on Madness, Rack, and Honey, lectures by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)

In her lecture “Someone Reading A Book Is A Sign Of Order In The World,” Mary Ruefle recalls reading a Hardy novel during high school English period. “And there came the inevitable Wessexian moment,” she says, “a letter, the letter, the one that would make everything okay, being slipped under a closed door got wedged under the carpet on the other side, where no one would see it. This was awful. What happened then I could not foresee: my arm threw the book as hard as it could across the quiet room. Mrs. Pacquette asked me to explain myself. All I could do was stammer that it was awful, awful, awful. She supposed I meant the book. I did not.”

Ruefle1.jpegOn another day, while the class silently read Kafka’s “The Burrow,” she “was infuriated by my inability to understand what was happening in the story. What was happening? Deep inside myself I could not believe that anyone else was actually reading. I was convinced that a mistake had been made … Was I the only one who noticed?”

Ruefle’s classroom is primarily a site of disquietude and eruptions of unsharable knowledge and interior dialogue, not ingestion and recital of public fact. In “The Hand,” a Ruefle poem from the mid-1990’s, the student holds the balance of power over the teacher:

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority,

but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk

and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie

flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,

a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

The passive student, admiring her fingers, acknowledged the pleasure of wasting time. Now, the child who somehow became the teacher (in the MFA writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts) has collected 14 of her bracing, deliberating lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. No wonder her speeches are spiked with disclaimers about teaching (her means of subsistence) and writing poetry (a useless habit):

“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.”

“I do not think I have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound …”

“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.”

“The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time.”

“I get so very tired of having to talk about literature.”

“I never believed, for a moment, that anyone ever learned a single thing about poetry from hearing a lecture.”

RuefleCover.jpgNone of the above has anything to do with modesty or humility. On the contrary, Ruefle is a sly master at arranging things on her own terms. It’s a child’s attainment and a long-term annuity. “Don’t misunderstand me,” she continues after precluding the possibility of learning, “lectures are important insofar as they teach us how to talk about poems, but never do they teach us how to write them.”

Consider Madness, Rack, and Honey as your compact and highly affordable home-residency degree program, because these captivating lectures will teach you a lot about what you need to know about talking about poems. But as she notes, soon enough the crusade begins. Unsuited for and disenchanted by rote understanding, the poet nevertheless fights for the freedom to understand more about how we understand. As a poet, Ruefle has often found the strange sublime wherever her glance settles, and as a teacher she leaps from topic to topic, critiquing American culture here, then quoting Clarice Lispector or Charles Lamb over there on a different subject. Everything coheres through the stickiness of her solitary mind.

RuefleTeaches.jpegRuefle’s lectures are bouts of opposing impulses, cohabiting within the discursive form of her instruction. To illustrate, I’ll tease apart the strands of “On Theme.” This lecture begins with her take on the American enthusiasm for theming: names of streets in suburban subdivisions, commercial holiday reminders. Next, she considers how we organize our bookshelves – first, scoffing at the notion of hiring an interior decorator to organizes books by color, and then admitting that she had stood in her living room “imagining the books arranged by color, and I grew very, very fond of the idea.” After naming several other organizing principles (while observing that no library ever organizes itself by theme), she says, “I am sincerely confused by all of this.” She has talked herself into a muddle simply by observing what exists. “I am led to believe theme is absolutely meaningless in the long run,” she continues, then recants:

“But part of me cannot believe I just said that. Auden said a poem should be more interesting than anything that might be said about it. If you take the theme out of a poem and talk about that theme, there should still be some residual being left in the poem that goes on ticking, something like, why not say it, <color, something that has an effect on your central nervous system. It is not what a poem says with its mouth, it’s what a poem does with its eyes.”

For a moment, apart from what she may or may not be saying about theme, think about what’s happening here in Ruefle’s classroom. The students are listening to a teacher behave like a poem. Her behavior is proof not only that a person can live as a poet (Ruefle celebrates the poet’s time-wasting talents in another essay), but that it’s possible to earn a livelihood blabbing like one. This is deeply inspirational. I wish I’d had such a teacher instead of the psychically constipated, alcoholic depressive who ran my graduate workshops in the early 70’s and took no interest in or pity on my tender vulnerability.

