It’s been a while since I’ve offered anything up. I’ve encountered plenty of items of interest over the past few weeks, among them: a tromp l’oeil mural I spotted down an alleyway (“horses” hanging their heads over a “stable door”)—the sort of mural that triggers a doubletake and gratitude for human imagination. And then there were the land snails and slug trails I’ve spotted (the former in the woods, the latter in the backyard) after our especially soggy June. During wetter periods, watch for the silvery threads catching the sun as they wind over the surface of concrete sidewalks. I saw an art exhibit in Chicago that I will write about here eventually (the artist used, among other things, a sewing needle to create raised patterns on heavy paper). And I’ve read several books I want to tell you about (among them, Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff; American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation, by Eric Rutkow; new books of poems by Patricia Clark, Dan Gerber, Jack Ridl, Libby Wagner. . .). They are all well worth reading.
The other morning, in the introduction to a book I’ve been roaming around in, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by the poet Mary Ruefle, I came across the following:
“I always look askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my 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. On the other hand, the evening news tells us a corporation is not interested in protecting anything other than itself. This is best contemplated by the younger generation, on whom it will have the greatest impact.”
Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books, 2012) has lain in my pile of early morning reading for a few months. Currently there are half a dozen books there, so you can imagine how long these piles tend to last, especially because I regularly add more books. When the pile reaches the toppling point, I prioritize. (By the way, you’ve just read the origins of the title of this blog: early morning poking around in books that have caught my eye.)
This passage from Ruefle’s introduction made me feel as if the top of my head had been taken off, and so, on the spot, I decided to share it here and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Whenever anyone writes, “always” anything, I tend to want to push back, but I admire the way she moves, in one short paragraph, from reflecting upon how a person skeptical of “writing about writing” came to publish a book of essays (“lectures,” the title insists) on writing, to her own devotion to poetry and her sense that knowledge and intelligence are distinct from it, to a gentle warning about our current corporation-dominated lives.
Here’s a closer look: Asked to do something outside her comfort zone (lecture to graduate students), Ruefle rose to the challenge by writing (and then delivering as lectures) these pieces. As she notes, “writing is my natural act.” I can relate. And here’s what she wrote about her devotion to poetry: “[It’s] greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence.” (Hmmm. I admire the way this puts poem-making into a different category from meaning-making, which is probably true of all art-making. Art does something different, doesn’t it?) As for the gentle warning, Ruefle writes—soberly? wryly?—”This is best contemplated by the younger generation, on whom it will have the greatest impact.” I don’t really agree with this last bit. I feel some responsibility to try to mitigate some of the messes we have made, and I feel thwarted in this by some corporations who are, after all, legally bound to pure selfishness.
When I reconsider the list of forage I record above, I note that most of the items are at a remove from corporate anything. I’ll admit this pleases me.
Read more about Madness, Rack, and Honey by clicking here. And be sure to take a look at the rest of the Wave Books catalogue. I first discovered them at the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Alison — Lovely post, and as usual your thoughtful inquiries put me in an inquiring mood. I think Mary Ruefle is a very interesting writer, and I’ve followed her work for years, but the excerpt you quote from the introduction to Rack and Honey has me scratching my head. If you can deconstruct it a bit, I’d be most grateful. I can’t tell if she’s abdicating her allegiance, or not.
Thanks for this comment, Jerry. I think Mary Ruefle delights in ambiguity and mystery. I think one of the reasons she was “terrified” to give lectures about poetry is that she inhabits poetry and poetry inhabits her and she deliberately resists analyzing either situation. Kris Kunz commented on Facebook that Madness, Rack, and Honey makes her feel free (as a poet). And I think that’s about right. I read Ruefle, in this passage and especially in this book as a whole, as celebrating the mystery of poetry and deliberately resisting turning it into something utilitarian. She sees the sheltering of poetry by the academy as risky–because the academy has become something of a tool of corporate America which insists that everything adhere to bottom-line thinking.
I made my way here after the pure pleasure of reading your chapbook ‘Before the Snow Moon.’ Your poems lead me to your prose (lead and lead, past and present tense!).
While I get Ruefle’s dubiousness regarding “writing about writing,” I confess that I enjoy reading writing about writing. (Which is one of the reasons I’m here.) Reading another author’s take on the work–the reading, foraging, contemplation and teasing out of ideas is helpful. I learn from it and teach from it and write better poems and essays myself, I think, because of it.