Female American Poets: Archival Connections

November 12, 2018

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

This post is the first in a series by Rachel Kaufman, a student research assistant in the Beinecke’s American Literature collection and a senior at Yale College, on Female American Poets: Archival Connections. The series begins with poet Muriel Rukeyser and will weave through various poets of the twentieth century, using Beinecke’s collections as a means of connecting disparate figures to one another. Each poet will come from the last, by means of letters written and received, mutual friends, common activities, or other coincidental or conscious meetings, all recorded and preserved in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Archive.

Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, was born in 1913 in New York City. As her archival record reveals, she was an outspoken advocate for social justice issues and much of her poetry stems from her political views and the history happening around her. Described as a “lyric, feminist poet” in her 1980 New York Times obituary, she wrote about the Scottsboro trial of 1932, the Spanish Civil War, and women’s rights. The language of both her poetry and her personal letters is filled with witticisms, cynicism, piercing opinions, and commanding vivacity.

Listed below are various quotations, lifted from Rukeyser’s letters and poetry with some language written by others about her or near her. Each quotation came from a specific document held at the Beinecke, and links and descriptions to those documents are detailed underneath.

1. “[B]eing victimized by fataller sly things. / ‘Oh, and you,’ he said, scraping his jaw, ‘what will you be?’ / ‘Maybe : something : like : Joan : of : Arc….’”

- Theory of Flight by Muriel Rukeyser with a foreword by Stephen Vincent Benét (Yale University Press,1935 as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets)

2. “And the exhausted / women are streaming down the paths at the foot / of the mountain, now fleeing, / now halted by the sleep that follows murder”

- Orpheus: the poem by Muriel Rukeyser, the drawing by Picasso (San Francisco: The Centaur Press, 1949)

3. “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”

- The Poem as Mask / Orpheus (Unicorn Folio, Series One, Number One)

The Poem as Mask / Orpheus Book Cover

4. “Witness the unfailing war, season with season, / license and principle, sex with tortured sex, / class versus class, and help us to survey / this city for faces, this hill for tracks.”

- from Rukeyser’s manuscript of Cats and a Cock, ~1935
YCAL MSS 1046, Box 74, Folder 2434

5. “I feel, as September approaches, that I am going to die or be born—and/or be born, I suppose it is.”

- letter from Rukeyser to Eleanor Clark*
Box 32, Folders 464-466

6. “In a Talmudic exegesis on the Creation myth it says before the creation was the Law, which is eternal, and which God wrote in letters of white fire upon black fire, and with which He consulted before substance was formed. The Wind and the Rain is full of beer and Edinburgh sloppy weather.”

- 1934 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

7. “Ezra Pound saw a report of the Roosevelt speech in which Roosevelt quoted Alexander Hamilton, and insists Roosevelt was plagiarizing from his last unpublished Canto now lying with battle rampant in the office of Poetry.”

- 1934 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

8. “This is funny - people on the road shout goddam artist bastards - we are mostly Left, surrounded by mortuary statues, miles of rose garden, red and gloated goldfish, the Dead Hand of Mrs. Trask. My room has incredibly seventeen windows, and a Van Dyke poem about Sympathy and Peace etched on my balcony door. I shall go mad. Somebody in town has loaned us a car for a long time; I drive to geysers.”

- June 23, 1934 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

9. “I don’t cry any more so much, but music and words touch the tissues, the membranes, and I am all exposed again.”

- 1934 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

10. “[A] letter came like a bullet suddenly from Stephen Vincent Benet who saw my stuff and wants to take it to Random House to be a book. Glory to the bard - what does he look like? - he rejected it for Yale to take it to N.Y. And so I am very happy and want to see you.”

- June 23, 1934 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

11. “The United States sound fine in letters. Shall we stay away from nationalism? Shall we maybe have a fine revolutionary party called The Angry Democrats?”

- 1939 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

12. “I shall stop being an angle of vision until it is time to add the sound track, and then I shall undoubtedly become a semicircular canal.”

- 1941 letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

13. “Eight American hospitals have been established by the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. One hundred and thirteen surgeons, nurses, and ambulance drivers, with fifty-two ambulances and tons of medical equipment are saving hundred of lives daily. What you contribute today, will receive the heartfelt thanks of a heroic people.”

- Written on the back of Rukeyser’s book, Mediterranean, which was published by the Writers and Artists Committee, Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy in the 1930s. The book’s cover is a Goya print entitled “Wreckage of War.”

14. “I was married last Fall to a husband who went back to Europe (or Palestine) and was killed.”

- letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

15. “Look - be in love well, if you are in love. The poems make it sound good. ‘Sun where your heart is’ makes me jealous. You must be very splendid to be in love with.”

- letter to Eleanor Clark
Box 32, Folders 464-466

16. “Poetry is made, not by a Time-Spirit, but by individuals.”

-  from Stephen Vincent Benét’s first draft of his introduction to Rukeyser’s Theory of Flight
Box 59, Folder 2000

17. “the history of our age can be culled from her poetry”

- New York Times article about Rukeyser (August 27, 1979) from the Pamphlets by and about Muriel Rukeyser, including newspaper clippings and other ephemera collection

*Eleanor Clark (1913-1996) was an American author who wrote novels, non-fictional works, short fiction, essays, poems, and plays. Her book, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, won The National Book Award. 

In the Pamphlets by and about Muriel Rukeyser collection is an addressed invitation to The Fear of Poetry Forum, a 1950 NYC event of which Rukeyser was the chairman. The envelope is addressed to Langston Hughes…..

This document will serve as the connecting thread to our next American female poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Click below to read Rachel Kaufman’s archival found poem, in which she realigns and revisits the language of Muriel Rukeyser.
–Rachel Kaufman. Y’19
Yale Collection of American Literature Student Research Assistant