Lectures I Will Never Give


“To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.”


There are many reasons I don’t want to give any of these lectures, and you should probably know it made me angry and sad to have to string together these negations at all.

At the very outset I will tell you that if you think I know something or anything, I am just pretending to know as a way to pass the time. Personally I think we should all be in our rooms writing. Critical components of creative writing are A NECESSARY GESTURE TO VALIDATE THE ENDEAVOR IN THE EYES OF THE ACADEMY WHICH WOULD LIKE OUR BRAINS TO EXPAND. But I like things the size of a pea, I like miniature umbrellas and I like walnuts and I like the part in Hamlet where he says he could live in a nutshell and count himself the king of infinite space (were it not for the fact he had bad dreams).

Lectures, for me, are bad dreams.

I’m sometimes reminded of Dawkins’s Law of the Conservation of Difficulty, which states that obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.

The problem is compounded by the law of flake-ism, which states that simplicity in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic complexity.

I am guilty of both.

In sifting through many, many files in an effort to accumulate debris for this lecture, I came across a few untethered pieces of paper that intrigued me, and I am here to share them with you; they were it seems meant for a lecture, though one I couldn’t now write if I tried.


I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.


There is a marvelous lecture by Howard Nemerov called “Speaking Silence,” in which he attacks his own profession (Nemerov was both a poet and a professor). In his address he urges his audience (teachers) not to confuse “teaching poetry” with “being taught by poetry.”

Elizabeth dies, bang! comes the first English dictionary.

. . . about a hundred years ago, when English first became a subject of study in college and universities; English departments came even after that. . . .

Looking at the latter part of this time-lapse film, taking it from 1800, say, I submit that what we see, and see, in so rapid an overview, overwhelmingly and to the exclusion of much else, is an accelerating production of language about language, and that this accelerating production also accelerates the rate of its acceleration.

Dr. Johnson could satisfy himself about Hamlet, though not be altogether satisfied with Hamlet, in a page and a half. We cannot do that. Of course, we say, we know more about Hamlet than Dr. Johnson did. And that is quite true. But, with a kind of reflexive sadness, what we know is always our own knowledge, never Hamlet.

For every use of language about language will tend to produce more language; but the deeper purpose of language is to produce the silence of understanding, the consent between speech and its object, between speaker and hearer . . . that is the end of every great work.

You can imagine my horror when I wanted to give a lecture on this lecture, which would produce nothing but more language on language on language. Even with the tidbits, I’ve already committed the sacrilege. I’m aware of that. My world, at times, seems choiceless, and it depresses me. Each of us is caught up in a machine that is both of our own making and out of our control. Short of an atom bomb, who among us can escape it? I hope this explains my innate horror of lectures, one of which I am standing here giving.


Kurahashi Yumiko, a Japanese writer born in 1935 who made her debut in the sixties and since then has been largely silent (becoming something of a mystery figure in Japanese letters), wrote this passage in her short story “Ugly Demons,” a passage that implicates the reader, too, in being part of the disease, the symptoms of which I so readily recognize in myself:

Although I steeped myself in an incredible amount of reading material, it merely expanded the void, fattened the darkness inside the cactus. Nothing was born from there. . . . Despite that, I read more and more, growing endlessly fatter of soul until I could not move because of my weight. Just as the mouth takes in food, my eyes avidly devoured everything. No doubt my brain was swelling up from its morbid, chronic hunger. Even after I came to that cottage, my daily task (more even than studying for the university exams) was to continually browse among books like a crazed sheep.


Some primitive tribes have spots of ground reserved as a safe place where they can go and curse the king. Perhaps that is what I am doing here; I am supposing this is a safe spot, and I am cursing the king, whom, when I am living in the village, I secretly loathe and disrespect, and whom, while I am cursing him, I secretly love and am steadfastly devoted to.


