Muna Lee (writer)

American writer

Muna Lee (January 29, 1895 – April 3, 1965) was an American poet, author, and activist, who first became known and widely published as a lyric poet in the early 20th century. She also was known for her writings that promoted Pan-Americanism and feminism. She translated and published in Poetry a 1925 landmark anthology of Latin American poets, and continued to translate from poetry in Spanish.

A long-term resident of Puerto Rico from 1920 to her death 45 years later, she was an activist in the 1920s and 1930s, working on issues of women's suffrage and equal rights in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Lee worked for more than two decades in cultural affairs for the United States State Department, promoting artistic and literature exchanges between Latin America and the US, as well as other countries.


  • Another's estimate has never the rich completeness of the sudden word from the inner self.
    • "Flowering in a Phrase" in Commonwealth (July 13, 1934)

"Poetry Every Day" (1947)


Talk delivered at the Southern Literary Festival, Blue Mountain, Mississippi. Included in A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee, edited and with biography by Jonathan Cohen

  • ...of poetry as daily fare-of poetry as being as much the daily bread as the white hyacinths of life.
  • There is nothing to be afraid of in the name of poetry, though it is in all languages and in all ages a name for wisdom and beauty. Whether we know it or not, poetry is a part of the everyday life of all of us. It is about us, and inside us, all the time. More often than not, we do not recognize it. Even when it is most present, we may not realize that what we are seeing or hearing or even saying is poetry. But we can learn to recognize and realize it: and to the extent to which we may do so, we ourselves become poets. In an essay familiar to most high-school students, Carlyle declared that everyone who reads a poem understandingly becomes a co-creator of the poem, and so a poet. We are creators in greater degree; and, therefore, poets the more, when we open our eyes and ears and minds to the innumerable little things as well as the big things that make life.
  • This working partnership of facts and imagination gives us reality, which I think is another word of poetry. I do not believe that poetry can ever be anything but truth. When poetry speaks in parables, or in metaphors or in similes, it is not to lead you away from what is real to what is unreal, but rather to lead you by the quickest path to the very core of reality. Poetry does not give us fanciful falsehood instead of truth: poetry is a shorthand for truth itself. When we depart from truth, we depart from poetry.
  • It is poetry to express an entire philosophy in simple words
  • For the world, which seems so various, is made up to a large extent of a few patterns used over and over again in innumerable combinations. We need not falsify in order to find the identities. We need only to look with comprehending eyes. Poetry is this recognition, and expression, of identities. The common words of our language, and of the language of every other people, is full of such poetry...

"Cultural Interchanges between the Americas" (1929)


In A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee, edited and with biography by Jonathan Cohen

  • The lack of understanding that comes from actual ignorance is notorious. Most North Americans know nothing even of Puerto Rico, which has been under the Stars and Stripes for thirty years; so it is hardly surprising that they are apt to confuse Uruguay with Uganda.
  • Science of course is the great international bond.
  • Translators, again-the most abused and patient lot of folk on earth-are helpful in making us better acquainted; though we hope the time will soon come when citizens of the twenty-one republics will no longer need translators. There is no reason for our not speaking each other's language.
  • Puerto Rico is Spanish American in its past, Anglo-Saxon in its present, and, I trust, in the deepest sense Pan-American in its future

"In Behalf of the Equal Rights Treaty" (February 7, 1928)


Address delivered before the Unofficial Plenary Session of the Sixth Pan-American Conference, Havana, Cuba. Included in A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee, edited and with biography by Jonathan Cohen

  • Many temples have been built to shelter Pan-Americanism. Some of them have been built with marble, some with words. But deep and true friendship is no less than beautiful. It does not come even to temples merely because it is summoned, nor even because each country of our continents may sincerely desire its coming. International friendship to be real must be unselfish, and complete unselfishness is hard of attainment when interests differ; as hard for nations as for individuals. But here, today, you have before your eyes a concrete demonstration of that very thing: a Pan-Americanism that includes all, that excludes none, that makes not the slightest difference between one and another. The women of all the Americas have one need. Every enlightened woman of this hemisphere desires for her sister of another country, the same good which she craves for herself. The woman of no country of our Americas believes that equal rights for herself will in any way give her or her country an advantage over her sisters to the north or to the south. She does not wish such advantage. She does not ask for one thing and pay with another; she is not carrying on a barter of power, of friendship, of advantage. She asks for herself and for every other woman in all of our countries, one thing, for the good of all-and for the good of those countries which we women have helped upbuild and are helping uphold.
  • Our petition as women, amongst you free citizens of Pan America, is like the petition of my Puerto Rico in the community of American States. We have everything done for us and given us but sovereignty. We are treated with every consideration save the one great consideration of being regarded as responsible beings. We, like Puerto Rico, are dependents. We are anomalies before the law. We, the women of the Americas, ask for a treaty granting us equal rights before the law. We ask this not for one woman, not for one country, not for one race, but for the women of Pan America, for the women who are proving to you here today by their solidarity and mutual trust that Pan-Americanism is a fact. We offer you a new definition: Pan-Americanism is the deep desire of every country for the common good of all, favoring none and slighting none. It is the oneness of purpose that makes of us all responsible citizens of the spiritual commonwealth of Pan America. We offer you a definition and we offer you an opportunity; the opportunity of acting with unparalleled generosity and vision. We, the women of America, ask of you, the men of America, a treaty guaranteeing us our equal human rights.

Quotes about Muna Lee

  • a visionary and fervent of the most extraordinary and creative figures of the twentieth century, a builder of bridges and hopes...a magnificent woman.'
    • Marjorie Agosín, used as blurb in A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee, Edited and with biography by Jonathan Cohen
  • What I keep thinking is: why didn't I know about you? I have needed you and I didn't know. I grew up in the Puerto Rican independence movement, in a home full of books, speaking English and knowing other families who did, pacifists, university people, circles you would have moved through. I am a poet, a translator, a feminist historian studying women's resistance, women's voices, and I never heard that Luis Muñoz Marín had a first wife, far less one like you...The world is full of opportunities to be of use, but I believe with you that poetry has a special power to reconnect our severed bonds, and I will practice it, because for myself and also for the world, you have reminded me that poetry is bread.
    • Aurora Levins Morales, from the Forward to A Pan-American Life: Selected Poetry and Prose of Muna Lee, Edited and with biography by Jonathan Cohen
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