Sunday, October 25, 2015

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980): The Forgotten Woman by Laura Passin


What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.

Muriel Rukeyser wrote that in 1968, even though she’d been splitting the world open for decades already. She’d gone from literary wunderkind to lefty pariah to feminist heroine precisely because of her commitment to telling the truth–about one woman’s life, yes, but also about many, many women’s lives, about the lives that weren’t yet celebrated in poetry. The girl cutting her brother’s hair before his job interview. The mother burying her sons. The pregnant woman. The suicidal woman. The woman who loves sex. The women written out of myths and legends: the girl waiting for Icarus to come back; even the Sphinx and her infuriating riddle. Muriel Rukeyser died in 1980, and if there is any justice in literary history (and let’s be real, there is not much), her name will outlive mine and yours by hundreds of years. Anne Sexton called her “Muriel, mother of us all,” and Adrienne Rich named her “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more.”

So why didn’t you read any of her poetry in college?

Muriel Rukeyser was unruly. Her writing was impolite and thus inconsistent: her poetic style and her political ideas evolved across her lifetime. When this happens with a brilliant male poet, we (and by we I mean people who have somehow managed to make talking about poets our real, honest to god jobs) tend to tell a story of maturation or of breakthrough: he grew up and is now wise or brave. When women’s writing or thinking evolves, “we” tend to tell a story about a before and an after, in which one of those phases is dismissed as naive or inadequate or overly mannered or not mannered enough. Someone tells this version of the story, and someone else repeats it, and then thirty years later mouthy feminist grad students say “But seriously, ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ is an incredibly fierce poem even though it rhymes, how are we even arguing about this” and then those grad students drink too much and their professors probably do too.

Here is a thing the eminent midcentury poet-critic Randall Jarrell once wrote about Muriel Rukeyser (who, mind you, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize at age 21): “One feels about most of her poems almost as one feels about the girl on last year’s calendar…. Miss Rukeyser almost asks us to be unjust to her.”

That is just an example. I could give you more, but you can probably guess most of them. Even today, many anthologies that do include Rukeyser’s work introduce her by emphasizing a line from “Poem Out of Childhood”: “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” Okay, fine. That’s a great poem, and a great line. But that is also the first line of the first poem in the first book of a woman whose Collected Poems is over 600 pages. That is a line written by a woman who, today, would not be old enough to buy a bottle of wine in the US. That is a line from a poem that is ABOUT BECOMING AN ADULT. Why on earth should we stop there? Why would anyone?

Read the full piece here - it's exceptional!

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