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Birth of poet Muriel Rukeyser

December 15, 1913

Muriel Rukeyser was a challenging poet whose work mixed together radical politics and a spiritual quest. Born on December 15, 1913, Rukeyser grew up in a middle-class home in New York City that for her was marked by silences and the absence of books. Through poetry, Rukeyser sought to experience and depict the richness and messiness of life that was missing in her childhood home.

Her father's bankruptcy during the Great Depression cut short her college education, but in 1935, at the age of 21, she won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Theory of Flight. Her poetry brought her much success and much criticism. Embracing left-wing politics, she covered the second Scottsboro Boys trial and the Spanish Civil War. She traveled to North Vietnam and Korea and was jailed for protesting the war in Vietnam. She confronted the red-baiting of the McCarthy era and the strictures of conventional sexuality.

Her poem "Letter to the Front" (1944) presented the challenge of modern Jewish identity with these words:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life.

Rukeyser died on February 12, 1980.

To learn more about Muriel Rukeyser, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: This Week in History, January 31, 1938, Muriel Rukeyser publishes second book of poems and May 8, 1942, Poet Muriel Rukeyser receives $1000 literary award; Poetry in the United States; Jewesses with Attitude, Muriel Rukeyser: Daring to Live for the Impossible and Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry; Muriel Rukeyser in the Virtual Archive.

Source: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, p. 1191-1193.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Birth of poet Muriel Rukeyser." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/15/1913/muriel-rukeyser>.