Madness, Rack & Honey / Art & Fear

I love Mary Ruefle. I kind of want to BE Mary Ruefle. Or at least my idea of her, which involves living in rural Vermont, reading sixty-something books a year, loving Emily Dickinson, criticizing technology in interviews, writing poems like this one or this one or this one, and generally not taking things too seriously. I don’t even write poetry!! I also HATE East Coast winters!!! And how could I ever become so wise and gracious? Can I bring myself to re-read the Greeks and make intelligent-sounding statements about them? At least I strongly identify myself in this passage, which Ruefle quotes as an example of what her relationship with reading is like:

“Although I steeped myself in an incredible amount of reading material, it merely expanded the void, fattened the darkness inside the cactus. Nothing was born from there… Despite that, I read more and more, growing endlessly fatter of soul until I could not move because of my weight. Just as the mouth takes in food, my eyes avidly devoured everything. No doubt my brain was swelling up from its morbid, chronic hunger. Even after I came to that cottage, my daily task (more even than studying for the university exams) was to continually browse among books like a crazed sheep.” (Kurahashi Yukimo, “Ugly Demons,” quoted by Ruefle in the lecture ‘Lectures I Will Never Give.’)

It’s not often that you encounter a writer that makes you feel like they GET you in a deeply personal way. Or like you get them. I still know nothing about poetry. I have nothing super articulate to say about her style or themes or methods. But I DO know that from a deep gut-level–like we’re talking intestinal fauna here–I loved, loved, loved her book of Collected Poems, and will probably rank her alongside Rodrigo Rey Rosa as my favorite literary discovery for the year. Madness, Rack and Honey, her book of non-fiction essays (or collected lectures, I guess) also helped push her up high in the rankings.

What I love most about Mary Ruefle is the way she writes: a stream-of-conscious, out of breath way that nevertheless magically ends up feeling connected as opposed to nonsensical or random. Take her poem “The March,” for example. We go from blue peas, to the clock, to meadow grasses, to a body wanting to drop, to the definition of genius… on and on until somehow it all ends up making sense. A painting depicting all the images in the poem in the order that they occur would be absolutely whacko. The person who introduced me to her poems this summer compared her writing to those times you end up on youtube, and then 15 minutes later you are somewhere completely different and you have, like, no idea how you got there. I think this feeling as expressed through literature is pretty groovy. I love hybridity and fragmentation in general, I guess. I also love people who successfully balance mystical wonder with gritty realism. That’s kind of what I want to do in my own every day life…

There are a lot of gems in Madness, Rack & Honey, a book of collected essays–oops, I mean lectures. I so want to steal her style for my dissertation. I love how many quotes she uses, for example, and the way she sprinkles them so liberally (almost Reality Hunger-style) throughout the text. I loved this James Salter quote in particular–Here then, faintly discolored and liable to come apart if you touch it, is the corsage I kept from the dance–and the way she equates it to the “secret” that is at the heart of all poetry. Fuck, I love that!! The truth of poetry as a crumbling corsage!!

I also love how in her lecture about poetry and the moon, she launches into a long tangent about what happened to all the American astronauts once they returned to earth (they all became mystics, basically). Most memorable to me was the reclusive Neil Armstrong, specifically his answer to the question of how he felt knowing his footprints might remain undisturbed on the lunar surface for centuries: “I hope somebody goes up there some day and cleans them up.”

I love the way she compares sentimentality in poetry to a kitten–the “human feeling” that insists we may be moved by it, because poets ultimately are people who are moved by EVERYTHING (what a great justification for being overtly-sensitive and getting teary-eyed when watching early 90’s family films! Not that, uh, that has ever happened to me…). She also pleasingly goes on to insist that if we fail to be moved by the kitten,  then something is terribly wrong. ROCK ON.

I love her straightforward, quote-worthy sentences, like “In the end I would rather wonder than know” (“On Secrets”)  or “When anyone asks me how my love-life is, I cringe” (“On Sentimentality”), or “The more I think the more bewildered I become” (from her title essay–though now that I’ve just checked, it’s actually a quote from Charles Darwin!).

I love the conclusion of her lecture “On Fear“: “What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth–of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked.”

I love the lecture “My Emily Dickinson,” a rumination on her relationship with Dickinson, Emily Bronte and Anne Frank (because what else would describe the kind of feelings you have towards the authors you love other than a “relationship”?).

And I love, love, love the entirety of her essay on reading, in which she confronts the very real Bolaño-esque fear that at some point, every reader reaches a juncture in which they must accept that there are simply too many books in the world to read in their remaining lifetime, and at some point you need to decide at which point you start being picky with your time and start re-reading.

I could go on and on, but I feel like my attempt to summarize my fondness for Ms. Ruefle is already (perhaps appropriately) starting to fragmment. One last quote, then, from the title essay, which is maybe one of the most pleasing mission statements about writing I’ve ever read:

The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart. (137)


This book was great. I’m glad I bought it and I highly recommend it. In the spirit of Reality Hunger, (i.e. I am leaving for Morocco tomorrow, have limited time to finish this blogpost and thus must resort to the quickest, most efficient way of writing it possible…!), here are all the quotes that stuck with me. There are a lot:

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward… Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself. (2) <– This to me was the ultimate message of the book… if you’re going to make art, you need to be A-OK with uncertainty. AAAAAH!

In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself. (3)

When you act out of fear, your fears come true. (23)

It’s the ballad of the cowboy and the mountain man. (42) <– I liked this quote in particular–it’s in reference to the need for community vs. hermetic solitude. Overall, I feel like I’m a rugged mountain man who needs to hang out fairly regularly with the other hermits chilling by the river.

Habits: they allow confidence and concentration. They allow not knowing. They allow the automatic and the unarticulated to remain so. (62)

Not many activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question. (65) HA! HA! HA!!!!

Healthy artistic environments are about as common as unicorns. (71) HA HA HA AGAIN

Occasional competitive grousing is a healthy step removed from equating success with standing atop the bodies of your peers. (72) <— LOOOOOLZ once more

What we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb. (90) <– Love this too, a very pro-grad school argument for me.

What is worth doing? (94) <— What indeed?!

While good art carries a ring of truth to it—a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear—the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person, and one time… No one else will ever be in the position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made, not found. (106) <– Love this definition of truth.

Making art is about self-expression… a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self. (113) <–It’s interesting how similar this is to religion!

It’s a simple premise: follow the leads that arise from contact with the work itself, and your technical, emotional and intellectual pathway becomes clear. (113)

Artists come together, in the knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice their art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share… Only in those moments when we are truly working on our own work do we recover the fundamental connection we share with all makers of art. The rest may be necessary, but it’s not art. Your job is to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear. (115)

Art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward… In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot and therby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice. (118)


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Filed under books, non-fiction, poetry, review, writing

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