Here we are, each of us alive and on earth, all alive and on earth, each of us the envy of every dead man, woman, and child, and—why not?—the envy of each impatient unborn unsexed entity waiting in the great nebula to take its turn on earth. How lucky we are! Yet none of us actually feeling lucky, none of us actually feeling the undeniable fact of the Now. No, each one feeling like a wretched piece of trash not even worth the tossing out, each one feeling envy, greed, boredom, anger, annoyance, conflict, and insecurity. That’s the beginning of a lecture called “Quiet Lemons,” but I never could find its subject.


“The World’s Bleakest Poems.” In my research for this lecture I discovered there were too many of them, so I had at that point to change the title of my lecture to “The World’s Bleakest Poem.” It consisted of a single handout—“To Himself”—by Giacomo Leopardi; here, I will read it to you.


Rest forever, tired heart.

The final illusion has perished.

The one we believed eternal is gone.

Just like that. Out the door desire

follows hope. Rest forever. Enough

throbbing. Nothing deserves your attention

nor is the earth worth a sigh.

Bitterness and boredom is life,

nothing else ever, and mud is the world.

Quiet now. Despair for the last time.

Fate gives us dying as a gift.

Now turn from the hills, the ugly hidden

power there which rules for the common evil

and the infinite vanity of it all.

(translated by Arturo Vivante and Mary Ruefle)


Right after the big bang, particles of matter and particles of antimatter annihilated each other. But for every billion pairs of particles, there is one extra particle of matter. That tiny imbalance accounts for the existence of poetry, that is, the existence of the observed universe.


A poem is a neutrino—mainly nothing—it has no mass and can pass through the earth undetected.


The lecture in which Lyn Hejinian meets Carl Hiaasen.

The lecture in which Omar Khayyam meets Duran Duran.


Samuel Johnson said, “It is certain that any wild wish or vain imagination never takes such firm possession of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied.” He was speaking of melancholy, and how idleness and solitude feed it, undeniably and uncontrollably feed it. We all know this is true, and yet it is equally true that such a state will fund creativity; as artists we understand the vital necessity of wasting time, of loafing and doing nothing, and I was wondering what it is that causes the free and idle mind to go one way or the other—into obsessive melancholy or into creative fervor. What tips the scales, so to speak?

Yeah, that was another subject I let float by.



One night after dinner at the home of Mark Halliday and Jill Rosser, Mark was driving me back to my place, we were just cruising along chatting idly when suddenly a deer jumped out from nowhere. Mark put on the brakes and shouted, STUPID DEER, and I simultaneously said, at the same time in the same breath but with an altogether different tone, SWEET DEER, hoping we could get a little closer. Mark said that one of those outbursts leads to writing bad poems, and one of those outbursts leads to writing good poems, and I should call it THE DEER LESSON and walk out of the classroom. But would the students know which outburst Mark had in mind? His, of course; his poem begins with the moment of the encounter and goes on to explain why the human finds the deer stupid and to struggle with their simultaneous existences. My poem is very short and lyrical and basically praises the deer in a sentimental way, my poem speaks in endearing tones to anything that might kill it, and even wishes to come closer to that which might kill it, and in the end both the deer and the driver are simultaneously killed by each other, while in Mark’s poem only one or the other dies and the struggle enacted is to determine who dies. In my version, it is apparent and inevitable that both the deer and the driver die together upon contact, thus my poem is shorter and sadder and his is long and thoughtful and the free will of the reader comes into play.


On one piece of paper I had written “the difference between pantyhose and stockings” and I had scanned the statement—with marks—and written “the beginnings of an iamb,” which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.

And then I began to write a long lecture comparing the two, their innate and interesting differences, their distinct personalities, their histories and fates; the Second World War played an important role, and Women’s Liberation, not to mention erotica, pornography, technology, poetry, and the imagination. I came down rather emphatically on the side of stockings, which was bizarre, as I do not own a single pair of stockings but own several pairs of pantyhose.

But honestly, do you want me to talk about pantyhose and stockings for forty minutes?


Natasha Sajé once surveyed a number of women poets and asked them what influence gender had on their writing and/or life. I will read to you my answer and you will see from it why I cannot possibly write a lecture about gender in a way that matters, for gender is very important in our society and if people are to speak of it at all they should do so in a way that matters; when I read the diaries of women I weep, I weep for women the world over with greater urgency and frequency as I age, and yet the question of gender in poetry has always bored me.

