Carol Muske-Dukes (formerly Carol Muske) certainly engages the world from a feminist perspective, she is not simply a feminist poet. A respected literary critic, she argues that contemporary poetry should move readers "away from chaos, from isolation, divisiveness, away from self-conscious fragmentation" ("Woman"). Such movement, Muske-Dukes claims, is "crucial" for a young poet to develop "an open mind" ("War"). In her poems this open-mindedness results in a compelling combination of progressive politics and aesthetic excellence that inspires the critic Vijay Seshadri to name her "an exemplary citizen both of the world and of the republic of letters" (20).
Muske-Dukes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. She published her first book of poems, Camouflage, in 1975. Her poems are now widely anthologized. Among her awards and honors are the 1979 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and a 1981 Guggenheim Fellowship. She has taught at the University of Southern California.
Even in her earliest poems, Muske-Dukes establishes herself as a poet unafraid to confront the most desolate spaces of the 20th century's social history. Whether writing about a student's reaction to being raped ("China White" ) or her response to a Czech student's self-immolation in protest of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague ("Prague: Two Journals 1970, 1990"), her careful craftsmanship offers sympathetic interpretations of even the most dismal facets of the human experience. It is in this very human sympathy that Muske-Dukes presents her poetic vision—a courageous call for poetry to make a difference in the world.
In "At the School for the Gifted" (1997), Muske-Duke's speaker struggles to inspire students to embrace poetry by having them discover verse in the "Cut out camels [that] plodded across the blackboards high / sill." The students strive to produce poetry befitting their intellectual talents, but fall short, as they are "suspicious / in individual spotlights." Instead of finding satisfaction in inspired flashes of poetic insight, Muske-Dukes speaker and her students find sweetness in the inspired chaos of poetic word and sound association. This commitment to a very American sharing of ideas, inherent in the reading and writing of poetry, marks Muske-Duke as the preeminent spokesperson for both the aesthetic power and the social relevance of contemporary verse.
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