On Lecturing Poetically: Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey

John Gibbs

If in this review I set out to perform a complete summary of the contents of Mary Ruefle's latest Madness, Rack, and Honeyeffort, Madness, Rack, and Honey, I'd probably end up wasting every reader's time and further confound my own grasp on contemporary poetry. Yes, this book is a collection of lectures on poetry, but sometimes it reads more like a collection of poems. In her introduction, Ruefle states, "anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves" (VIII). That is not to say they are not instructional. They brim with those enlightening gems of brilliance consistently found within Ruefle's oeuvre that leave the reader happily overwhelmed. She confesses to writing out her lectures, as writing comes more natural to her than extemporaneous speaking. Therefore, her lectures read more like controlled meditations than off the cuff, academic speeches. Overall, a style both inviting and intimate to readers across a spread of genres.

I most recently encountered Mary Ruefle's prose (not to be confused with her prose poetry) in the annual publication Bat City when I read "Twenty-Two Short Lectures." Part of me was surprised to see it contained within Madness, Rack, and Honey as I thought it more an essay deconstructing the idea behind pedagogic lectures. It juxtaposes tight fragments against longer musings, ranging from Flag Day to Van Morrison, which (spoiler alert) has explicitly nothing to do with Van Morrison. She isn't kidding when she says short lectures either. "Short Lecture on Lying," a tie for the shortest of the bunch, clocks in at thirteen words: "In this lecture I only lie three times. This is one of them" (264). Indeed, "Twenty-Two Short Lectures" might be Ruefle's most inventive moment within this book. A lecture, spliced into smaller lectures, contained within a larger collection of lectures on poetry. The literary equivalent to a Russian doll.

A further departure from the traditional lecture can be found within the collection's final undertaking, "Lectures I Will Never Give." Ruefle composes this lecture out of abandoned material, scraps of paper that were, presumably at some point, "meant for a lecture" (280). It seems a sensible way to conclude the book. One imagines the trend in movies where a blooper tape rolls during the credits. However, the outtakes contained here are gathered into a strange menagerie where the reader can invent the imagined lecture him or herself out of the abandoned material. It operates as a montage, moving swiftly from topic to topic. Ruefle is careful to leave enough room for the reader's own imagination to grow and blossom. She doesn't come off as didactic; in fact, she states, "At the very outset I will tell you that if you think I know something or anything, I am just pretending to know as a way to pass the time" (279). As much as I think she herself believes this, I honestly don't buy it.

Ruefle's genius comes from her willingness to be Socratic in her teaching methods and writing. She includes the tale of Socrates within "Twenty-Two Short Lectures," retelling the story of how he arrived at his basic premise, "the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing" (251). Ruefle's entire philosophy is steeped in this antiquated tradition of ancient Greece, of Western Civilization itself. However, if there's one thing she's trying to demonstrate, it's that these principles apply to our contemporary culture of arts, thinking and plain everyday life. She's published over ten books of poetry and doesn't know anything. Congratulations! Her secret is out.

Ruefle tries on many different voices within Madness, Rack, and Honey to explore an assortment of subjects. "I Remember, I Remember" assumes Joe Brainard's experimental rhetoric to recall disjointed moments from her past: her struggle to identify as a poet and her numerous encounters with poets, both living and deceased. "My Emily Dickinson" ruminates on the influences of Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë and Anne Frank, highlighting their overlapping similarities. She inserts whole excerpts from each writer into her own lecture, giving their voices space on the page to stand alone. "Poetry and The Moon" expectedly explores the tradition of moon as poetic object. Arguably, the most poetic moment of the piece is her presentation of several first-hand accounts from astronauts aboard the famous Apollo missions. Paired with poems by Walt Whitman and a discussion of Yeats' moon-chart, this lecture is particularly memorable and moving, a personal favorite.

Perhaps it goes without saying, given these lectures are to graduate students, presumably writers themselves, but a constant thread being woven throughout is Ruefle's treatment of and interaction with the written word. She statistically estimates how many books she has read during her lifetime—2,400—while alerting us to the fact that a whopping two hundred thousand books were printed in the year 2000. Faced with this desperate reality she contemplates whether or not she should read more and more new books or begin to reread those books in which she found the most pleasure in her past. In the book's opening, "On Beginnings," Ruefle entertains the notion "that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime" (4), a notion she admittedly got from Pound, who got it first from Ernest Fenollosa. Moments such as these make Madness, Rack, and Honey a dangerously exhilarating read. Kind of like trying to build a snowman while simultaneously trying to win a snowball fight. 

I could go on, but this review would most likely begin to unravel as I tried to discuss all the passages I excitedly underlined or circled or made photocopies of to give to friends. This is not simply a book for poetry lovers, there's something for every reader in Madness, Rack, and Honey, the only prerequisite being curiosity, which anyone who has dared to open a book already has. Borrow it, buy it, just please find a way to read it.

 

Madness, Rack, and Honey
By Mary Ruefle
Wave Books
ISBN: 978-1-933517-57-5

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