What influence has your gender had on your writing and/or life?

My gender (female) has had absolutely no influence on my writing; it has had an enormous influence on my life. In my writing I think of myself as a poet, that is, in my writing my gender is poet, while in my life I think of myself as a woman, I have lived my life as a woman, a woman’s life. In my writing, gender becomes genre. Of course my life has influenced my writing, that I cannot deny; but I am denying the logic (clearly) that would then link my gender to my writing. I see the logic but I deny it; perhaps this is what makes my gender/genre poetry. In my life, I have a body, that of a woman; in my writing I have only my mind, that of a poet. There is something genderless (sex-wise) about the mind working in the art field; at its best it seems to me, to my mind, to be an encounter between the human mind and the universe, which is without consciousness and without gender. So writing is between mortal self-consciousness and all that it is not, all that is not it. This is true even if I write a poem that is peopled, addressed to persons or to one person, or is “about” something concretely feminine (such as a giving birth)—all these poems are still essentially a mortal self-consciousness exercising its existence, its ability to voice and imagine. The human imagination is a marvelous thing to have evolved on earth, and it did not evolve in one sex of our species only. In the past, it may have been believed that it evolved in one sex of our species only, but that belief was purely cultural (with unfortunate consequences). Even if, as I believe, and believe it has been shown, the minds of men and women have been rigged differently, that is simply circuitry (means) to the same end—mortal self-consciousness, the human imagination. And I am interested in this, the highest end of the wiring. The point of sameness, arrived at by different routes. My proof is that men and women die in the same way, to put it bluntly. The point of sameness in the different bodies. The skeletons retain gender in the width of the hip bones, yes, I don’t deny that the difference is still there in the bones, but what of the mind that has vanished? The vanishment is identical—each equally gone. But to return to what I was saying (for I am still alive)—writing is between mortal self-consciousness and all that it is not, all that is not it, while life is carried on between one body and another in a wide variety of relationships and groupings. I never write with another body in the room, changing the flux of my mind. I am absolutely free to do whatever I want, in my writing, until I die, at which point the universe changes my flux of mind by ending it. Diseases of the mind challenge this assumption, but I will not go into that at this time (that would lead us to the question of what constitutes life—health of mind or health of body). In my life I must take into consideration the person with me, and the ways in which a person does that—takes into consideration another person—constitutes one of the great struggles in life, the failures and successes of mutual consideration. Therein lie many tragedies and comedies. In my life I am also bound by cultural and societal restrictions and regulations, some of which I agree to (I do not think I should be free to take off my blouse in a restaurant), some of which I do not agree to (I know with documented certainty I have been paid less than a man for doing identical work). But when I write, I take into consideration not another body but space, abyss, time, pulse, and this encounter constitutes the other great struggle in life—that of the mind in consideration of mindlessness. The simplest I can put it is to say this: my life is the struggle between bodies (mind with minds), while my writing is the struggle between mind and what is without mind. This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me. I know this line can be interpreted in other ways—ways that take bodies into consideration—but I interpret it as a statement between mind and that which is mindless.


I would like to give a lecture on dolls, but plenty have already done so. In addition, any lecture on dolls winds up being 80 percent Rilke, who has written definitively on the subject. In short, when you were a kid, and you had a soldier or a doll, you invested a real animate life into the inanimate object, and you were experiencing your first act of poetry not when you spoke to them but when they spoke back to you, and invested life in you, and then this dialogue caused you to believe in the world and the world you could believe in was a world you had created yourself.

New York Times, February 1945: DOLLS TOO SAD FOR GOEBBELS. The well known Berlin doll factory of Frau Kate Kruse has been closed by a ‘special decree’ of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. …Frau Kruse, it was said, had given ‘sad and desperate faces’ to all her dolls since her son was killed in the war.

When a little girl is sad, a doll with a sad face makes her happy.

