In honor of National Poetry Month, Jewish Treats presents a brief biography of Muriel Rukeyser (December 1913-February 1980).
Born and raised in New York City, Rukeyser attended Vassar College and Columbia University. In 1935, her first collection of poems, Theory of Flight, was chosen for publication in the Yale Younger Poets series.
Like many poets, Rukeyser was a social activist, and her poetry was known for its staunch political voice. Her writing was inspired by events she witnessed, such as the Scottsboro Trial*, the hearings on the Hawk’s Nest industrial disaster in which hundreds of West Virginia Miners died (this incident inspired her second long poem, “The Book of the Dead”), and the Spanish Civil War.
Rukeyser’s writing was not limited to social poetry but also touched on personal interests. She also wrote several biographies, plays and children’s books. In addition to writing, Rukeyser taught at several different universities and taught writing workshops.
Her Jewish identity is one of the personal themes found in Rukeyser’s poetry. There was only one item connected to Jewish life in her childhood home: a silver Kiddush cup. However, the oral tradition that her mother’s family descended from Rabbi Akiva appears to have made a deep impact on Rukeyser, and she wrote a poem titled “Akiba.” Her most prominent poem with a Jewish theme is “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century” (1944 - see below), which was adopted by both the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
Muriel Rukeser passed away on February 12, 1980.