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literature

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Rukeyser, Muriel (1913-1980)  

Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, which breaks the silence of many aspects of female experience, has been enormously important to many feminist and lesbian readers.

Rukeyser was born and lived most of her life in New York City. The elder of two daughters, she grew up in an upper-middle class family of Midwestern and German-Jewish descent. Accustomed to both chauffeurs and nursemaids during her childhood, Rukeyser was educated at the Ethical Culture School in New York City, followed by two years at Vassar College.

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Writer and activist, she attended the 1933 trial of the Scottsboro Nine in Alabama, covered the antifascist Olympics in Barcelona in 1936 as correspondent for London's Life and Letters Today, taught at the California Labor School in 1945, traveled to Hanoi in 1972 as a peace ambassador, and stood in silent protest outside South Korean political prisoner and poet Kim Chi-Ha's jail cell in 1975.

Her poems engage with much of twentieth-century, Left history in the United States, yet are also personal and autobiographical. Her work reflects an integrated political-aesthetic vision that refused the conventional separation of private and public spheres.

Author of eighteen books of poetry, four of prose, children's books, and numerous translations, Rukeyser won many prestigious awards during her lifetime, including the Yale Younger Poets Prize (1935) and election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1967).

Details of Rukeyser's personal life remain a matter of speculation. Rukeyser herself never wrote or spoke publicly about her sexual identity. She was briefly married in 1945 and gave birth to her only child, William Rukeyser, in 1947. (Her son's father was not her former husband.) She also had lesbian relationships.

In 1978, she accepted an invitation to participate in a Lesbian Poetry Reading at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association, a decision that seems to reflect her intention to assume a more public lesbian identity. Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke prior to this event and was unable to attend.

There is no doubt that her work has been enormously important to many feminist and lesbian readers. Her poems constantly break silence around previously unwritten areas of female experience, for example, sex, menstruation, breast-feeding, mother-daughter relationships, and female aging. As she wrote in her well-known tribute to the sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open."

Significantly, she was always particularly attuned to the power of silencing. She wrote of being "unable to speak, in exile from myself" ("The Poem as Mask") and regularly asked her students to write about what they "could not say." She states pointedly in the "The Speed of Darkness": "I am working out the vocabulary of my silence."

In "The Transgress," she describes herself "thundering on tabu," and alludes to the "bed of forbidden things finally known." In "Letter to the Front," she enjoins her readers not to "fear the hidden." Such lines can be read as a direct response to the cultural silences surrounding homosexuality.

Rukeyser's poetics and politics were never separatist. She was an extraordinarily inclusive, democratic poet whose work affirms "the faces of all love" ("Private Life of the Sphinx"). Her poems address a broadly conceived audience, including men and women: "A people various as life / whose strength is in our many voices and our hope / of a future of many" ("Speech of the Mother").

Anne F. Herzog

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Daniels, Kate, and Richard Jones. Poetry East: a special double issue on Muriel Rukeyser 16-17 (Spring-Summer 1985).

Gardinier, Suzanne. "'A World that Will Hold All the People': On Muriel Rukeyser." The Kenyon Review 14.3 (1992): 88-105.

Kertesz, Louise. Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

McDaniel, Judith. "A conversation with Muriel Rukeyser." New Women's Times Feminist Review (April 25-May 8, 1980): 4+.

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

_____. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader. Jan Heller Levi, ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

_____. Out of Silence: Selected Poems. Kate Daniels, ed. Evanston: TriQuarterly, 1992.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Herzog, Anne F.  
    Entry Title: Rukeyser, Muriel  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 16, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/rukeyser_m.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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