How very strange it is to be a poet in the Academy, to chat up and down the hall in the course of a day with theorists and rhetoricians and philologists producing an astonishing array of knowledge that is inspiring and intimidating and bewildering in its extent. How strange to submit to these friends and colleagues and scholars a teaching portfolio in which the evidence of one’s effectiveness as a teacher of writing includes assignments that refuse to ask a question because thinking of a worthy question is the only reason to write, and student poems that have no grade because there is no poem that deserves an A and no poem that does not. How very strange and very dangerous it is to call oneself and be called a Professor of Poetry when it is only students of poetry who can write well. And how very strange that so many of these students study with the aim of becoming professors, though their professors profess the necessity of remaining students.
Mary Ruefle, a poet in the Academy, knows all of these questions well and takes on the mantle of Academic Poet reluctantly in Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures. “I never set out to write this book,” she begins. “In 1994 I began to be required to deliver standing lectures to graduate students…. [M]y allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things” (vii). What, one wonders while considering this introduction, will readers derive from a collection of lectures that do not wish to lecture?
This question is offered to an audience likely composed of poets professing, TAing, or adjunct teaching first-year writing courses and creative writing workshops who similarly ask themselves what can come of giving lectures on that which cannot be made intellectual, factual, or practical. Other members of Ruefle’s audience will be students of poetry, who must ask themselves what they are asking of their professors and what they are receiving. This book’s answer to the lecture that will not lecture is to masquerade as knowledgeable and intelligent essays on the form and theory of poetry, but really offer stealthy long-form prose poems that consider the impossibility of their own existence.
“On Beginnings,” for example, suggests at first it might tell us something scholarly and useful about the craft of writing, with special attention to the hooks and leads and gambits and reviews of literature and problematizing anecdotes and all those other tactics so many writing teachers diligently profess while clicking along through the Powerpoint slides. But instead, Ruefle gives a meditation on the source of things, including, but not limited to, poetry. “In life,” she begins, “the number of beginnings is exactly equal to the number of endings: no one has yet to begin a life that will not end it. // In poetry, the number of beginnings so far exceeds the number of endings that we cannot even conceive of it” (1). And on she goes, confounding her students and readers with fragmented and paradoxical snippets of research and reflection, like this one from Ezra Pound: “We each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words” (4). Or this from Gaston Bachelard: “We begin [writing] in admiration and end by organizing our disappointment” (6). By the end of the essay readers have begun thinking anew so many times it seems there are not beginnings or endings, just the moment when one steps into the stream of thought and the moment when one steps out.
It is difficult to write about essays in an essay without implying a summarizeable thesis can be found, but these lyrical pieces actively resist simple summary. She promises in the introduction, “I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways became boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary, and turn, who knows, even against themselves” (viii). “Twenty-Two Short Lectures,” as the title implies, consists of lectures ranging from one sentence to a few paragraphs on subjects including: why all our literary pursuits are useless, why there may be hope, Shakespeare, Socrates, the Dead, hypocrisy, lying, enacting the inner life of a poet, and so on. If there is a thesis threading its way through these fragments, it is a call for suspicion of any lecture that dares present a complete thought, for in poetry there is no such thing.
This is not to say that readers will not discover many profound and useful points and ideas in these lectures. Quite the contrary. For example, in “My Emily Dickinson” readers will learn that Emily Dickinson wore white dresses with twelve buttons running down the front of the dress, and, unusually for the fashion of the time, had a workman’s pocket at the right hand side “to hold something the wearer used with regularity and wanted always to be near – could it have been something to write with and a piece of paper?” (157). Which leads to an argument about the disturbing and rapacious quality of Billy Collins’s poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” “There is hope,” Ruefle professes after describing his sensual description of unlocking the buttons down Dickinson’s back. “Collins can’t undress Emily because he doesn’t even know where the buttons are! Women who live without partners or personal maids do not own dresses with innumerable tiny buttons running down the back -- … Emily’s buttons were in the front where she could reach them” (163-64). A worthy scholarly argument, to be sure, but Ruefle never ends her lectures on scholarship or argument. She ends them with reflection on what scholarship cannot do. “In the end I have said very little about Emily Dickinson…. My Emily Dickinson is nobody’s business but my own. I will not share her with anyone. I would no more tell you about my relationship with her poems than I would tell you about a love affair” (181).
It is such admissions of privacy, such acknowledgments of the incommunicable, that make these lectures transcend the limits of the form. She quotes Charles Darwin in the title essay “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” which describes the writing process as something decidedly other than a process. She confesses through Darwin that “the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter” (142). Knowledge and intellect are, perhaps, gifts that tame the wildness of bewilderment in us. But writing requires intimate knowledge of one’s bewilderment. Ruefle’s embrace of this paradox makes her book an inspiring course in poetry and in the teaching of poetry.