'The universe is made up of stories, not atoms"
For those of us who work for social and economic justice the American Jewish poet and social activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is a source of inspiration and an exemplar of a life lived in the radical tradition.
She used poetry to describe her own emotional and intellectual experience as a woman within the context of wider social and political events. Her poetry was shaped by the violence and injustice she saw around her, as well as the larger social and economic forces that washed over her.
As a journalist she witnessed and wrote about some of the most significant events in world and USA history. Aged 19 she reported on the 1931 Scottsboro trial of 9 negro boys accused of rape in Alabama.
In 1936 at 22 years of age Rukeyser went to Spain to report on the anti-fascist Olympiad, an alternative to the 1936 Berlin Olympics which had been exploited by Hitler and the Nazis as a propoganda opportunity. She was in Spain when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Rukeyser was radicalized and transformed by her experience in Spain. Later she would describe Spain in 1936 as the place where “I began to say what I believed,” and as “the end of confusion.” She wrote about the Spanish Civil War until her death.
In 1938 she published the Book of the Dead, poems inspired by her travels through West Virginia to report on the terrible suffering of miners. During the 60's and 70's she protested fiercely aginst US involvment in the Vietnam War
For much of her life, she taught at university and led public workshops, but she never became a career academic.
Rukeyser was part of the radical left but eschewed leftist dogmas. She was a target for the right, particularly her feminism and opposition to social and economic injustice.
But Rukeyser was more than just a poet and public intellectual. Her life and work were informed by her lived experience as a woman and lover, single parent, journalist, feminist intellectual and political activist.
Rukeyser's poetry broke political, personal and private silences. She wrote about women's experiences in a way that broke silences- about sexuality and motherhood, breastfeeding, lesbianism, menstruation, desire, love- in the context of wider class, racial and economic injustice.
Her poetry and political commitment were a major influence on distinguished American poets, including Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich.
"......... confronts the turbulent currents of 20th-century history, as it explores with depth and honesty the realms of politics, sexuality, mythic imagination, technological change, and family life. She was a social activist of unwavering commitment, a tireless experimenter who opened fresh forms and fresh subject matter in modern American poetry, and a writer who was constantly testing her own limits in a life's work of extraordinary scope".
When I wrote of the women in their dances and
wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.
No more masks! No more mythologies!
Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music