Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

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It’s natural that our major poets should try and describe the activity to which they’ve devoted their lives, elusive as grasping a sliver of ice, and they all say more or less the same thing (some more compellingly than others,) “I don’t exactly know why poems do what they do, but here are some observations from a long and passionate inquiry.” In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle says this with good humor and succeeds in not taking herself too seriously. Based on 15 years of biannual standing lectures delivered to writing students, (a condition of her employment that “terrified” her,) the lectures-cum-essays are more or less about poetry, and seem also to be about everything. Some sections assume more traditional forms, a few are told in vignettes, or fragments. All are discursive and quote heartily from her influences. In her words:

I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways became boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmented and turn, who knows, even against themselves.

The collection opens with poetry’s favorite drunken debate topics: “On Beginnings,” (“I believe many fine poems begin with ideas, but if you tell too many faces this, or tell it too loudly, they will get the wrong idea.”) “On Poetry and the Moon,” glorifies the moon’s symbolic primacy in an age when we’re warned never to mention the big-white-rock for fear of contracting cliché. The essay leaps from Whitman to Chinese moon ceremonies to the Apollo 11 landing (covering semiotics, Sappho, and Yeats’ Four Faculties along the way,) with such ease you’d assume they emerged in the world of a piece. These leaps are the stuff of good poems, and like a good poem each essay has its surprising turn. In “On Sentimentality” she unpacks the etymology of sentimental, pivoting from her long held definition (“causeless emotion”) for half of the essay and then overthrowing that definition (“one day I realized causeless emotion is an even better definition of poetry.”) Any witness to the witch hunt for excessive emotion can imagine how thoroughly the turn satisfies. There’s an homage to Emily Dickinson that seeks to debunk many of the commonly held myths about her life, including a righteous chiding of the Billy Collins poem “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” The title essay, named for a phrase that came in a dream, masterfully backtracks from each word, Madness, Rack, and Honey and employs their various meanings and associations to construct a description of what a poet does.

The hybrid/fragmented essay has gained popularity in recent years. Once the domain of experimental authors and small press publishing, they now appear in major periodicals and have even acquired a manifesto (Reality Hunger, released in 2010 by Knopf, David Shields’ attempt to gather and gain perspective on the proliferation of nonfiction, in all its iterations.) In other words, what could have been described as fringe in the not so distant past, has become almost common, has articulated a tradition, however loosely defined. Madness, Rack, and Honey is in this tradition. If in general the form gives the reader a sense of riding the author’s synaptic flashes, the success or failure of the text depends on how much we appreciate being inside that particular mind. There’s a danger that the author’s associative leaps will dissipate before their hunch is realized, or read as forced in pursuit of confirming a theme. This is where Ruefle splits from the pack. Her leaps are propelled and informed by a lifetime devoted to poetry and scholarship; we arrive at the bedrock of her experience every time. Her insights stick their landings, even in stressing her own bewilderment, (admirable confessions from a person who is paid to know things.) Her style is warm and accessible, whether describing her cab driver or the work of Roland Barthes. She may not have invented the form but she’s using it better than anyone else I’ve read.

Madness, Rack, and Honey is a gift from a rigorous intellect, unflinching critic, and a big old sloppy heart. Ruefle has created a work of poetry from the daunting task of writing about it. Don’t be surprised if this book is remembered as a classic of its genre.

Lisa Wells is the author of Beast, a collection of poems, and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon she currently lives in Iowa City. More from this author →