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The Range of Mary Ruefle's Mind

by Zack Rogow

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 2012, 326 pages, $25.00 paperback.

Mary Ruefle's new book on poetry is not a how-to manual. It's not even a book about poetry per se, but more a series of meditations on topics that poets gravitate towards. Mary Ruefle's mind is too wide-ranging to limit itself to poetry, even when she's writing specifically about poetry. Madness, Rack, and Honey takes in everything from Las Vegas theme hotels to astronauts who set foot on the moon.

There are moments of absolute brilliance in every lecture in Madness, Rack, and Honey. At its best, this book is a wild and dazzling ride through the realms of art and consciousness, providing extraordinary insights. Here's a passage from "Poetry and the Moon," one of the most thoughtful and stunning of these lectures: "For the sky is the only phenomenon that can be seen from all points on the planet. All cultures, without exception, have an experience of the moon."

Mary Ruefle is most convincing in this book when she talks about the importance of the literary life, and the need to lead it with all one's heart and ability. In the marvelous essay "Remarks on Letters," she makes a persuasive case that even in the age of Tweets and emoticons, authors should view everything they write as part of their literary work: "What I am trying to tell you is this: every time you write an unengaged letter, you are wasting another opportunity to be a writer. The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed." I love the image she uses to conclude that passage! Anyone who has received a personal letter from a poet where the author took the trouble to write well would agree with Mary Ruefle.

Since I'm an aging sixties radical who grew up in a generation that was always peeling away layers to find out what was really underneath, I can't help asking myself what point of view Mary Ruefle is really advocating in this book. She is maddeningly elusive about what she really believes poetry should express: "I do not know what my poems are about, except on rare occasions…" she states at one point. "I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say…" opens another of her lectures. The end result is a sort of art-for-art's-sake philosophy, which I find somewhat disappointing, partly because Ruefle is so brilliant, and partly because her work exists in a poetic lineage that includes Walt Whitman, for one. Didn't Whitman say in the preface to Leaves of Grass, "Liberty takes the adherence of heroes wherever men and women exist—but never takes any adherence or welcome from the rest more than from poets. They are the voice and exposition of liberty"?

Mary Ruefle does make a strong point at times. She has a great analysis of Billy Collins's poem, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," where she critiques Collins's objectification of Dickinson. "What if this poem were called 'Taking Off Toni Morrison's Clothes'?" she observes. Here Ruefle actually advocates a point of view: "Because poems are my life, a great many of them, both others' and my own, piss me off. This is one of them." She takes on Collins, but in a collegial and humble way.

Let me try to be equally collegial, then, in objecting to Ruefle's lecture where she compares Anne Frank to Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson. I think Ruefle is well intentioned in this lecture, entitled "My Emily Dickinson." She makes the important discovery that Emily Brontë is also a fine poet. Ruefle does say some perceptive things about Anne Frank: "It is also evident that this young lady would have been earnestly involved with the fate of women everywhere, their individual and collective struggles for empowerment."

But anytime someone tries to compare an experience involving the Holocaust to a different experience, the result is never good. This lecture is no exception. Ruefle seems to be equating Brontë’s voluntary reclusiveness with Anne Frank's hiding out from the Gestapo for years in an attic. The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anne Frank perished, Ruefle labels a "prison camp." A prison camp is not a place where 50,000 people die over a handful of years. Ruefle describes the cause of Anne Frank's death in Bergen-Belsen as "Unclean living conditions." The mind boggles at such an understatement. But Ruefle goes on: "Cause of the unclean living conditions? The outer invasiveness of an ideology lacking a circumference of love wide enough to shelter, among other things, a precocious, dark-eyed, fifteen-year-old girl in love with her fountain pen, and her hair." I don’t believe that creating "a circumference of love" was a goal of the Nazis. Genocide, world domination, yes—but "a circumference of love"?

In fairness to Mary Ruefle, whom I greatly value as a poet and essayist, I would say she just got in over her head in a domain outside her expertise. But one lesson that could be drawn from this lecture is that where world historical crimes are involved, it is dangerous to choose a loose and comparative form that tends to dilute or blur the guilt.

Overall, Madness, Rack, and Honey is an enormously worthwhile collection. Its best and most original moments feature revelations you won’t read anywhere else.

Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of nineteen books and plays. My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers (Kattywompus Press, 2012) is his seventh book of poems. He is editor of an anthology of poetry of the USA, The Face of Poetry (University of California Press, 2006) with photographs by Margaretta K. Mitchell. Currently he teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. His blog, Advice for Writers, can be found at:

— posted November 2013

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