Muriel Rukeyser was 21 when her first book, Theory of Flight, won the Yale Younger Poet's Award. The year was 1935; Like the protagonist in one of her most anthologized poems, "Effort at Speech Between Two People," the country seethed under its decorous tradition, and that decorum threatened to crack under the human urge to connect. This is the concluding stanza, with its defiant punctuation and spacing:

: What are you now? If we could touch one another

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle . . . yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving . . . Take my hand. Speak to me.

Here was a new voice in American letters -- candid and righteous, willing to forgive only if forgiving was justified. In her remarkable 1949 essay "The Life of Poetry," she writes: "I cannot say what poetry is; I know that our sufferings and our concentrated joy, our states of plunging far and dark and turning to come back to the world -- so that the moment of intense turning seems still and universal -- are here, in a music like the music of our time, like the hero and like the anonymous forgotten; and there is an exchange here in which our lives are met, and created." Nowhere have I seen the vocation of the poet described better -- except, perhaps, in the following poem by the same author:

Then I Saw What the Calling Was

All the voices of the wood called "Muriel!"

but it was soon solved; it was nothing, it was not for me.

The words were a little like Mortal and More and Endure

and a word like Real, a sound like Health or Hell.

Then I saw what the calling was : it was the road I traveled, the clear

time and these colors of orchards, gold behind gold and the full

shadow behind each tree and behind each slope. Not to me

the calling, but to anyone, and at last I saw : where

the road lay through sunlight and many voices and the marvel

orchards, not for me, not for me, not for me.

I came into my clear being; uncalled, alive, and sure.

Nothing was speaking to me, but I offered and all was well.

And then I arrived at the powerful green hill.

Everything about this woman bespoke mettle and heart: As a journalist, she reported on the Scottsboro trial in Alabama (where she was arrested), as well as the Spanish Civil War. She took flying lessons. Penned a biography of Willard Gibbs, the father of thermodynamics. Went to North Vietnam on an unofficial peace mission in 1972 and, three years later as president of P.E.N. American Center, traveled to South Korea to protest the imprisonment of writers there. A proud single mother long before one dared to speak those words aloud, she wrote eloquently on film and the Amistad revolt, translated Octavio Paz and Gunnar Ekelo{dier}f. She taught poetry at Sarah Lawrence for 13 years, nurturing a generation of writers that included Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker.

To borrow a term from D.H. Lawrence, Muriel Rukeyser possessed "the courage of her own tenderness." She would not pretend that writing was a serene and pristine enterprise; she would not pull away from the living that informed the art:

The Poem as Mask Orpheus

When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it was a mask,

on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,

fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song,

it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child

beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music.

("Then I Saw What the Calling Was" and "The Poem as Mask," as well as excerpts from "Effort at Speech Between Two People" and "The Life of Poetry," reprinted from"A Muriel Rukeyser Reader," edited by Jan Heller Levi, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1994 by Jan Heller Levi and William L. Rukeyser.)