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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

[7426] Herbert Photos, Inc., Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, Manacled Together (1927), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124547].

Muriel Rukeyser was a political poet whose verse is noted for its intricate style and sophistication. She was born in New York City and attended Vassar College and Columbia University. Though from a wealthy family, Rukeyser was deeply concerned with the plight of laborers, the downtrodden, and the disadvantaged. She was shocked by the working conditions and meager wages of the lower classes and attracted to the solidarity she witnessed in the labor movement. Her political activism began in 1932 when she was covering the Scottsboro trials in Alabama for the Student Review and was briefly detained by the police because she was seen speaking with African American journalists. Later, she would lobby for the loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, speak out on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, protest the Vietnam War, and write against the persecution of Kurds in Iran. Her poems of social protest deal with the inequalities she witnessed in race, gender, and class, both in America and abroad. Rukeyser always considered herself a poet of the radical left, and her poems often connect an emotional reaction with a political or social event.

She published over twenty books of poetry, including The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1978), seven books of prose, and five books of letters. In addition to writing poetry, Rukeyser translated works by Octavio Paz and Bertolt Brecht; wrote a biography of Wendell Willkie, an internationalist and strong opponent of American isolationism before World War II; and authored several children’s books. Rukeyser never wrote in any particular poetical form, but instead preferred to experiment with language and structure. Her intricate and complex verse addresses a wide variety of subjects, including anthropology, war, the environment, biology, psychology, religion, and social issues such as women’s rights, motherhood, lesbianism, and anti-Semitism.

Teaching Tips

  • Rukeyser often celebrates working people in her poems. Have students list ten categories of working people. For each category, have them come up with one or two powerful symbols that represent that category of worker or profession. Use the activity to discuss how symbols function in literary works.
  • Have students read “The Conjugation of the Paramecium,” which on the surface appears to be a brief vignette about reproduction. Ask them to think about what the poem might mean. Remind students about Rukeyser’s usual themes of social protest, the “uniting spirit” between common workers and laborers, and the emptiness of individual consumption.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In what ways does Rukeyser’s “Alloy” condemn the steel-making industry?
  2. Comprehension: Though the speaker of “Alloy” seems to be addressing “things,” how is the poem really about people?
  3. Comprehension: Find the definition of “alloy” in the dictionary. Why might Rukeyser have used this word as the title of her poem?
  4. Context: Steel production was a major industry in the United States in the late 1930s; however, relatively high labor costs and concerns about pollution and the environment gradually moved most steel production overseas. How does Rukeyser foreshadow the loss of this industry in “Alloy”?
  5. Context: Who is “the gangster” referred to in the beginning of “Alloy” and what effect does that term have on the reader? Remember that gangsters loomed large in the public imagination in the 1920s and 1930s. Figures such as John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Bugsy Siegel dominated newspaper headlines for their involvement in drug dealing, prostitution, gambling, and loan sharking.
  6. Exploration: Apprehension about the power of technology and industry continues as a major theme in late-twentieth-century science fiction movies. Analyze how such films as Terminator and Minority Report represent these fears. Pay particular attention to what the films’ endings say about the place of technology in our lives.

Selected Archive Items

[4554] Prentiss Taylor, Scottsboro Limited (1931),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4717].
Lithograph from Scottsboro Limited, a collection of four poems and a play by Langston Hughes. This collection protested the incarceration, conviction, and death sentence of the Scottsboro boys, nine African American youths unjustly accused of raping two white women.

[6180] United Women’s Contingent, When Women Decide This War Should End, This War Will End: Join the United Women’s Contingent on April 24 (1971),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6882].
Protest poster against the Vietnam War. The anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements were connected politically and artistically.

[7426] Herbert Photos, Inc., Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, Manacled Together (1927),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124547].
Sacco and Vanzetti surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and guards before entering a Dedham, Massachusetts, courthouse. Victims of the first Red Scare, these political radicals received the death penalty, despite a lack of evidence.

[7650] Anonymous, Ozzie Powell, Defendant in the Scottsboro Case, Full Length Portrait (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-121575].
Photograph of Ozzie Powell, one of the nine defendants in the Scottsboro case, in Decatur, Alabama. Author Muriel Rukeyser’s political activism began when she covered the Scottsboro trials and was questioned by police because she had been seen speaking with African American journalists. The Scottsboro case was characterized by extreme racial and social injustice.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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