Search more than 3,000 biographies of contemporary and classic poets.

Muriel Rukeyser


On December 15, 1913, Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York City. She attended Vassar College for two years and then moved back to New York where she took classes at Columbia University. Her first collection of poems, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1935. Her subsequent books of poetry would be inspired by certain events she witnessed, including the Scottsboro trial in Alabama, the Gauley Bridge tragedy in West Virginia, and the civil war in Spain.

"Muriel Rukeyser's poetry is unequalled in the twentieth-century United States in its range of reference, its generosity of vision, and its energy," wrote Adrienne Rich. "She pushes us, readers, writers, and participants in the life of our time, to enlarge our sense of what poetry is about in the world, and of the place of feelings and memory in politics."

"For (Rukeyser), poetry could encompass both science and history, that of the past and of the present, from the Depression through the anti-war movements in which the poet was active at the end of her career," writes Marilyn Hacker in her essay, "Brooks, H. D., and Rukeyser: Three Women Poets in the First Century of World Wars."

The violence and injustice Rukeyser saw in the United States and abroad informed her poetry. She felt a deep responsibility to comment on human rights issues and was particularly concerned with gender, class, and racial inequalities. She frequently documented her own emotional experiences within the context of a greater political or social events, and her poems became, in part, a platform for social protest. One of Rukeyser's last poems, "The Gates," was written in South Korea where she protested the imprisonment of poet Kim Chi Ha.

"She was the first poet that I knew personally," William Meredith once told the Paris Review, "I knew her when I was still an undergraduate. She was a very amazing human being and any traces of honesty in my life come from having seen how beautifully honest she was in administering her life and her poetry without any separation—you couldn't get a knife between the two things with her. The real influence was her human model of what a poet could be."

Rukeyser received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966. Her wide technical range, which included employing lyrical forms and documentary narrative, is illustrated in her Collected Poems (1979). Many poets have claimed Rukeyser's influence on their work, Anne Sexton among them. She died in New York City on February 12, 1980.

Selected Bibliography


Theory of Flight (1935)
Mediterranean (1938)
U.S. 1 (1938)
A Turning Wind (1939)
The Soul and Body of John Brown (1940)
Wake Island (1942)
Beast in View (1944)
The Children's Orchard (1947)
The Green Wave (1948)
Elegies (1949)
Orpheus (1949)
Body of Waking (1958)
Waterlily Fire: Poems 1932-1962 (1962)
The Outer Banks (1967)
The Speed of Darkness (1968)
29 Poems (1970)
Breaking Open (1973)
The Gates (1976)
Out of Silence: Selected Poems (1992)
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (2005)


Willard Gibbs: American Genius (1942)
The Life of Poetry (1949)
One Life (1957)
The Orgy (1967)
Poetry, and Unverifiable Facts (1968)
The Traces of Thomas Harriet (1971)
The Education of a Poet (1976)
Savage Coast (2013)


Selected Poems of Octavio Paz (1963)
Sun Stone (1963)
Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf (1967)
Three Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf (1967)
Uncle Eddie's Moustache (1974)


The Middle of the Air (1945)
All the Way Home (1958)
The Colors of the Day (1961)
Houdini (1973)


Come Back Paul (1955)
I Go Out (1961)
Bubbles (1967)
Mazes (1970)

Muriel Rukeyser
Photo credit: Rollie McKenna

By This Poet


The Conjugation of the Paramecium

This has nothing
to do with

The species
is continued
as so many are
(among the smaller creatures)
by fission

(and this species
is very small
next in order to
the amoeba, the beginning one)

The paramecium
achieves, then,
by dividing

But when
the paramecium
desires renewal
strength another joy
this is what 
the paramecium does:

The paramecium
lies down beside
another paramecium

Slowly inexplicably
the exchange
takes place
in which
some bits
of the nucleus of each
are exchanged

for some bits 
of the nucleus
of the other

This is called
the conjugation of the paramecium.


In the cave with a long-ago flare
a woman stands, her arms up. Red twig, black twig, brown twig.
A wall of leaping darkness over her.
The men are out hunting in the early light
But here in this flicker, one or two men, painting
and a woman among them.
Great living animals grow on the stone walls,
their pelts, their eyes, their sex, their hearts,
and the cave-painters touch them with life, red, brown, black,
a woman among them, painting.

Related Poets