The problem with many of the poems one sees in workshop is that they differentiate between happiness and sadness. When you do this, your poems have no face.


Once, on the radio, I heard a music announcer say, “We are always suspicious of anything that is not called a masterpiece.”

Though I tend to overreact, I almost drove off the road.

My take on it is, we should be suspicious of everything that IS called a masterpiece.

One could write a lecture on this.


In a pinch, of course, one can always write about the Dalai Lama . . .

If the Tibetans are as devoted to the idea of impermanence as they say they are, why are they so dedicated to preserving their culture?

Ah, the problem of poetry!

I have been thinking and thinking about this. I have been watching and rewatching a newsreel of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and listening to him speak. I am charmed and baffled by him. He is so tolerant of everyone he comes in contact with, and yet, he is obviously also, without any attempt to hide it, as inflexible as the hardest metal. I want to use him as the archetype of a sage. Sages are supposed to embody Inner Truth. What is Inner Truth? Is is Possession in Great Measure.

Toward men it is accessible, without any pride, without any laying down of the law or desire to assert superior knowledge; within itself, however, it is dignified, free of tormenting doubt, conscious that it stands in the right place.
(Hellmut Wilhelm on hexagram 14 of the I Ching)

Behind those beneficent crinkly smiles,

behind those mischievous eyes,

behind all that bending and bowing . . .


But it is useless to write about the Dalai Lama because Matthew Zapruder, in his book of poems The Pajamaist, has so wonderfully summed it up:

the Dalai Lama

is now in Canada, and everyone

is fascinated. When they come

to visit me, no one ever leaves me

saying, the most touching thing

about him is he’s so human.


Spinoza to his former student Albert Burgh

O brainless youth, who has bewitched you, so that you believe that you swallow the highest and the eternal, and that you hold it in your intestines?


A lovely, if somewhat self-serving, lecture could be written about my experience, three or four years ago, with the Long Ridge Writers Group, a correspondence course for writers based in Connecticut. You pay x amount of dollars and work in the mail one-on-one with an author who will teach you how to write to publication standards, help you find your writing niche, and show you how to market your writing. Sound vaguely familiar? It’s a lot like any low-residency program, without the residencies and the academic sanction of a degree. You have to pass a brief writing test to get in, and one day, feeling very despondent, and having received their ad-letter among my junk mail, I decided to take the test and see if I could be admitted. I wrote very quickly, in longhand, and without making any changes I mailed the test back. A few weeks later I got another letter telling me I had passed the aptitude test and they were ready to enroll me. The interesting thing is that I was truly elated, and the day the letter came was the best day I had had in months. I had no money to take the course, and no intention of enrolling, but still. And then when they didn’t hear from me I got another letter telling me that if I enrolled now there would be a price break, and when they still didn’t hear from me I got another letter announcing they had chosen my teacher; they included a brochure about her: her name was Anke Kriske, she looked very nice, she has published articles in Woman’s World, tales in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and a Western whose protagonist was a woman, as well as articles on folklore and history. I really liked her. I felt sorry not to be working with her, I felt guilty, too, and what had started as a lark became a dark secret, and I felt that by not enrolling I was truly passing up what might be my last chance to become a better writer. Letters like these kept coming, and then they stopped, and when they stopped I missed them. The problem with this lecture is that it would sound like a hoax, and people would laugh, and I knew I could neither convey nor convince people to believe the real emotional turmoil the letters caused me. I saved every one of them, and I still have them, and take them out and look at them from time to time.


I’ve always wanted to give a lecture on literary manifestos, since I happen to have a copy of every manifesto ever publicly disseminated. But why bother? My conclusion to that lecture is: manifestos, although they can be a lot of fun, rapidly become dated and are basically a crock of shit.


For years I wanted to write a lecture titled “The Impossibility of Romanticism Developing above the Arctic Circle.” At the same time I always felt that its premise was completely obvious: Romanticism developed in a temperate climate, one with four distinct seasons, because the cycles of the Romantic imagination mirror the natural cycles of such an environment, and the greatest Romantic poets fall within a circle that can be mapped on the globe, and it’s an obvious fact that the English and German and French Romantic poets were greater than, say, the great Greek and Moroccan Romantic poets. I just had the feeling that I would be perceived as a dodo bird.

