Muriel Rukeyser Poetry Wall

"I care about a world in which there is not a sense of acceptance or rejection." - Muriel Rukeyser

About the Wall

In 1976, poet Muriel Rukeyser and The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, then Dean of the Cathedral, inaugurated the Poetry Wall in the Cathedral as a “place where poems will always be accepted.” Visitors were invited to leave a poem and take another, and people from around the country mailed in submissions to be posted on the wall. In recent decades, the project became difficult to maintain; however, the Cathedral continues to receive several submissions each week, which come exclusively from people who are currently incarcerated. The Cathedral has expanded Rukeyser’s original vision to incorporate a digital archive of poetry submissions, and has displayed a selection of these poems in the exhibition The Value of Sanctuary: Building a House Without Walls.

The poems included in the collection represent the breadth of experience and perspectives of people currently incarcerated in the United States. The topics explored range widely, including life within prison walls, childhood memories, nature, faith, bigotry, and love for family and friends. The Cathedral does not edit submissions for content or clarity in order to most faithfully represent the work of the poets.

The Wall

Who was Muriel Rukeyser

Although best known for her poetry, Muriel Rukeyser also wrote plays, biographies, journalism, children’s books, and television scripts; and translated poetry into English. Her work incorporated her personal experiences and detailed historical events while touching on themes that include pregnancy, desire, Jewish identity, inequality, poverty, and war.

Muriel Rukeyser was born in New York City in 1913. From her days attending Vassar College, and later Columbia University, Rukeyser was an active member of campus publications and literary magazines, serving on the editorial staff and contributing works of journalism and literary criticism. Throughout the 1930s, Rukeyser’s leftist political convictions and reporting work fueled her poetry. In 1933, Rukeyser traveled to Alabama to cover the trial of the Scottsboro Boys for a student newspaper, an experience that inspired her poem “The Trial”; similarly, the hearings concerning silicosis among workers at the Hawks Nest Tunnel led her to write the poetry sequence “The Book of the Dead.” Rukeyser’s first book publication was Theory of Flight, chosen in 1935 for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The following year, Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona as a reporter, witnessing the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, an experience that she incorporated into her second published collection of poetry, Mediterranean, as well as the posthumously published novel Savage Coast.

In the following decades, Rukeyser published fifteen further collections of poetry, in addition to several plays, poetry anthologies in translation, children’s books, and biographies. She remained committed to political activism, protesting against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and traveling to South Korea in the 1970s to speak out against the incarceration and death sentence of fellow poet Kim Chi-Ha. This last experience was the basis of the title poem of her final collection of poetry, The Gates, published in 1976. That same year, Rukeyser inaugurated the Poetry Wall at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an open and ongoing project that exemplifies Rukeyser’s vision of “a world in which there is not a sense of acceptance and rejection.” Rukeyser died in New York City on February 12, 1980.

Resources

Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive
murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org

Muriel Rukeyser at The Poetry Foundation
poetryfoundation.org/poets/muriel-rukeyser

The Prison Arts Coalition
theprisonartscoalition.com

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