I’m enjoying the new book by Mary Ruefle, titled Madness,
Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.
from Wave Books.
Here’s a snippet of one
of the chapters to give you a feel for it:
The call for poems is astounding.
Anthologies want poems from you
and they want poems from me
This is only a partial listing of some of the themes that are in demand,
like certain toys at Christmas, and this is not invented by me for my own
purposes of persuasion, but extracted verbatim: AIDS, California expatriates,
quilts, victims of child abuse, dogs, automobiles, sailing, incest, condoms,
those who have known and loved African American men who have been incarcerated,
childbirth, spiritual experiences among lesbians, New Jersey, poems by women in
response to poems by men, and, my favorite, a call for poems for the “Unique
want “any theme, but
especially interested in Sweet Revenge, Fish Out of Water, Narrow Escape,
Reversal of Fortune.”
Something is terribly, terribly, terribly wrong here.
Isn’t AIDS trivialized by being on this
African American men who have been
What’s being trivialized here is poetry.
When the New Critics emphasized “reading as
thematizing” little did they know to what extent their thrust would be
extrapolated by poets in the twenty-first century.
Although the dictionaries define theme as
subject or topic, the new critical definition of theme—and I take this from a
glossary of literary terms continuously in print from 1941 to 1971—and now out
of print—is that theme is “the basic idea
behind a work.”
The key word here, I think, is behind
, because to an ironist—and all
postmoderns are ironists—there is no behind.
Of course Shakespeare was an ironist, since Timon of Athens lifts the
silver lid off the banquet platter and—lo and behold—nothing’s
there, and Melville was an ironist, since he wrote: “By
vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the
central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body
Today we mine many poems with
similar results—the themes on the surface pass as admirably deep embodiments of
the human condition, but once we get inside we discover something worse
than nothing: we discover a mess
of wires, we discover the android that theme has become.
Is it any surprise to discover that poets
themselves are becoming androids?
Androids are supposed to imitate human beings.
The best thing about the best androids is
that they are indistinguishable from human beings.
When a poet is said to imitate his or her
self it implies that his or her signature—a repeated, recognizable style—has
grown too familiar; the instantly recognizable personality is not a
personality, it is a commodified cult.
Having such a thought, one is seized with a gripping fear: Is this going
to happen to me
Has this already happened to me
Young poets are always talking about voice: Do I have a voice?
How can I get a voice?
What is a voice?
How long will getting a voice take?
And then, voila: Now that I have a voice, I
am terribly depressed by my voice, having a voice has kinda made me a robot,
The fear is amplified not out
of personal paranoia but out of a collective one: we live in a culture where no one
can escape being instantly
No purdah for us!
In a culture based on the proliferation of
choice, even one’s outward appearance, whether or not you are conscious of it,
whether or not you care, is interpreted by the public as a decision.
Please do not misunderstand me: you may not
a choice, but the public is
going to assume you made one.
political implications of this are many, and would be best discussed by a
political, which I am not.
What I am
equipped to discuss is Polartec.
recently acquired my first article of clothing made out of Polartec.
I like the fabric for its texture, that it’s
soft, warm, light, and washable.
me it carries with it connotations of an outdoorsy, athletic lifestyle—since it
was originally developed for these activities—and I am not an outdoorsy,
athletic type, because I believe, stupidly, that this will disenhance whatever
intellectual qualities I may possess.
choose not to be associated with L.L. Bean, the clothing manufacturer whose
first appearance in American poetry was, by the way, in a poem by Robert
So I found myself in a quandary
I finally resolved by choosing a bathrobe
made out of Polartec; I could enjoy the qualities of the fabric I liked without
having to be seen wearing it in public.
While wearing my new robe I was given a copy of the October 2, 1995, New Yorker
—a magazine I refuse to
subscribe to but secretly read—and there, in an article by Susan Orlean on the
difficulty of dressing in a seasonless urban society, exacerbated by
temperature control in the forms of air-conditioning and central heating, was
my synthetic bathrobe and the synthetic person wearing it:
Take polar fleece for instance.
Polar fleece is a plush, spongy, totally
artificial material that weighs nothing and conveys no quality of warmth or
coolness; in fact, you can wear it in the most bitter weather or in the hottest
Polar fleece looks neither flimsy
and light nor hearty and warm.
It has no
historical, cultural, or physical association with a place, a season, a
society, or any living thing.
It is the first
existential fabric—eminently useful, meaningless, dissociated and weird.
My god, I thought, it could be Dean Young talking about
I recognized the same themes
everywhere, as they overlapped and cross-referenced themselves ad nauseam.
Everyone is self-conscious of having a signature; so what if
there aren’t an infinite number of hard-won styles; the next best thing is to
join the camp closest to you. . . .
lucky enough to occasionally be able to do something I love—write poems—and
unlucky enough that what I love confuses and overwhelmes me.
Louise Bogan, in 1969, nearing the end of her life, after
reviewing poetry for the New Yorker
for thirty-eight years . . . . wrote in confidence to a friend, “But really . .
. I’ve had
No more pronouncements on lousy verse. . .
No more struggling not to be
Poetry is, in so many ways—and
I am not the first to say it—a young person’s genre.
As Roland Barthes reminds us, Maupassant often ate lunch at
the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place in Paris from which the Eiffel
Tower could not be seen.
Where is the
Eiffel Tower of poetry, and could we have lunch there?