Now the dodo bird is another interesting topic, and one of particular interest to me because when I was a child my brother and sister would call me a dodo bird and then go get the encyclopedia and show me pictures of the dodo bird, which was clumsy, fat, dumb, and big-headed—and it couldn’t fly. Dodo birds flourished on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until humans arrived and began to eat them, and their babies, and their eggs. The humans introduced pigs and monkeys to the island, who began to eat the dodoes, and their babies, and their eggs. The poor flightless dodoes hadn’t a chance, and were extinct by 1690. I believe that all poets are winged, and some can fly and some cannot, and that having wings is their distinguishing feature, not whether they can fly. Some poets can fly but they don’t have wings and they are the worse. If you are trying to fly, stop it. Just watch under your arms for signs of wings, and if they sprout, even if you can’t ever make it off the ground, say you are a turkey—well, that is an interesting thing. Of course you may be a lark, and that would be lucky. But in general pay attention to the wings, not to the sky.

Very recently I was talking to a poet who has, like me, a keen interest in life above the Arctic Circle, and she helped me to understand that poetry coming from the Arctic Circle is much more of our times than Romanticism. It came about like this: I asked her if she was happier reading Kabloona (a classic tale by a white man living among the Inuit, circa 1930) or one of her books on capitalism (for she is also a Marxist); she had been blue, you see, and I wanted her to be happier, I wanted her to read more books like Kabloona and fewer tomes on capitalism; and she said, astonishingly: Oh, the capitalism. I asked her to explain. She said that Kabloona was like an introductory book on capitalism but a book on capitalism was the real thing, an expanded version of Kabloona, because capitalism, like the Arctic environment, is a system THAT DOESN’T CARE IF YOU LIVE OR DIE—capitalism is worldwide Arctic conditions, and we are living in them and thus it was even more chilling!

Here is a poem by Rilke:

[Exposed on the cliffs of the heart]


Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Look, how tiny down there,

look: the last village of words and, higher,

(but how tiny) still one last

farmhouse of feeling. Can you see it?

Exposed on the cliffs of the heart. Stoneground

under your hands. Even here, though,

something can bloom; on a silent cliff-edge

an unknowing plant blooms, singing, into the air.

But the one who knows? Ah, he began to know

and is quiet now, exposed on the cliffs of the heart.

While, with their full awareness,

many sure-footed mountain animals pass

or linger. And the great sheltered bird flies, slowly

circling, around the peak’s pure denial.—But

without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart. . . .


And Samuel Beckett, in an interview: “I speak of an art turning from [the plane of the feasible] in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.”

And preferring what? the interviewer asked.

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

This has got to stop. Can you see what I am doing? I am beginning to write a lecture.


The lecture in which I talk about every single word in a given poem, devoting the most amount of time to the first word (and I would choose a poem in which the first word was either the or a,) and a proportionately diminishing amount of time on each subsequent word, reserving the least amount of time for the last word.


Lecture on this astounding object, a candle in the shape of an ice-cream cone, which represents to me a poem. At first glance it is merely cute, at second glance merely witty, but at third glance demonstrates the profound capacity of metaphor to link two unlike things, and at fourth glance leads us to the astonishing realization that these two things were all along obviously alike and, finally, so overwhelming as to reconstitute the ghost of Rimbaud, so thoroughly does this object disorder our senses: a candle in the shape of an ice-cream cone. One may be hot and one may be cold, but the object of both is to disappear, and to drip while doing so.


