an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. Kenneth Rexroth said that she was the greatest poet of her "exact generation".
While her earlier work shows the influence of W.H. Auden in its intricate rhyming and regular meter, she later wrote more freely, famously declaring in a 1968 poetic manifesto “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Apart from her advocacy for the disadvantaged, she reflected a great range of interests, including science, in her writing, and in the 1960s and 70s became a favorite of the anti-war movement and of feminists.
One of her most powerful pieces was a group of poems entitled The Book of the Dead (1938), documenting the details of the Hawk's Nest incident, an industrial disaster in which hundreds of miners died of silicosis.
Her poem "To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" (1944), on the theme of Judaism as a gift, was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books, something Rukeyser said "astonished" her, as she had remained distant from Judaism throughout her early life.
She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930–32, she attended Columbia University.
Her literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, based on flying lessons she took, was chosen by the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series.
Activism and Writing
"Rukeyser was one of the great integrators, seeing the fragmentary world of modernity not as irretrievably broken, but in need of societal and emotional repair."
— Adrienne Rich
Rukeyser was active in progressive politics throughout her life. At age 18, she covered the Scottsboro case in Alabama, then worked for the International Labor Defense, which handled the defendants' appeals. She wrote for the Daily Worker and a variety of publications including Decision (payne), Life & Letters Today (London) for which she covered the People's Olympiad (Olimpiada Popular, Barcelona), the Catalonian government's alternative to the Nazis' 1936 Berlin Olympics. While she was in Spain, the Spanish Civil War broke out, the basis of her Mediterranean. Most famously, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, to investigate the recurring silicosis among miners there, which resulted in her well-regarded poem sequence The Book of the Dead. During and after World War II, she gave a number of striking public lectures, published in her The Life of Poetry (excerpts here). For much of her life, she taught university classes and led workshops, but never became a career academic.
In 1996, Paris Press reissued The Life of Poetry, which had been published in 1949 but had fallen out of print. In a publisher's note, Jan Freeman called it a book that "ranks among the most essential works of twentieth century literature." In it she makes the case that poetry is essential to democracy, essential to human life and understanding.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a time when she presided over PEN's American center, her feminism and opposition to the Vietnam war (she traveled to Hanoi) drew a new generation to her poetry. The title poem of her last book, The Gates, is based on her unsuccessful attempt to visit Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha on death row in South Korea. In 1968, she signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
In addition to her poetry, she wrote a fictionalized memoir, The Orgy, plays and screenplays, and translated work by Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelöf. She also wrote biographies of Josiah Willard Gibbs, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Hariot. Andrea Dworkin worked as her secretary in the early 1970s.
Rukeyser died in New York on February 12, 1980 from a stroke, with diabetes as a contributing factor. She was 66.
In other media
In Jeanette Winterson's novel Gut Symmetries (1997), Rukeyser's poem 'King's Mountain' is quoted.
Rukeyser's translation of a poem by Octavio Paz was adapted by Eric Whitacre for his choral composition "Water Night". John Adams set one of her texts to music in his opera Doctor Atomic.
For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
Murmurs from the earth of this land, from the caves and craters,
from the bowl of darkness. Down watercourses of our
dragon childhood, where we ran barefoot.
The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.
When Barcelona fell, the darkened glass
turned in the world and immense ruinous gaze,
mirror of prophecy in a series of mirrors.
I meet it in all the faces that I see.