Madness, Rack and Honey: Collected Lectures

4127NgYwbDL._AA160_book by Mary Ruefle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The thing about writing an annotation when you don’t have to is that it forces you to wrestle with a book. Not only how the book coheres—its mechanics and structure—but it also forces you to wrestle with its meaning. Why and how did this book affect me? Does this book offer me something unique? What will poet Mary Ruefle have to say about poetry that I haven’t heard or read before?  I bought Madness, Rack and Honey on the recommendation of a poet friend and started reading it fairly soon after acquiring it because a) it was such a physically beautiful book and b) I had to know the origin of its wonderful title.

Ruefle begins her book with an introduction.

“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 spontaneous talks, but I am a rotten and unsteady extemporizer… I always looked 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…” (VII).

It was here (at the very beginning) that the book began to sweep me off my feet.

Because the book is a series of collected lectures (much like Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream”) it is possible to read it in pretty much whatever order you would like. One of the first lectures I read was “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” Again in the first few paragraphs, Ruefle seemed to be present in every word, reaching out to me:

  “When I was twenty-five I began to keep a monthly list of books I read. Over time it became obvious that although some months I didn’t read at all, and other months I read eight or nine books, on the average I read five books a month, or sixty books a year. Assuming this was more or less true from the time I was ten… I can calculate that I have probably read 2,400 books in my life… Out of those 2,400 books I probably remember 200 or 8 percent.” (183)

I too read at about Ruefle’s rate—averaging between 50 and 70 books a year—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels. I will pick up a sequel to a book I’ve enjoyed (for instance Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam’s Trilogy) and I won’t remember important plot points which at the time, I thought I would never forget. Ruefle reflects in this lecture about reading more than you can process and the value in rereading.   She says, “… I had reached a juncture in my reading life that is familiar to those who have been there: in the allotted time left to me on earth, should I read more and more new books, or should I cease with that vain consumption—vain because it is endless—and begin to reread those books that had given me the intensest pleasure in the past, books I had all but forgotten in their details, but loved in the shadows they cast over me…” (185) I think anyone who is over 40 years of age can relate to this musing—all the reading left to do before you die in these, your finite years on this planet. Reading to Ruefle (and to me) is a serious business.

Another one of my favorite essays is the lecture entitled “Twenty-two Short Lectures.” This lecture begins with “Why All of Our Literary Pursuits Are Worthless.” Ruefle says, “Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects. English is spoken by only 5 percent of the world’s population.” (247) That’s it. That’s the whole first lecture. Both incredibly wise and incredibly funny.

And finally the lecture that gives the book its title, “Madness, Rack and Honey.” The phrase came to Ruefle in a dream. The honey is the sweetness of writing a poem. She believes it is an echo of a Persian poem, written in Farsi, which she has always loved. “I shall not finish my poem/What I have written is so sweet/The flies are beginning to torment me.” The rack is the torment, torture and pain of the poem. “And if you have never experienced the rack while working on a poem then you have never worked on a poem.” (135) The madness is perhaps the most easily explained; for what else is the result of an activity that is sweet, but so sweet you feel tortured?

This isn’t simply a how-to poetry book—it’s fiercely and ferociously engaged with life, especially living a literary life. It refuses standard narrative structure and reminds me more of a series of collage essays (ala David Shields or Maggie Nelson) rather than an expository set of lectures on the power and meaning of poetry in the modern world.  I spent the entire book jotting down names of books, poems and philosophers to read (in my limited remaining amount of reading time). Her segues into etymology of words we use every day but have profound significance (fear and secret for instance) will make even the most jaded poet and reader wonder again about the language that comprises our daily task of creating.

Ruefle has lived and read and written and offers up that wisdom to her fellow writers and fellow human beings. On page 75 she talks about hearing and listening in the womb before we are born—about the experience of sound without meaning, that our “first experience of the world is that the world is a secret, that is, it neither hides itself nor reveals itself.” You could spend a lifetime thinking about how life is a secret, the world is a secret, and poetry is a secret—always hiding and revealing in turn.

I am profoundly grateful Ruefle’s allegiance to knowledge and intelligence swayed enough in our favor to offer this book up to poets, or to anyone who likes to read and wishes to live an examined life.

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