Mary Ruefle’s poetry is, more than likely, something you’re familiar with already (if not, here’s KR’s Hilary Plum’s review of her Selected Poems, in which she writes the following: “Of all the impossibilities that Ruefle is on the hunt for, perhaps the most essential is the poem as a place where “I” and “you” may meet, may at least for a moment see the same thing.”) I’d here, before even getting to the issue of reviewing or considering this book, like to acknowledge, too, that some of the best stuff that happens, in writing or reading or just in plain old being alive, happens when we do things we’re not terribly excited about doing—and in fact some of the best stuff that happens happens when we do stuff we actively do not want to do (I’m thinking here of the Risk element Amanda Stern asks of authors in the Happy Endings Reading Series, at which, long long ago, one of my favorite poets sang, to the tune of “Babyface,” a version that began “Pubic Hair”). Because here’s the first paragraph of Ruefle’s intro to Madness, Rack, and Honey: “I never set out to write this book. In 1994 I began to be required to deliver standing lectures to graduate students, and the requirement terrified me. I was told the students preferred informal spontaneous talks, but I am a rotten and unsteady extemporizer. I preferred to write my lectures because I am a writer and writing is my natural act, more natural than speaking.”
Ahem. Ruefle, in the intro and in all the essays in Madness, Rack, and Honey, confronts this duality, the split pullings of wanting to write, wanting to say things, and finding the act hard at best, seemingly impossible on some days. In “On Secrets,” for my money the most compelling essay of the collection, Ruefle writes the following:
The words secret and sacred are siblings.
The simplest possible definition of sacred is something so especially esteemed it is set apart, and consecrated as such. And by setting something apart one ensures against encroachment. Yet, despite this assurance, one sometimes lives in fear: the sacred word is a secret and cannot be spoken without consequence, be it blessing or curse. There is simply too much power in certain words, and the unnerving force of naming casts a great spell over language and, in one very important sense, created poetry, since to invoke sacred powers, bypass words were employed, incantations without any meaning at all, such as abracadabra, words that of course became imbued with as much power as what they were trying to invoke. And then, as often happens, it worked in reverse, so that very sacred words or phrases bypassed themselves, through a living version of the parlor game Password…to my mind, the most paralyzing example of this process is one origin theory of the term hocus-pocus, that it was once hoc est corpus—This is my body—which Hugh Kenner alls “the most efficacious words in Christendom, the very words of consecration itself,” the words spoken by the high priest at the high noon of the Roman Mass, when the metaphor becomes the thing itself.
The origins of poetry are clearly rooted in obscurity, in secretiveness, in incantation, in spells that must at once invoke and protect, tell the secret and keep it.
No writer I know of comes close to even trying to articulate the weird magic of poetry as Ruefle does. She acknowledges and celebrates in the odd mystery and mysticism of the act—the fact that poetry must both guard and reveal, hint at and pull back (that’s underselling the book: the above’s a representative essay because it’s lucid and great, not because its subject is cast through each essay—the essays “On Sentimentality” and “On Theme” are revelatory in their own ways). Also, and maybe most crucially, Ruefle’s work is never once stuffy or overdone: she writes this stuff with a level of seriousness-as-play that’s vital and welcome, that doesn’t make writing poetry sound anything but wild, strange, life-enlargening fun. Had Dean Young not published The Art of Recklessness two years back I’d claim Madness, Rack, and Honey is the best book on writing poetry that’s come out in decades; as is, you’re just (and we’re all just) the lucky reader who gets two of the best books on the art of writing somehow within two years of each other, a veritable back-to-back in the world of letters. Celebrate by buying this thing (from the ever-great Wave); celebrate by reading everything in here (and here and here) and then everything else available from Ruefle.