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Muriel Rukeyser

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

On Rukeyser's life, see Thurston (2006), Myles (1997), and [2]. She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930–32, she attended Columbia University.

Her literary career began in 1935 when her poem 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 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" (New York) "Life & Letters Today" (London) for which she covered the Popular 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 her 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. Her feminism was grounded in her experience as a single mother and bisexual. 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 addition to her poetry, she wrote a fictionalized memoir, The Orgy, plays and screenplays, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöff. She also wrote biographies of Josiah Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot.


  • Theory of flight. Foreword by Stephen Vincent Benet. New Haven: Yale Uni. Press, 1935.
  • A Turning Wind. 1939.
  • Willard Gibbs: American Genius, 1942. Reprinted by the Ox Bow Press, Woodbridge CT.
  • Beast in View. 1944.
  • The green wave. (with Octavio Paz) Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948.
  • The life of poetry. NY: Current Books, 1949.
  • Elegies (1949)
  • One Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1957. Biography of Wendell Willkie.
  • Body of Waking. NY: Harper, 1958.
  • Waterlily Fire: Poems 1935-1962. NY: Macmillan, 1962.
  • The Orgy. (1965) Paris Press; reprint (1997) ISBN 0-9638183-2-5
  • The outer banks. (Sea poetry). Santa Barbara CA: Unicorn, 1967.
  • The speed of darkness. NY: Random House, 1968.
  • The traces of Thomas Hariot. NY: Random House, 1971
  • Breaking Open. 1973.
  • Early poems, 1935-1955. Octavio Paz. Translated from the Spanish by Muriel Rukeyser et al. NY: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1973.
  • The gates: poems. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • The collected poems. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
  • Out of silence: selected poems. edited by Kate Daniels. Evanston IL: TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University; Oak Park, IL: Distributed by ILPA, 1992.
  • A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. W W Norton.
  • The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.


  • 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

Further reading

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