Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Rukeyser, Muriel (1913–1980)
Author:
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Muriel Rukeyser was an important figure in American feminist and radical poetry, whose work, beginning with her Theory of Flight (1935), celebrated the diversity of women's accomplishments, the physical and metaphorical power of technology, and the importance of political and social activism. She was attracted to Whitman as a predecessor who shared these concerns. During her forty-five-year writing career, she covered a vast range of historical, political, social, and personal topics, and she was one of the first female poets in the United States to write outside of the narrow realms of romantic and domestic concerns that the literary public had come to expect from women writers.

She also shared with Whitman a fascination with urban experience, a frankness about sexuality and the body, and a desire to break out of traditional poetic forms and discover a new poetic language that would capture areas of experience not previously articulated in poetry. It is not surprising, then, that Whitman occasionally appears by name in her poetry, as he does as early as 1935 in "The Lynchings of Jesus." What is surprising is that Rukeyser's most extended commentary on Whitman centers on her claim that he is androgynous. Her essay, "Whitman and the Problem of Good," in The Life of Poetry (1949), discusses Whitman as "the poet of possibility"—that is, the poet whose "imagination of possibility" allowed him to explore areas of experience, particularly of sexuality, beyond his culture's operable definitions of "good" and "evil" ("Whitman" 109). And one of his great achievements in his "struggle for identity," according to Rukeyser, was his forging of "a resolution of components that are conventionally considered to be male and female—a resolution that expresses very much indeed" ("Whitman" 104). Rukeyser goes so far as to suggest that Whitman's autopsy revealed certain glandular changes that indicated a physical manifestation of his new dual-gendered "inclusive personality" ("Whitman" 104). Whitman-as-androgyne was an important concept for her, because her own desire was to write her way beyond traditional sex roles and to experience a unified human personality.

Bibliography

Rukeyser, Muriel. The Collected Poems. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

———. The Life of Poetry. New York: Current Books, 1949.

———. Theory of Flight. New Haven: Yale UP, 1936.

———. "Whitman and the Problem of Good." Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Ed. Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981. 102–110.


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