Sarah Gilbert

Thesis title: Women’s anti-Vietnam war poetry and canon(s): critical and feminist representation of the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser and Denise Levertov

Start year: 2021


Supervisor(s): Professor Alex Goody, Dr Niall Munro

Research topic

Focusing on the poets Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) and Denise Levertov (1923-1997), and more specifically their Vietnam War era writing, my PhD research interrogates the various narratives that have impacted their literary presence today, establishing both poets in their own right as counter-cultural women writers. My research also considers the implications of anthologisation upon the perception of both poets, in relation to counter-cultural canons, late 20 century counter-cultural movements, and more broadly.

Both Rukeyser and Levertov produced poetry throughout the 20 century. Rukeyser was writing and publishing as early as the Scottsboro trial and the Spanish Civil War, and both poets were active throughout the Second World War, the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and the mounting US counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, each poet occupies a very different place in political and literary understanding. Both poets have acquired unique significations in cultural consciousness, and each poet experienced a shifting reception by political and literary arbiters at different points in their careers. Significantly though, both poets were public figures in the activist movement against US involvement in Vietnam, and wrote a substantial amount of poetry in protest against the Vietnam War. Thus, comparison of these writers in their differing personal, social and literary contexts offers a nuanced approach to how the representation of women’s war writing has been shaped by 20th century US contexts. My research interrogates the reception of their Vietnam War era writing specifically, and how this has impacted the narratives surrounding their work as a broader entity.

By means of these poets’ different but contemporaneous oeuvres, my work also examines the broader phenomenon of North American women’s war poetry in the 20 century, considering how anti-war writing and representations of anti-war writing were shaped by the broader political context(s) of second wave feminism, the civil rights movement, and the Cold War. In asking these kinds of questions, my work offers new insights into the role, representation and impact of US counter-cultural production in the context of the Vietnam War, by examining how different forms of counter-cultural production (political anthologies, pamphlets, critical narratives around counter-cultural writing) have differently presented Rukeyser’s and Levertov’s work.


American literature and culture, feminist poetry, women’s poetry, modern poetry, Vietnam War, cold war, second wave feminism

General research interests

20 century poetry, contemporary poetry, modernism, political writing, American literature and culture, sex and sexuality studies

Academic school / department

School of Education, Humanities and Languages


  • Identity, Failure and Queer Utopia: an approach to ‘home’ in Audre Lorde’s Zami and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues – A Sense of Home workshop, Oxford Brookes University, Space & Temporalities research cluster (Conference paper, 2021)

Further details

  • Research studentship – Oxford Brookes, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (2021)