I like best the idea of writing a lecture on a photograph. One photograph I adore, and keep always by me, shows Samuel Beckett, Albert Giacometti, and a young critic/admirer whose name I do not know standing in a gallery where Giacometti’s set for Waiting for Godot is on display (though you can’t see it)—a single tree. If you know Giacometti’s work, you can imagine it. The photo was taken in the early sixties, before Giacometti died, and in it Beckett and Giacometti are looking up, up, up at the tree: Beckett has the look of someone praying before a crucifix, and Giacometti has a slightly more self-conscious look, as if admiring the thing but also hoping someone else might see in it what he sees in it—which is only natural, as he himself made the thing; and the young critic/admirer is not looking at the thing at all, he is looking at Beckett and Giacometti. He is much, much younger than they are, and he does not see the Thing; he sees the two men instead, because it is obvious he mistakes them for the Thing, and he is not there to see the Thing, he is there to see what he takes for the Thing, the two men. While the two men are looking at the Thing.

There is another picture I would like to write about, and as perhaps one day I will, it is perhaps unfair to mention it. It is a photograph of Robert Walser taken by the coroner on the day of his death, December 25, 1956. When the children discovered Walser’s body lying on its back in the snow, the coroner was called and he came and a series of photographs were taken. As it happened, I first saw the photographs on Christmas Day, fifty years after they were taken. The most chilling thing is not Walser himself but the footprints in the snow leading up to the body, Walser’s footprints as he was walking and then fell, as he was walking toward his death and met it there, and I cannot look at the photograph without noticing the faint wooden stakes in the background, a snowed-upon fence he was about to meet, and then I remember Kafka, who wrote once that he was a slanting wooden stake in a snowfield at dusk, and it was snowing.


Once I wanted to write a lecture on two self-portraits by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and achieved recognition when it was still extremely rare for women artists.

Single self-portraits are not half as interesting as two self-portraits by the same artist painted thirty or forty years apart. When Käthe painted herself as a young woman she had a very pale and serene face against a dark background. Her hand rested on an open book. She was reading by lamplight. She was, obviously, a young woman with an inner life, and the portrait is composed as if to say, “I am a sensitive, curious, intelligent being, and in my search for knowledge and experience I will learn all there is to know about the world around me—here, I give you my pledge by placing my hand on this open book.” It is a nineteenth-century oil painting of quiet and penetrating elegance.

Thirty-five years later she draws herself again—for it’s a drawing this time and not a painting—with excruciating rapidity. Her face is scrawled in black ink out of a series of highly agitated circles and at a distance might easily be mistaken for a tightly wound clockspring. Gone is the book—this time her hand appears to be driving itself into her forehead with the force of a nail. She’s pressing her head so hard the viewer is taken aback.

This twentieth-century drawing says, “All that was to be known was inside me and bit by bit it did its work and made this tormented and exhausted head.” Her face has become the open book.

But that’s a lecture that has to be lived.


The composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s certainty that musical notes radiated from a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain.

I have always believed I became a writer because in the fifth grade I had a pencil fight with a classmate and a piece of graphite has been lodged in my palm ever since.


If art were about intellect there would be no artists there would be only intellectuals.


Someone gave me a lecture this summer. A woman I know very, very, very slightly was sitting next to me at a lake where we had come to swim. As it happens, the lake has been the backdrop of my life, and I was looking out at a raft that was so rotted and bleached and lopsided that it was apparent its life was nearly finished. This made me sad, for I loved that raft; in fact, if you were to look inside my wallet right now, as it sleeps quietly in my purse, you would find a picture of the raft tucked in a secret compartment.

In a rare moment of emotional candor I turned to this woman and told her how sad I was sitting there looking at the dilapidated raft. That was when she gave me her lecture. “YOU’RE SO NEGATIVE! STOP IDENTIFYING WITH A PIECE OF WOOD! IT’S NOT YOU! SNAP OUT OF IT!”

I went into something resembling shock. That is not a lecture I could give—it’s not something I believe in. The next day I returned to the lake and the raft was gone.

Bin of animals

at the Goodwill—

all my friends

in one place.


