Elevate Difference

The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser

Before there was Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, there was Muriel Rukeyser. Before there were the Beats, there was Muriel Rukeyser. As Anne Sexton once pointed out, Rukeyser was the “mother of us all.” This is why a collection of her work is so important. Despite Rukeyser’s stature, and her prodigious output, she is not as often read or taught as her better known literary progeny. Furthermore, some of Rukeyser’s prime writing years were during the era of New Criticism, when politically charged poetry was not in vogue. Not only that, but according to the editors in their introductory note, the FBI had a file on Rukeyser that was over one hundred pages long. It wasn’t just the new formalist poets who turned a wary eye on her.

Even if Ginsberg, Plath, and Sexton are her inheritors, Rukeyser is different from them in that she is concerned with placing the self within a larger political, and more emotionally distanced, framework. A modernist with an obvious debt to Walt Whitman, she believed in the power of poetry to create positive political change. And if she has been somewhat overlooked, I think her time has come. Living as we are in the midst of a dangerous war, Rukeyser has the power to speak to us now. In her autobiographical poem, “Kathe Kollwitz,” her first lines are, “Held between wars/my lifetime/among wars, the big hands of the world of death.” Her concern with war resonates. Her poems “What Have You Brought Home from the Wars?,” “One Soldier,” and “Welcome from War” have something very personal to say to our time.

Rukeyser was also a feminist poet, and she is deeply concerned with what it means to be both a woman poet, and a woman in the world. And long before the Civil Rights era, Rukeyser was all-inclusive. Her poems “The Young Girl of the Mississippi Valley” and “Martin Luther King, Malcolm X,” evidence her interest in transcending her own experience as a white woman. In truth, Rukeyser is every type of poet—she wrote about sex, love, death, race, war, suicide, lesbian love, children, motherhood. Her breadth was profound. This collection of Rukeyser’s work should ensure her life within the canon. This she deserves.

Written by: Susan Melinde Dunlap, March 23rd 2007