Known mainly for her political protest poems of the 1930s, Muriel Rukeyser was attacked throughout her career: by the Left for not being Left enough, and by the Right for being too leftist, by New Critics for writing poems that referred to the social context, by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a "concealed communist," by Marxists for not believing the party line. She just could not win. Now, the 2005 publication of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser signals that the work of the controversial social activist poet - out of print for decades - is enjoying a major revival. A spate of books published since 1992 include several new selected collections, reissues of some of her books, a critical study of her life and work, and dozens of scholarly essays.
The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser contains over 400 of her poems, complete texts of 11 previously published books, the script for a musical she wrote, and her translations, which include the first English translations of Octavio Paz's poetry. Most compelling of the poems perhaps is The Book of the Dead, from her 1938 book U.S. 1 in which she uses verbatim texts of congressional investigations into Union Carbide's responsibility for the silicosis deaths of nearly 700 miners in the infamous Gauley Bridge affair, a shameful corporate crime at a time in America's history when workers' safety was largely ignored.
Intransigent in her objections to European distinctions between "high" and "low" art, she mixed genres, using modernist techniques to serve working class causes, insisting on being considered as her own poetry movement. She even declined being adopted as a foremother by the feminist movement in the 1970s, although her work had brought woman's life experience into poetry as never before. She resisted being categorized, and paid a steep price in terms of her work's promotion and marketability. Nothing sells a product like clear brand identity.
Taken more seriously during the 30s than at any other time in her career, she was rated the equal of the major poets of the time: Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop. Her first book, Theory of Flight (Rukeyser was a pilot) was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Series, and went into several printings in its first year off the press. Critics as eminent as Louis Untermeyer and Malcolm Cowley praised her as the best of the young "revolutionist" poets . Even at the height of her reputation, however, and ever after, her artistic independence evoked venemous criticism. Depression-era critics tried to fit her work into a Procrustean bed of social realism, a reigning literary category of the 30s, but her work exceeded that limit, being as high Romantic as it was modernist and proletarian. In the 1940s and later, the critical establishment, unable to identify her work with a movement, largely ignored it, when they were not attacking her personal and poetic motivations. (The Partisan Review was particularly virulent; their review of her volume Wake Island consisted of one dismissive sentence: "One thing you can say about Muriel: she's not lazy.")
In the 1940s, when the hegemony of New Criticism prevailed among publishers, critics, writers and academics, her work - which resisted New Critical formulaic analysis - was attacked for referring to non-poetic realities. She objected strenously in print to their treatment of a poem as necessarily detached from human psychology and the social environment, a cold obect demonstrating merely formal beauty. "Poetry is above all an approach to the truth of feeling," she wrote.
Not that her works lacks formal values. Her original use of colons to balance terms in a sentence ("Song : The Calling-Up" is one of her titles) preceded and may have served as an example for A.R. Ammons, who is credited with the invention. Caesuras, commas, allusions and modernist fragments are used experimentally and masterfully. Occasionally her work suffers from her political passion; she sometimes uses the poem as a podium to lecture and hector. But she can achieve stunning musical effects, as in this line from The Book of the Dead: "Almost as soon as work was begun in the tunnel/ men began to die among dry drills."