“Live the Questions Now!”

madness

More quotes — some hers, some others’ — noted in Mary Ruefle’s book Madness, Rack, and Honey:

  • “Robert Frost never wrote a nature poem. He said that. Meaning: there’s more to me than trees and birds. Meaning: there’s more to trees and birds and I know that, so that means there’s more to me, too.”

Comment: Clever, but Robert Frost wrote lots and lots of nature poems, and he can add all the linguistic frosting he wants (pass the ice cream).

  • From Thomas Tranströmer’s long poem “Baltics”:

Sometimes you wake up at night
and quickly throw some words down
on the nearest paper, on the margin of a newspaper
(the words glowing with meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words don’t say anything
anymore, scrawls misspeaking.

Comment: This is true in more places than the Baltics!

  • “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.”

Comment: Ruefle goes on to elaborate, but I like the thought much better before any explanation is provided. Let the reader take it and run!

  • Nietzsche: “The degree of fearfulness is the measure of intelligence.”

Comment: Apparently Nietzsche hadn’t heard of FDR, who said, “The only intelligence we have to fear is intelligence itself!” Or something like that. Still, if you subscribe to the notion that fear requires imagination, then I’ll buy some stock.

  • “Shakespeare’s reputation as a god is enhanced tenfold by the mysterious circumstances of his being. As is always the case, the unknown raises the stakes and the stature and the flag of the formidable before which we bow and do worship in unaccountable dread.”

Comment: I’ll agree heartily to this — the unknown enhances everyone and everything. Growing up there was many a girl I fell in love with from afar based on looks alone. The personality and circumstances of her life I made up. If I was unlucky enough to get to know her, the allure disappeared and, with it, the attraction. Notable, then, was the role of silence and mystery, both mine to fill. The minute many of these girls talked especially, everything went poof. It was a no-go. In fairness, it was likely the same for any girls who saw ME from afar and built a suitable mate.

  • Rilke advises we “live the questions now.”

Comment: What the hell does this mean? That’s the question I’m living now.

  • “The wasting of time is the most personal, most private, most intimate form of conversation with oneself.”

Comment: Ruefle has much to praise when it comes to “wasting time.” After all, it’s essential to writing poetry. But you knew that.

  • The great sculptor Giacometti: “I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.”

Comment: More often, the latter.

  • Sung master Qingdeng, by way of the Vietnamese monk Thich That Hanh: “Before I began to practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. After I began to practice, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers. Now, I have practiced for some time, and mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”

Comment: This is what’s know in the business as a koan. You don’t know. You know. You learn you don’t know. It just takes you 20 years to admit as much.

  • “Stanley Kunitz has said it gets harder and harder to write, not easier, because your standards and expectations — the limits of your endurance — become higher.”

Comment: If you are your own worst critic, getting better will only make you more critical still, a good problem to have.

  • Pascal: “Runaway thought, I wanted to write it; instead, I write that it has run away.”

Comment: This reminds me of the free-writing advice I used to give to my students: If you can’t think of something to write, write about your inability to think about something to write!

  • Kafka: “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Comment: I don’t know if he meant the books he wrote himself or the books he read. In either case, incredible pressure on the author! I just like the metaphor of a frozen sea within me. It explains the cold look I give my wife whenever she says, “Let’s watch Sanditon together, shall we?”

  • “A poem is a finished work of the mind, it is not the work of a finished mind.”

Comment: This is one of those aphorisms that, when first read, appears deep. On second reading it appears obvious, for but for the grave, when is a mind finished?

Next time we meet, the final installment of annotated text from this thoroughly engaging book. You know how Holden Caulfield wanted to call authors up after he enjoyed their book? I suffer that same affliction. Ms. Ruefle can thank God for unlisted numbers (though I would more likely text or email, and I may be using the “unknown, Shakespearean” aspects of her to make her more compelling than she is.

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