Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey

I’m enjoying the new book by Mary Ruefle, titled Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.  It’s from Wave Books.  Here’s a snippet of one of the chapters to give you a feel for it:

from On Theme

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 Anthology”—they  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 list?  Isn’t childbirth?  African American men who have been incarcerated?  Aren’t dogs?  Isn’t sailing?  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 or attitude 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 is there!”  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, hasn’t it?  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 recognizable.  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 have had a choice, but the public is going to assume you made one.  The 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.  I 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.  But to 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.  I 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 Lowell.  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 heat.  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 poetry!  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. . . .  I’m 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 it.  No more pronouncements on lousy verse. . . .  No more struggling not to be square.”  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?


At 8/21/2012 11:06 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

I've been thinking about the phrase that writers sometimes use, "Looking for my voice." It seems to imply that they lost it, but we know it to mean trying different voices on, like it's an accessory, like a bathrobe made of new fabric.

When do these writers recognize these impersonations of strangers as the self?

At 8/22/2012 11:28 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Is that really just about writing? Seems like people in their everyday lives try on all different kinds of identities until they one that sticks. Or a few that stick.

At 8/23/2012 6:26 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This bit I posted is just snippets, of course. Though, in this essay, she doesn’t go more into voice than she does here.

It’s a very good book. Excellent, even, in many places.

“Voice” is a story we tell the children in order to make them behave.

At 8/23/2012 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is that the one you tell your kids, John? I tell them the one about the stones that drink blood.


At 8/23/2012 4:02 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It's not "drinks blood" but "snorts ashes," and that's only Keith.

At 8/24/2012 5:17 AM, Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

Thanks for the excerpt. I'm trying to figure out what she is arguing and it is still unclear to me. On first read, her vision of poetry feels deeply conservative 1. that we live in a world where, in poetry, there is nothing beyond the surface 2. that what passes for deep is actually a superficial theme "tag" such as "AIDS poetry" 3. that we cannot escape our voices being instantly recognizable because of the world of commerce.
Am I getting this right? If so, it's hard for me to understand this interpretation of poetry, or such an uncomplicated relationship between the surface and the depth (for lack of better terms) or that the language of culture has not been recycled and remixed forever and ever. I guess I always find myself suspicious of ahistorical claims for poetry especially "once it was like this, but now it is like this" if there isn't more than feelings / impressions to back it up. Though I understand these paragraphs are being rad out of context.

At 8/24/2012 8:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Sandra. Maybe her view is conservative. That’s an interesting way to describe her, as her work itself often places her with writers who by-and-large aren’t considered conservative. It reminds me of e.e. Cummings, how people go back and forth talking about if he was a conservative or radical figure. Layered, maybe.

At 8/24/2012 10:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Voice," by Ron Padgett

At 8/24/2012 1:28 PM, Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I think I might be misreading this passage though....I'm not sure. It's definitely hard for me to figure out what she's trying to say but maybe I'm being too literal. I don't want to give the impression that I think that it isn't interesting writing though or unworthy of thought etc. Thanks for posting this---I will def. get the book. Cheers!

At 8/24/2012 1:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think Ruefle’s prose style is something like her poetry. It’s rangy. The best part of the essay on theme is where she gets into a lengthy comparison of Las Vegas and the Shakers. (It’s all about the line, in both cases.) Her essays are going to lack a singular, honed point, therefore. But they make up for it, and excel, by the nature of their tangents. In the end the tangents are the point. I think, at any rate.

At 8/24/2012 1:36 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed, one of my favorite poets. I, too, would much rather "wish to remain a phony the rest of my life."

I think Ruefle would agree.

At 8/24/2012 1:50 PM, Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

I like that poem, Voice. Nice.


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