  • U.S. One. Covici, Friede, 1938.
  • A Turning Wind: Poems. New York: Viking, 1939.
  • The Soul and Body of John Brown. privately published, 1940.
  • Wake Island. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1942.
  • Beast in View. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1944.
  • The Green Wave (contains translated poems of Octavio Paz and Rari). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948.
  • Orpheus. Centaur Press, 1949.
  • Elegies. New York: New Directions, 1949.
  • Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1951.
  • Body of Waking (contains a translated poems of Paz). New York: Harper, 1958.
  • Waterlily Fire: Poems, 1935-1962 (includes the group of poems entitled "The Speaking Tree"). New York: Macmillan, 1962.
  • The Outer Banks. Unicorn Press, 1967
    • revised edition, 1980.
  • The Speed of Darkness. New York: Random House, 1968.
  • Mazes (with photos by Milton Charles). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.
  • Twenty-nine Poems. Rapp & Whiting, 1972.
  • Breaking Open: New poems (contains translations of Inuit songs). New York: Random House, 1973.
  • The Gates: Poems. New York: McGraw, 1976.
  • The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: McGraw, 1978.
  • Out of Silence: Selected poems (edited by Kate Daniels). Evanston, IL: Triquarterly Books, 1992.
  • U.S.1: Book of the dead. New York: Covici Friede, 1994.[3]
  • Selected Poems (edited by Adrienne Rich). New York: Library of America, 2004.[3]
  • The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (edited by Janet E. Kaufman, Anne F.

Herzog, & Jan Heller Levi). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.[3]

  • Elegies (edited by Jan Heller Levi; Christoph Keller). New York: New Directions, 2013.[3]

Play Edit

  • Houdini: A musical (with music by David Spangler). Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2002.[3]


  • Savage Coast: A novel (edited by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein). New York: Feminist Press, 2013.[3]


  • Willard Gibbs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1942.
  • The Life of Poetry. Current Books, 1949; Morrow, 1974
  • One Life (biography of Wendell Willkie in poetry, prose, and documents). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.
  • The Traces of Thomas Hariot. New York: Random House, 1971.


  • Come Back, Paul (illustrated by Rukeyser). New York: Harper, 1955.
  • I Go Out (illustrated by Leonard Kessler). New York: Harper, 1962.
  • Bubbles (edited by Donald Barr; illustrated by Jeri Quinn). Harcourt, 1967.
  • More Night (illustrated by Symeon Shimin). New York: Harper, 1981.

Collected editionsEdit

  • A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (edited by Jan Heller Levi). New York: Norton, 1994.


  • Octavio Paz, Selected Poems (translated with others). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1963.
  • Octavio Paz, Sun Stone. New York: New Directions, 1963.
  • Octavio Paz, Early poems, 1935-1955 (translated with others). New York: New Directions, 1973.
  • Gunnar Ekelöf, Selected Poems (translated with Leif Sjoeberg). New York: Twayne, 1967.
  • Gunnar Ekelöf, Three Poems. T. Williams, 1967.
  • Bertolt Brecht, Uncle Eddie's Moustache. 1974.
  • Gunnar Ekelöf, A Molna Elegy: Metamorphoses (translated with Leif Sjoeberg). (2 volumes), Unicorn Press, 1984.


  • The Orgy (a 3-day journal). Coward, 1965.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[4]


  • The Middle of the Air (produced in Iowa City, IA, 1945)
  • The Colors of the Day ( produced in Poughkeepsie, NY, at Vassar College, June 10, 1961)
  • Houdini (produced in Lenox, MA, at Lenox Arts Center, July 3, 1973)

'Except where noted, information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[4]

Audio / videoEdit

Muriel Rukeyser reads "The Poem as Mask"

Muriel Rukeyser reads "The Poem as Mask"

Muriel Rukeyser reads "Waiting for Icarus"

Muriel Rukeyser reads "Waiting for Icarus"

  • The Poetry and Voice of Muriel Rukeyser (LP). New York: Caedmon, 1977.[4]

See alsoEdit


  • Herzog, Anne E. & Kaufman, Janet E. (1999) "But Not in the Study: Writing as a Jew" in How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?: The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser.
  • Myles, Eileen, "Fear of Poetry". Review of The Life of Poetry, The Nation (April 14, 1997). This page includes several reviews, with much biographical information.
  • Thurston, Michael, "Biographical sketch." Modern American Poetry, retrieved January 30, 2006


  1. “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
  2. 'A Human Eye,' by Adrienne Rich by Michael Roth, San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Search results = au:Muriel Rukeyser 1992-2013, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 31, 2015.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Muriel Rukeyser 1913-1980, Poetry Foundation. Web, Nov. 23, 2012.

External links Edit

Audio / video
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