RuefleBW2.jpgBack briefly to “On Theme.” Next, Ruefle seems to disparage the “call for poems” on particular themes: “AIDS, California expatriates, quilts, victims of child abuse, dogs … those who have known and loved African American men who have been incarcerated, childbirth, spiritual experiences among lesbians, New Jersey …” She moans that “themes on the surface pass as admirably deep embodiments of the human condition” as we find that theme has become an “android.” This leads to remarks on the poet “who is said to imitate his or her self,” supposedly the standard sin of a poet-android. And then, somehow, Ruefle takes up the topic of Polartec (polar fleece) and its fashion message (she likes the material but not the message, thus settles for a Polartec bathrobe since she doesn’t have to wear it in public).

But wait, there’s more! A trip to Hancock Shaker Village finds a disparity between the thematizing tour guide and the realities of Shaker life. Finally, we arrive at the climax: themes are omnipresent, they are common and pre-established, and “you have no choice but to choose between themes that are alarmingly similar. I don’t have any answers. I’m lucky enough to occasionally be able to do something I love – write poems – and unlucky enough that what I love confuses and overwhelms me. Something stranger and stranger is getting closer and closer.”

In the end, she says that “I have believed that poetry, from all periods and all cultures, has had only one theme, that of mutability.” Just so, that eternal theme is embodied in the protean reshapings of her narrative, the tone of which is at once affable, headstrong and balky.

Her lecture topics include beginnings (of poems), poetry and the moon, sentimentality (she seems at times to conflate it with “sentiment”), secrets, fear, Dickinson (with Emily Bronte and Anne Frank), reading, letters, and memory. She concludes with “Lectures I Will Never Give.”

Channeling Nabokov's explication of the theme of Bend Sinister, Ruefle says in "My Emily Dickinson," "The main theme of the collected poems of Emily Dickinson is the beating of Emily's loving heart and the torture an immense tenderness is subject to." There is a tortured element in Ruefle as well, certainly in the poems but also in the lectures. "Loneliness ripens the eccentric, the daringly and estrangingly beautiful, the poetic. But loneliness also ripens the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd, and the illicit." In the lectures, the Belle of Amherst meets the town crank/prophet. Ruefle tells her students that Emilys Dickinson and Bronte "heard the Voice, and consented to it, and all the mortal risk therein ... they died precisely because they had spent their lives -- no matter how long, how short -- in duration with their other Voice, which is a voice to which one listens." A spirited, visionary hyperbole, and maybe a little nuts.

RuefleMike.jpeg“Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life,” she says in “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” “You can’t use your time.” I’m not so sure. Ruefle-as-schoolgirl is portrayed as someone who arrives with the prerequisite temperament in place. George Steiner wrote in Errata, “A worthwhile university or college is quite simply one in which the student is brought into personal contact with, is made vulnerable to, the aura and the threat of the first-class.” Mary Ruefle’s educational strategy is based on disequipping her students. Through an affectionate and vibrantly ambiguous approach to her subject, this first-class teacher makes us porous, fearfully courageous, and prepared to be confounded.

[Published August 14, 2012. 326 pages, $25.00 paperback.]

Mary Ruefle has published 13 books of poems, most recently Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010.

Teaching, MFAs, etc etc

She doesn't teach as much as give permission to be wild. If you raise a doubt about the MFA industry, you get nothing back in return but mud in your face. Like those sprawling non-profits gathering $ for incurable diseases, the MFA programs keep MFA-grantees employed just as the non-profit keep their people employed. They wrap themselves in sacred language. But they so often are just wasting time. Ruefle can teach, I can hear that. But the success of her mode of teaching points to the pretensions of the new PhDs in creative writing and their gusty pomposity about "pedagogy." At least Ruefle indirectly tells the truth about it in her own way. She builds up her students' sense of the writer's mentality while breaking down its pretensions. Will you tell us who your drunk and unhappy teacher was?

Little Nuts

Sure, the problematics of taking it all so personally...is a little nuts. It's a little divine too when you're so open to the power -- and believe in it so much -- that you will throw the book across the room and shriek. Reading and writing subtracts from your time, but it can also add years to your life. I doubt that there's much of a General Theme Theory. And not too sure that it's mutabilty either. The Voice though, that it chants till you finally listen, until you are like your poem -- that is interesting. Thank you for such a fine review of Ms Ruefle's book.

Mary Ruefle's essays

Good to see coverage of this essential book. She never meant to publish these lectures, meaning although they were written out to be read in class, she didn't write them for publication. So they have a sort of unexpurgated feeling to them even though there's nothing scatalogical etc etc in them. She's a very wise lady and the wisdom comes through. Thanks for shining a light;.

hey thanks

great review great great great book great site THANKS, RON, FOR DOING THIS