The Volta: Friday Feature

Madness, Rack, & Honey by Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 2012.

cover of Madness, Rack, & Honey

Reviewed August 3, by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.

“I never believed, for a moment,” says Mary Ruefle, “that anyone ever learned a single thing about poetry from hearing a lecture.” And she goes on:

Don’t misunderstand me; lectures are important insofar as they teach us how to talk about poems, but never do they teach us how to write them. Nothing does. Except, sometimes, the dead…I came to believe—call me delusional—that no living poet, none, could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing, at least none I have talked to, and I have talked to quite a few. John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living.

I think the best teachers model their thinking. Of course, they’re smart; they’re widely read, too; but instead of just talking about what they know, they display a mode of investigation; they enact engagement—and at its best you might not feel like you’re ‘learning’ at all, only that you’re apprehending things in a nuanced way that had never before occurred to you. It starts to change how you think about unrelated things, without merely adding to some repository of facts you can call up for an exam or party.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading and loving Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures: Madness, Rack, & Honey, just out from Wave Books. I’m new to Ruefle—somehow I missed her until her excellent Selected Poems came out a few years ago, also from Wave. (My friend Jaswinder read me the poem “Merengue” one night in Chicago and I was sufficiently hooked; it begins “I’m sorry to say it, but fucking / is nothing. To the gods, we look / like dogs. Still, they watch.”) I felt sort of cheated and simultaneously foolish not to have come upon her ten or more other books. In poetry, we’re always behind, and I guess we have to learn to be ok with that.

The fourteen lectures in the collection appear topical at first glance of the table of contents (“On Secrets,” “Poetry and the Moon,” “On Fear,” etc.), yet they wander and digress, without making either arbitrary or expected turns. They are talky as they remain composed. And their bullshit detector for the reverential waxing that the priests of poetry often succumb to is on throughout. In fact, all the lectures seem to take their direction from something Robert Hass said on the topic, which Ruefle quotes in her lecture “On Sentimentality”:

The poets lie too much…the first two-thirds of any lecture on poetry by a poet is likely to be more or less indiscreet self-praise; the final third is apt to deal with the supreme importance of poetry to human civilization.

Like the notes of an inspired teacher critical even of her own conclusions, Ruefle’s lectures demonstrate a captivating record of thought (oscillating between a collage of quotes to observations about the anxieties and pleasures of writing). They are as self-deprecating as they are impassioned, and somehow she manages to balance being composed and thoughtful while dispensing with self-importance. Here is how she begins her “Short Lecture on Socrates”:

I am forever telling my students I know nothing about poetry, and they never believe me. I do not know what my poems are about, except on rare occasions, and I never know what they mean. I have met and spoken to many poets who feel the same way, and one among them once put it this way: “The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.” I couldn’t put it any better than that if I tried.

There is a peculiar disquiet or dissatisfaction (not snarkiness or petty contrariness though) that pervades these talks. As Ruefle says in the book’s brief introduction:

I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways became boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves.

I can only imagine that most writers, on the occasion of gathering their “lectures” for publication would not begin to “break down” their methods or turn their ideas “against themselves.” In and of itself, this notion is not particularly interesting; but when the pathways of your thinking are as compelling as Ruefle’s, it’s hard not to want to see this on display.

Of course, they don’t really break down; instead, they swerve generously from thing to thing and refract each quotidian example through the eyes of a restless poet, continually willing to interrogate her own assumptions about why we bother to write poems at all:

I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility.

One of the many pleasures of these lectures is Ruefle’s predilection for leaping from disparate topic to brief anecdotes, however discrepant or seemingly unsuited to “poetic reflection” these items (say, the moon landing or the construction of a Key West theme Park) might seem to be. For example, her lecture “On Theme” wends from holidays to suburbia to methods for ordering one’s library to the absurdity of poetry anthologies about incest or dogs or sailing, then leaps to Melville, androids, and Polartec—and all those are covered in the first six or seven pages. Her topics are as varied as her curiosity, and it’s pleasing to read a poet unconcerned with seeming ‘poetic.’ She loves to talk at length about Keats and Dickinson, and will quote (another of the best features of the lectures) widely from Kafka and Bachelard to Frost and Simic to a fragment by John Crowe Ransom on the floor of Cy Twombly’s studio (“‘The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim’”).

The lectures seem to track whatever cultural scrap or idea (from theme park to book, story to memory) that might obviate a point or, better yet, complicate her investigations into why we write poetry. If this sounds tedious, it’s not. And that’s because Ruefle’s imagination is capacious, the forms of the lectures are various, and her “Twenty-two short lectures” and big list of “Lectures I Will Never Give” are some of the most unusual, fragmentary, and absorbing in the collection.

In fact, it’s because Ruefle takes so little for granted that these lectures begin in such engaging ways, as with the first sentences of the title lecture: “I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say, yet I know that before long I will sound as if I’m on a crusade.” These may seem oppositional—that is, uncertainty compounded with zeal—but in Ruefle’s best lectures, her uncertainty is the machine behind an impassioned mode of investigation, ever skeptical, curious, critical, and continually inspired. It’s lovely to read with a mind that doesn’t take its own claims so seriously, but nonetheless takes its own thinking seriously enough to want to dismantle and inspect all the bits and parts of its assumptions.

Let me show you what I mean. From her lecture “Kangaroo Beach,” she writes,

If there is any irreverence in my own work, I hope it is the irreverence I bear in mistrusting my own sincere self, which then sincerely mistrusts the irreverent me. If there is a bottom to this, I think it’s a life’s work.

Once in a while, Ruefle says something defining, precise, and no less curious because of her reluctance to assert her authority over the very authorship of even her own poems. In the title lecture, she writes: “Metaphor is not, and never has been, a mere literary term. It is an event. A poem must rival a physical experience and metaphor is, simply, an exchange of energy between two things.” If she keeps in check her own authority as the knowledgeable sage declaiming the poet’s vocation, her zeal for what language might do is unmatched.

In this way, throughout, there is little imperiousness or piety about the achievements, benefits, transcendent power or beauty of reading and writing poetry. There is only a poet obsessed with how it might change. As Ruefle concedes,

I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come.

Fortunately, for us, Ruefle follows the thrush deeper and deeper into woods.

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Joshua Marie Wilkinson's new book is Swamp Isthmus (Black Ocean 2013). He lives in Tucson and is the editor of The Volta.