Poet Muriel Rukeyser receives important literary award

May 8, 1942
A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi.

On May 8, 1942, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters jointly presented awards to ten artists working in music, literature, and visual art. Among the recipients in literature was a young poet named Muriel Rukeyser. Although she had not yet turned 30, Rukeyser had already published five volumes of poetry; a sixth, as well as her first prose work—a biography of scientist Willard Gibbs—would appear later the same year. Rukeyser's first book, Theory of Flight (1935), had won the Yale Younger Poets award, but it was her second book that established her as a serious artist. With the publication of U.S. 1 in 1938, she was hailed as "a dramatic lyric poet" whose "images of motion, of the driven mind and body are distinctly exciting and right." Critics credited U.S. 1 with dispensing with the "piling up of obscure detail" which had marked her first book. Rukeyser went on to publish 17 additional books of poems over four decades, culminating in The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser in 1979. She also wrote several children's books and published translations of works by Gunnar Ekelof and Bertold Brecht.

In both her poetry and her life, Rukeyser was deeply engaged in the cause of social justice, a path that led to multiple conflicts with authorities. Born on December 15, 1913 in New York City, Rukeyser's middle-class upbringing and college education were interrupted by her father's bankruptcy in the Great Depression. Her first foray into the political realm came in 1933, when she traveled to Scottsboro, Alabama, with college friends to report on the trial of nine young black men accused of raping two white girls. In Alabama, Rukeyser was arrested for communicating with black reporters and carrying literature of the National Students League. She later wrote about the experience in her poem "The Trial." In 1936, she traveled to Spain to report on protests against the Olympics being held in Hitler's Germany; upon her return to the U.S., she became active in supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish civil war. Decades later, she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. All of these incidents, and other themes of social protest, found their way into her writing.

Although Rukeyser never publicly identified as a lesbian, her poetry referred to love between women and railed against homophobia. Her oft-quoted words of tribute to artist Käthe Kollwitz point stunningly to the suppression of women's voices and the potential power of their liberation: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open." Rukeyser's reflections on Jewish identity likewise suggested the pain inherent for a Jew in either suppressing or embracing one's essential identity. This excerpt from "To Be a Jew in the 20th Century," from Letter to the Front (1944), presents the challenge:

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. Full agonies:

Although Rukeyser's work always had its critics, she was recognized for her talent during her lifetime. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Copernicus Prize, and the Shelley Memorial Award, and was elected president of PEN. The New York Times called her collected poems "richly rewarding." Rukeyser died on February 12, 1980. A Library of America edition of Selected Poems by Rukeyser, edited by the noted poet Adrienne Rich, was published in 2004.

Sources: New York Times, January 31, 1938, March 27, 1938, April 22, 1942, July 22, 1942, February 13, 1980; Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1191-1193; “On To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” Modern American Poetry, University of Illnois; “Rukeyser, Muriel, (1913 – 1980),” LGBTQ.com.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Poet Muriel Rukeyser receives important literary award." (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/may/08/1942/muriel-rukeyser>.