For a long, long time I wanted to write a lecture called “Asylum.” An asylum is a secure place of refuge, shelter, or retreat. It is a sanctuary, an inviolable place from which one cannot be removed without sacrilege. An asylum is a benevolent institution affording shelter and protection to some class of the afflicted. It is also an insane place, full of shouts and cries and cries and whispers. An asylum is a place of hopeless suffering and endless misunderstanding, a place of restriction and desperation. I like the word asylum. Poetry is an asylum to me. Do you know what insanity is? Insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning. The argument over madness can be reduced to this: madness is excluded from thought vs. madness is “one case of thought (within thought)” (Derrida). The whole history of poetry could ensue from such a discussion. I don’t want to have it.

Once I spent hours in a room trying to decide which was more accurate:

I am paved with purple rushes


I am paid with purple thrushes.

I was in agony, trying to decide.

According to the research of Arnold Ludwig, among all persons of all professions mental disorders appear most among artists. Among all artists, mental disorders appear most among writers. Among all writers, mental disorders appear most among poets.

I am perfectly capable of writing a thirty-page essay titled “Asylum.” In fact, I have made hundreds of notes over the last five years in that direction, and I am going to pass them all out, among you, today. I don’t want them. You can have them. The lecture on asylums I want to give has already been given. It was given on November 18, 2000, in Northampton, Massachusetts, by the extraordinary installation artist Anna Schuleit. The Northampton State Hospital, a gothic monstrosity the size of a castle and sitting on a hill, was in continuous operation from 1856 to 1993. Its history is no different than the history of similar institutions all over this country, institutions I researched for years and planned to speak about, in detail, in my lecture called “Asylum.”

In the year 2000 the Northampton State Hospital was slated for demolition. It was in a state of complete physical collapse, with broken windows, missing walls, and flooded interiors. It was therefore no mean thing for Anna to wire the entire building and on that glorious autumn day to blast, for 25 minutes and 46 seconds, J.S. Bach’s great choral work, the Magnificat, from every window, door, and portal that still remained.

For 25 minutes and 46 seconds the building sang. It sang “for those who have been there,” all the men, women, and children who ever lived within its walls; men, women, and children for whom the asylum was a place of refuge; men, women, and children for whom the asylum was a place of torment and final shattering. Some of them were still living and stood on the grounds. What are words next to that?


Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.


For me, there is no difference between writing and drawing. Both are uncanny miracles that result from the act of taking one thing—an implement, a tool—and touching it to another thing—anything that will serve as a surface—and beholding a third thing born of that contact: a mark. If you don’t believe me, take a pencil and put it on a piece of paper, move it using your hand, exerting a little downward pressure—you might even want to let your hand tremble with emotion at the prospect of being engaged in such a miracle—and see what is created there: a mark.

But when I watch people drawing and people writing I notice a difference: when people draw they constantly look up at the thing they are drawing, and when people write their eyes never leave the page. Why is this, I wonder, and what is going on? At first I thought the drawer was drawing what he sees, externally, while the writer was drawing what he sees internally, that which is in his mind. But when I thought longer and harder I remembered that some people indeed draw without looking at anything and therefore never look up. What is going on, I thought: What are these people doing and will I ever know? I wish I could talk to paper. I want to know if the paper is happy or sad when someone makes a mark on it. But if I knew that it was sad, being so marked upon, would I stop marking? Probably not, and thus all creative activity stems from a violent impulse—the willed impulse to interfere, to interrupt, to mar, to stop. I suppose it is sad, but this kind of violent activity makes me happy. When I make contact with a piece of paper without looking up I am happy. I call this writing a poem. It is a moment of drawing happiness. I am drawing a picture of happiness.

Now my lecture has ended, and I am free, and happy, as I was meant to be.


“Lectures I Will Never Give” is an excerpt from Madness, Rack, and Honey, published by Wave Books, August 7, 2012.

Mary Ruefle is the author of the forthcoming book Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013), Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lecture (Wave Books, 2012), and Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2010). She has published ten books of poetry, a book of prose (The Most of It, Wave Books, 2008), and a comic book, Go Home and Go to Bed, (Pilot Books/Orange Table Comics, 2007); she is also an erasure artist, whose treatments of nineteenth century texts have been exhibited in museums and galleries, and published in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006). Mary is the recipient of numerous honors, including the William Carlos Williams award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Bennington, Vermont, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College. More from this author →