Madness Rack and Honey Mary Ruefle

3 posts

“I Love Pretension” and Other Bits of Wisdom

socrates

Here is the last set of quotes I annotated in Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey (recommended reading):

  • “I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

“I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

“I remember thinking, If W. S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

“I remember thinking, Because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.”

Comment: Whether it involves an altered state (like Arkansas, which elected Tom Cotton a Senator) or not, we all can identify with this. Certain authors, be they poets or not, just make it look so damn easy. (See Hemingway comma Ernie, for one).

  • “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

Comment: A wise investment on Mary’s part, choosing food for thought over food for gut. And why didn’t I ever have a famous writer for a professor, one willing to send me checks, even? Instead, I had one that I handed a short story to for critique. He handed it back, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

Comment: And the corollary — we do not leave as the same person, either. Strangers, they’d be.

  • “They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.”

Comment: Finally, post-Disney, something Frozen we can embrace!

  • “Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. It is his basic premise, one from which all his other thoughts come.”

Comment: If only we could find a politician with such basic premises. Instead, we have the makings of a book: The Arrogance and the Ignorance.

  • “And 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. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people — no matter what camp they sleep in — who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.”

Comment: And to follow through, living people know nothing about death. And to those who think my first two poetry collections are dark and depressing and overly fraught with the topic of death, I say, “Touché,” which is French for “So there!”

  • “Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.

“That is remarkably true, and remarkably sad, and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry, here among us today.”

Comment: Get it? (Me either, but I like it!)

  • “Short Lecture on Craft”

Comment: This the title of a short section in the book. I was so flattered to read this and learned so much about my name!

  • “I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.”

Comment: Very cool. Just keep your pretensions under a bushel because, while they may be fun, they look butt-ugly to lookers-on.

  • “On one piece of paper I had written ‘the difference between pantyhose and stockings’ and I had scanned the statement — with marks — and written ‘the beginnings of an iamb,’ which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.”

Comment: Thank you. And please forward to all these Unlovely Rita, Meter Maid, poetry editors out there who take their beats so damn seriously and reject any poem not stinking of the Ivory Poetry Tower (ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM).

  • “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

Comment: Meaning we should celebrate getting out of bed each day as a new poem. Think about it. The bed you rise from, like fingerprints, never quite looks the same. Write  about it!

  • “Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

“When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

“And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

Comment: A fitting end to all of these quotes, though I wonder what the pencil equivalent is to keyboards? Cleaning the damn thing? I mean, really. What could be more disgusting than a keyboard and its lettered-cracks?

 

“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.

“No Poem Is Ever Ended…”

ruefle

I am perversely attracted to philosophy books, but the rewards are few. As a rule, they speak their own language, which runs circles around mine. Straight talkers like Marcus Aurelius are one thing; trying to divine Descartes, Kant, and Heidegger another.

Barring philosophers, a good substitute for musing on the meaning of life has been reading collections of essays, especially ones by poets. Give me a poet who is equally adept at prose and I am a happy man. Certainly this was true of a slew of Tony Hoagland books. Ditto Jane Hirshfield. And now, this week, I can add Mary Ruefle to the list.

Though I don’t know how she pronounces her name (is it “rueful” like a pot of rue?), Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey has been a relaxing and thoughtful exercise in reading this week. She especially enjoys embedding quotes.

The drill, then, goes like this: Mary adds quote to essay, Ken highlights and annotates said quote. What more could any writer (her) and reader (me) ask? Here are a few I have noted:

“Paul Valéry, the French poet and thinker, once said that no poem is ever ended, that every poem is merely abandoned.”

Comment: Any poet who has read his published poem realizes the truth in this. The itch to improve through revision cannot be satisfied.

“Paul Valéry also described his perception of first lines so vividly, and to my mind so accurately, that I have never forgotten it: the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.”

Comment: There you have it. If you have tried but failed to write decent poetry, perhaps you should make like Johnny Appleseed and stop barking up the wrong tree.

The least used punctuation in all of poetry, Ruefle asserts, is the semicolon. Some poets think they should be all-out banned from poetry.

Comment: As noted by my faithful readers of these pages before, I oppose any banning of anything: dog poems, poems that use overused words like “dark” and “darkness,” even poems about cicadas (sorry, Sir Billy of Collins, but that rule is fit for fools).

Among the last words Emily Dickinson wrote (in a letter): “But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory’s fog is rising.”

Comment: Those last four words are awesome. I wonder if she ever considered poetry?

Charles Simic once said, “The highest levels of consciousness are wordless.”

Comment: Strange for a man who makes his living with words.

“Keats said only one thing was necessary to write good poetry: a feeling for light and shade.”

Comment: I like words like these because they are so cryptic. I can fashion one meaning from them, you another. It’s like getting a pencil to trace the exact spot where light ends and shade begins, then returning to find it the next day.

“Pablo Neruda warns us: ‘We must not overlook melancholy, the sentimentalism of another age, the perfect impure fruit whose marvels have been cast aside by the mania for pedantry: moonlight, the swan at dusk, ‘my beloved,’ are, beyond question, the elemental and essential matter of poetry. He who would flee from bad taste is riding for a fall.'”

Comment: Neruda creates a rule against rules (good), but isn’t this itself a rule (bad)?

That’s good for today. It’s Sunday, and I’m supposed to be Sabbathing my day. There are many more, anyway, and many more days to share them here, too.

I write them down for you and me both. Books get lost, after all. The great cloud hope is that websites never will.