You know how it goes — you see a book you really, really want to read, you get it, and then real life happens. Like coursework, lesson prep, grading, paper-writing, and all the rest. And the book sits there, quietly, on the shelf, and you try to ignore the fact that you still haven’t read it. Well, fortunately this book — Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, wasn’t just on my “want to read” list but also appeared, as if by magic, on a required reading list for a class this semester. Hooray! This means I can read it without feeling guilty for spending time on something not study-related.
Here goes. It’s a great read — a collection of Mary Ruefle’s lectures on poetry and craft and, well, any number of things. What I love about this book is that the chapters are so full of things. This may seem like a strange choice of words, but, well, I think it fits. To get a taste of Ruefle’s lecturing style, watch this:
I don’t think I’ve heard anyone speak this intelligently about poetry and have it ring true with me and my experience of writing and reading. She’s also an engaging, entertaining writer. It’s like having a conversation between cardboard covers.
From the title chapter: “As practitioners of poetry you are practitioners of madness, rack, and honey,” explains Ruefle. “The madness of poetry is that it creates sweetness, so that the flies come and eat it till it is gone” (140-1). Poetry — good poetry, that is — needs to rival, recreate, or create a physical experience, like touching or tasting a drop of honey. “I’ll go slowly here: if metaphor is not ide comparison, but an exchange of energy, an event, then it reunites the world by its very premise — that things connect and exchange energy” (131).
As for the “rack”: “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. He was thinking of the rack of it. And Elizabeth Bishop, in a letter, says the same thing. But Galway Kinnell has said, ‘the secret title of every good poem might be Tenderness’; surely he was thinking of the honey of it. Frankenstein’s monstrous and tender creature, in a remarkable passage, says, ‘Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke forth frightened me into silence again.’ [the words ‘sometimes’ and ‘again’] implying the multiplication of defeat but also effort — transform the passage into one with a clear echo of persistent, if faint, hope” (135-6).
She is very down-to-earth when it comes to reading and understanding poetry. In an earlier chapter, she suggests that if we’re puzzled by poetry (specifically if we’re complaining about vague use of ‘you’ in a poem, but this holds for all poetry ever and in general, I believe) we should “read the poem, use [our] noggin, and figure it out” (32).
Ruefle has many interesting and intelligent things to say about a number of subjects that without doubt many writers or budding writers wonder about. Sentimentality and emotion, themes, secrets, what it really means that we read books, — this book is a treasure trove of ideas and great material for discussion.
I like that the actual text takes on a somewhat associative, free gestalt. I think that this choice is not only appropriate but even necessary if we really want to talk about poetry from a poet’s point of view, rather than the outside view. Reading through each chapter means jumping on to Ruefle’s train of thought, be it a long freight train, a tram that makes many stops en route, or a speeding, bullet shaped express.
I think Ruefle is great at illustrating that poetry isn’t merely text, or craft, it is a way of looking at the world and a way of thinking about the world. Anyone can try to write poetry, sure. But consistently good poetry often emerges from those who don’t just put on the colored glasses, but those who routinely see and think this way.