Rukeyser's poetry shares the ethics of the proletarian, left writers of the 1930s, with whom her early work was associated, and the formal and stylistic experimentation of her contemporaries in literary modernism; her poetics also echoes the work of what is perhaps Rukeyser's single most significant literary influence, the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman. Rukeyser's earliest poetry also shows the influence of W H. AUDEN, while as a Jewish woman social activist poet in New York, Lola Ridge is another important predecessor. Late in her career, Rukeyser's work inspired a new generation of women poets searching for a distinctly female voice, female language, among them Adrienne rich and Anne sexton, who famously referred to her as "Muriel, Mother of everyone" (qtd. in Levi xvii).
Rukeyser was born and raised in New York. She was educated at Vassar College and Columbia University, and she briefly attended Roosevelt Aviation school, an experience informing her first volume, Theory of Flight (1935), for which she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She had one child, a son, William, and was mentor to the American novelist Alice Walker. She taught at Vassar, the California Labor School, and, for many years, Sarah Lawrence College. Although her father's financial difficulties forced her to leave her studies at Vassar, her coverage of the Alabama Scotts-boro trial in 1932 for Student Review (a literary magazine she founded with classmates Elizabeth bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Eleanor Clark) motivated her lifelong commitment to the struggle for human rights; as a journalist she also covered the silicon mining disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the Spanish civil war. Living in what she referred to as "the first century of world wars" ("Poem" ), Rukeyser was witness to and participant in some of the defining events in the 20th-century quest for social justice. She was arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and she later traveled to Hanoi; in the 1970s she went to South Korea as president of the American Center for PEN to protest the death sentence of imprisoned radical Catholic poet Kim Chi-Ha, an experience that becomes the subject of the poem "The Gates" (1976). in addition to poetry,
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Rukeyser wrote biographies, children's books, and plays and published translations of Octavio Paz and Bertolt Brecht. Rukeyser won numerous awards and prizes, among them a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1942), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1943), and the Copernicus Award in recognition of her lifetime contribution to poetry (1977).
Considering Rukeyser's association with the labor movement of the early 20th century, the midcentury Civil Rights movement, and the late 20th-century women's liberation movement, Kenneth rexroth identifies her as simply "a poet of liberty" (qtd. in Kertesz xii). In The Life of Poetry (1949), Rukeyser writes of poetry as a liberating practice, saying that "the total imaginative experience [which is the end of Art] will apply to your life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience" (26). Poetry, for Rukeyser, becomes a form of social activism, and her strongest work— from "The Trial" (1935) to "The Gates"—is in direct response to social injustice.
Fueled by the national Zeitgeist, Rukeyser enjoyed a period of renewed literary production amid the social protest and revolution of the 1960s, as, at the same time, many feminists and women poets were coming to regard her—politically, if not aesthetically—as a literary foremother. This regard is evident in that the titles of two poetry anthologies edited and including work by women during this period—No More Masks! (1973) and The World Split Open (1974)—refer directly to Rukeyser's poetry. The latter alludes to the poem "Käthe Kollwitz" (1968), in which the poet questions what the effect would be "if one woman told the truth about her life." In this poem Rukeyser identifies her double in the early 20th-century German artist whose haunting black-and-white prints and woodcut images depict suffering caused by war and other social injustices. The poem, separated into five sections, reflects Rukeyser's tendency to group poems into sequences and clusters (similar, in some ways, to those of Hart crane; his the bridge is often likened to Rukeyser's Theory of Flight, because it is a modernist poem that uses an object representative of technological progress as a positive image of human potential). Like fellow mod ernists, including William Carlos Williams, and their shared literary forebear Whitman, Rukeyser rejects European elitism in the search for a uniquely American literature, and the poetics evident in "Käthe Kollwitz" is one she developed early—a merging of proletarian subject matter with modernist aesthetics—and which remains fairly consistent throughout her career. From her earliest work in Theory of Flight to her work in her last volume, The Gates, in 1976, Rukeyser's poetry documents and testifies to the struggle for social justice in the 20th century.
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