The poems of Muriel Rukeyser link the revolutionary communist poetry of the 1930s to the countercultural feminist poetry of the 1960s. Her last published collection of original was The Gates, four years before her death in 1980. That she managed to survive the backlash against anyone even remotely associated with the Communist Party in the post-war 40’s and 50’s is a testament to her manifest desire to evolve beyond pigeonholing. While defiant in her public commitment to the expressions of liberality contained in her earliest poetry, she was even more committed to becoming a complete poet.
The result is a diversity of style that spans everything from short elegies to intricately complex long sequence poems. The payoff for Rukeyser was the recognition of her voice as almost on par with Walt Whitman as a documentarian of the American age in which she inhabited. The cost for Rukeyser is a notable absence from many widely circulated anthologies, textbooks and secondary institution curricula. There is no single defining style, much less a single poem, capable of informing the uninitiated as to dominant characteristics of her body of work which is contained within eighteen volumes of original material published between 1935 and 1976.
Rukeyser’s poetry is the verse of positive celebration of the human spirit which she backed up with activism throughout her life. She was generous of heart, mind and body with those crying for help—whether from a prison in South Korea or a coal mine in West Virginia—and while she may not have that one defining work by which the public at large recognizes her name, she did produce what became a rallying cry for the feminist poetry movement which would not have emerged in quite the same manner had she not been around to follow her own advice: “No more masks!”