Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
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Kenneth Rexroth claims that Muriel Rukeyser was the greatest poet of her “exact generation.” Born in 1913, Rukeyser is revered as not only a poet, but a political activist who was involved in social justice, equality, feminist and Judaic issues. Her poem, Theory of Flight, was chosen by Stephen Vincent Benet, for the 1935 publication of the Yale Younger Poets Series. The 1938 publication, The Book of Dead, documents the Hawk’s Nest incident, a mining disaster in which hundreds of miners died of silicosis. Her poem “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century,” written in 1944 was chosen by the American Reform movement for their prayer books. In addition to poetry, Rukeyser wrote a fictionalized memoir The Orgy, plays and screenplays and translated a number of key works. She died in 1980.
Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange, and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.
To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.