The poet Muriel Rukeyser was born on December 15, 1913, into a wealthy Jewish family in New York. She took a very different path than her parents expected. She was a socialist radical, a single mother, openly bisexual and a daring poet. She died in 1980 at the age of sixty-six.
Today, Rukeyser is celebrated as a feminist icon and her reputation as a poet is increasing. She has always been held in high regard by other poets. Anne Sexton called her “Muriel, mother of us all,” and Adrienne Rich declared that she was “our twentieth-century Coleridge, our Neruda, and more.
In her 1968 poem “Käthe Kollwitz” Rukeyser herself asked “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Rukeyser wrote explicitly about her own life but she also wrote poetry about the social issues she cared passionately about. She was jailed twice (during a Civil Rights protest in Alabama and for protesting the war in Vietnam), she reported on the Spanish Civil War and was under FBI surveillance for much of her life.
Here is a poem of hers I particularly like:
WAITING FOR ICARUS
He said he would be back and we’d drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don’t cry
I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying: Inventors are like poets, a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added: Women who love such are the worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.