rev. of A Muriel Rukeyser Reader ed. by Jan Heller Levi

Issue #66
Spring 1995

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader
Poems and prose by Muriel Rukeyser, edited by Jan Heller Levi. W.W. Norton & Co., $25.00 cloth. Reviewed by M. L. Rosenthal.

It is a delight to see Muriel Rukeyser in print again. Her intimately self-searching lyricism and her identification with the world’s insulted and injured have a special place in our poetry. As were the poet-prophets Whitman, Crane, Lawrence, and her deeply admired Hugh MacDiarmid, Rukeyser, too, was a driven artistic experimenter.

Like them, she could hazard sheer rhetoric, not always happily but often reaching heights of beautiful intensity. Her forays into impassioned poetic reportage in
U.S. 1 (1938), for example, about the ravages of silicosis among West Virginia coal miners are strikingly effective. And throughout her writings, her penetrating intellectual force is a vital factor. Thus, her first volume of poems,
Theory of Flight (1935), reflects her study of aeronautics, implicitly relating it to her own efforts to learn to fly a plane and also to her youthful familial and psychological travails. And her most ambitious prose work,
Willard Gibbs (1942), brilliantly connects the literary and scientific awakening and the political fires of mid-nineteenth-century America.

Her work had begun as part of the wide-open poetic scene of the twenties and thirties. But after World War II, that atmosphere, with its formal explorations and its testing of revolutionary and bohemian lines of thought, began to dissipate in the odd period of self-repression that lasted until the Beats came along. Always able to publish her books, Rukeyser was nevertheless at a disadvantage in the burgeoning McCarthy period. Despite early praise by John Crowe Ransom and Kenneth Burke (and my own later discussions of her work, many of which are collected in
Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews, as well as in other critical books), she was slighted or ignored critically for a long time.

Rukeyser was one of our country’s most politically committed yet undoctrinaire poets. Her courage was seen in her journey to Spain during the Civil War and in the serious part she played in the Ban-the-Bomb movement, the resistance to the Vietnam War, and the struggles for civil rights and women’s rights. Equally courageous was her endurance of the trials of single motherhood before the great shift in attitudes toward such matters had taken place.

All this is reflected in the sensitive, chronologically arranged selections by Jan Heller Levi of Rukeyser’s poems and prose writings including excerpts from
Willard Gibbs and the wise, intensely personal
The Life of Poetry (1949). But the charm and wit of, say, a poem like “From the Duck Pond to the Carousel” tells us as much about the mind behind it as does its author’s graver writing. The ambivalences, the conflicting pressures, and the comic and ironic turns in her work are characteristic of the species
poeta germanus.

Rukeyser was, indeed, a true poet. It is impressive to go back to her sequence “The Book of the Dead” in
U.S. 1 and see her handling of the Congressional investigation of Union Carbide and Carbon for its indifference to the deadly lung disease afflicting its miners. The mixture of modes (descriptive passages, documentary materials and testimony, and lyrical choruses) makes for a memorable achievement in poetic dynamics. But the same volume also contains unforgettable individual lyrical pieces among them “Homage to Literature,” which begins: “When you imagine trumpet-faced musicians / blowing again inimitable jazz”; and “Nuns in the Wind,” with its desperate clowning: “All that year, the classical declaration of war was lacking. / There was a lot of lechery and disorder. / And I am queen on that island.”

Muriel Rukeyser can be happily compared with such international figures as MacDiarmid, Auden, and Neruda. Theirs is a poetry that grows out of the rich modern history of the art and is inextricably enmeshed in the political and cultural struggles or agonies of its own age.

M. L. Rosenthal’s most recent book of poetry is As for Love: Poems and Translations
(Oxford University Press). His most recent critical book is Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art