muriel rukeyser

Biographical Sketch
By Michael Thurston

Muriel Rukeyser was born on 15 December 1913 in New York City. She attended the Fieldston Schools and matriculated at Vassar University (Poughkeepsie, NY). From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University in New York. Rukeyser’s first book of poems, Theory of Flight, was chosen by Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1935, and this book began a literary career spaning the rest of Rukeyser’s life and much of the rest of the twentieth century.

As central and continual a part of Rukeyser’s life as poetry was her deep political commitment. Beginning in the late 1920s, Rukeyser was heavily involved in political activism on a set of issues ranging from the Scottsboro Case to the Spanish Civil War to feminism and the American aggression in Viet Nam. Indeed, Rukeyser spent much of the 1930s in political action. She traveled to Alabama to cover the Scottsboro case (catching typhoid fever in a sheriff’s station there) and worked for the Internation Labor Defense, which handled the Scottsboro defendants’ appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker, went to Spain to cover the People’s Olympiad, an international anti-fascist games set up as an alternative to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. While Rukeyser was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out and she was evacuated. Her experience formed the basis for Mediterranean, first published as a pamphlet by (and for) New York Writers and Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy in 1937. Rukeyser also, and perhaps most famously, traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate for herself a rash of silicosis cases among miners there (the cases, and the Congressional Investigation into them, had received a good deal of coverage in the American media). The research she conducted there was fashioned into The Book of the Dead, Rukeyser’s astonishingly powerful poem sequence (published in 1938, in her volume, U.S. 1).

Though often attacked by critics on the political Left and Right alike, Rukeyser continued to write and publish poetry throughout her life. Among her best, and most important, books are: A Turning Wind (1939), Beast in View (1944), The Green Wave (1948), Elegies (1949), Body of Waking (1958), The Speed of Darkness (1968), Breaking Open (1973), and The Gates (1976). She also published biographies of Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot; fiction; plays and film screenplays; translations of work by Octavio Pax and Gunnar Ekelöff; and, in 1949, The Life of Poetry.

Similarly, politics continued to inform Rukeyser’s life and work. It was, in fact, Rukeyser’s feminism and her vocal opposition to the War in Viet Nam that drew the attention of a new generation to her poetry in the 1960s. She served as President of PEN’s American Center to fight for the human rights of writers around the world. The centrality of political work, and the connection between that work and Rukeyser’s literary career, is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that a thwarted attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi Ha on death row in South Korea forms the basis for her last book’s title poem, “The Gates.” Rukeyser died on 12 February 1980.


6 thoughts on “muriel rukeyser

  1. I’m not sure I follow. What about the title of the latest Momotombo Press chapbook?

    Hi Ivy. Say hello to Suzanne when you see her in Europe. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Chicago at PALABRA PURA.


    A belated huge congratulations on your book being accepted by TIN FISH! I get their journal. I love what they do.

    And a thanks and congratulations on for the review of The Wind Shifts.

    By the way, I’m wondering if you received the hardcopy of DEAT JACK by Scott Inguito, for which you have graciously agreed to introduce for Momotombo Press. Your mentor DA Powell has agreed to provide a blurb.

    I’m writing this note from San Antonio at Macondo, Sandra Cisneros’ cool workshop, though I’m here to write and commune and not workshop.
    I hope to say a little more about Macondo later in the week.


  2. Oh I get it. I just looked up and saw the name of the blog!

    btw, Jenny Boully was a year ahead of me at Notre Dame. She’s so prolific, and good.

  3. hee hee…yeah, blog title changes as soon as someone guesses the references…and they points if they guess…and if you get 25 points, you get a prize!!!

    so cool that you attended with Jenny! i’m set to review her Moveable Types and One Love Affair probably in September…havent read them yet, but they look fascinating!

    have fun at Macondo. i hear great things bout it.

  4. Hi Francisco! Will do. I can’t wait to be in Madrid… not long now! 🙂 And thanks for the point, Craig!

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