Madness, Rack, and Honey

Or, Mary Ruefle works magic

What a book! Madness, Rack, and Honey is on my “Authors It’s Practically a Crime I Haven’t Read Yet” list because so many people have mentioned how much they love it. The truth is that I tried to read it awhile back, years ago, and I put it down. I’m not sure why, but I remember finding it … well … too poetic, and I wasn’t in the mood for poetry. That’s ridiculous and funny, of course, because it’s a volume of lectures about poetry. I guess I wasn’t in the mood to read poetic lectures about poetry. But I am now!

The pieces are lectures but read like essays, essayistic in the sense that they explore and wander and suggest rather than making straightforward arguments. Sometimes I didn’t know where an essay was heading until I got to the end and looked back to see how its parts fit together. Sometimes even then, I wasn’t sure, but this didn’t feel like a bad thing. I will happily follow Ruefle’s mind wherever it wants to go. She writes about the moon in poetry, how poems begin, “theme” in literature and culture, Emily Dickinson, her personal reading experiences, and so much more, but what’s truly memorable is not so much her subject, but the quality of her thought and way it moves through a piece.

In the title lecture, she begins by declaring she doesn’t know what she wants to lecture about:

I don’t know where to begin because I have nothing to say, yet I know that before long I will sound as if I’m on a crusade. What form does a lecture take when one has nothing to say? Let it take the form of a letter, an epistle, a form that gave rise, more than a thousand years after Alexander and Darius exchanged letters on the eve of a great battle, to the novel as we know it…

This last sentence goes on for the rest of the page, giving a history of the novel and the rise of the middle class and also the postal service. From there she ends the first paragraph recalling that in preparation for a lecture she once collected newspaper and magazine ads with the word “poetry” in them. Then she writes about finding an ad for a Coach bag, and, after digressions on coaches and courier bags, she returns to the ad, which features the descendants of famous people, including Paul Einstein. His picture comes with this accompanying text: “Paul Einstein is an accomplished violinist who enjoys reading literature, philosophy, and fine poetry.”

And here we are, finally, at our subject: poetry. What is the distinction between poetry and “fine poetry”? Is poetry on its own “perhaps a tad feminine?” Fine poetry most likely means The Divine Comedy, Eliot, and Rilke. It’s “vintage poetry, as in fine wine, poetry of long-established recognition.” Nothing wrong with that, she says, but the phrase “fine poetry” is still upsetting:

Why do I want so badly to insert the words madness, rack, and honey in its place? I think it is because I do not know if Paul Einstein reads fine poetry for the madness, rack, and honey of it, or if he reads it because it is an accessory to a lifestyle of literature and philosophy — the bag that goes with the clothes. I think that the latter is what the written ad is trying to convey, but when I look at Paul’s eyes, I think I see the madness, rack, and honey of it.

Then Ruefle dives into those three words — words that came to her in a dream. She uses a famous Persian poem, whose author she doesn’t remember, to illustrate what these words mean:

I shall not finish my poem.
What I have written is so sweet
The flies are beginning to torment me.

The “honey” of poetry is the transformation of the figurative, the sweetness of the poem, into the literal, the flies that torment the poet. It’s the joy of creating something where there was once nothing. From there, she moves into time and metaphor, and I won’t even try to capture her argument, but it’s suggestive and brilliant. I’m not even sure I’m capable of capturing her argument. “Rack” is torment — the flies. It’s the torment words inflict on the poet and the poet inflicts on words. It’s the way writing gets harder as you get better. Frankenstein’s creature comes up as an example of something struggling with words, as do Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, and Galway Kinnell.

As for madness, well, I don’t want to tell you everything that happens in this essay. Discover the rest for yourself! I will say that she begins with the idea of wasting time and moves into some very dark places and back into the honey again, although it’s a drop of honey that attracts flies. And being attracted to the honey might be madness in the first place.

She ends with a quotation from a Charles Dickens letter:

But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I probably have shown by this letter.

I wondered as I read this lecture whether she knew the words madness, rack, and honey were going to be her landing place, what the lecture eventually ends up being “about.” As she goes through the words one by one, they turn this up-until-now free-flowing lecture/essay into something with more structure than almost anywhere else in the book. If she had a plan from the beginning, that would mean her opening uncertainty about what to say is deceptive, a ruse to get her to her destination. Or did she really sit down to write this lecture with no idea what she wanted to say and landed on “madness, rack, and honey” as a delightful surprise?

Then I came across this sentence and found my answer: “Writing is my form of spontaneity and that is why I am writing you and not calling on the phone.” Ruefle really is spontaneous in her writing and, following the Dickens quotation, thinking and writing lead her deeper into bewilderment — she often admits the things she doesn’t understand. And yet, somehow, her lectures cohere. They are magic. Writing is magic.

Publishing This Week

New (mostly) small-press books out this week that I (mostly) haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. Quotations from the publisher:

New on the TBR

New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):

  • Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, publishing July 13): “In a single day, a journey across Buenos Aires reveals a daughter to her mother, a mother to herself, and the oppressive weight of received ideas to women connected by a fleeting encounter, twenty years before.”

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

  • July by Kathleen Ossip (Sarabande Books, 2021): A poetry collection: “Kathleen Ossip takes a hard look at the U.S.A. as it now stands. She meditates on our various responses to our country--whether ironic, infantile, righteous, or defeated.”

Currently Reading

The Cormac Report

Reading Tolkien’s The Silmarrillion is going surprisingly well. I mean, my husband reads it to Cormac while I daydream, so I’m not following the details, but Cormac is much more interested than I expected. So far it reads like Genesis, with a grand creation story and the introduction of many people and tales to explain how the world came to be. Cormac is doing a good job trying to keep all the characters and stories straight, and Rick very patiently explains everything he doesn’t get and fills him in when he, like me, spaces out for awhile.

Cormac, it turns out, loves Tolkien’s archaic language. He finds it grand and thrilling. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised he’s liking the book so much — he’s a dramatic kid who, at least when he’s at home and feels comfortable and safe, will tell stories, give speeches, and teach classes all as part of some game he’s playing that I don’t really understand. He loves stirring rhetoric and fancy vocabulary, and he loves to make up names for people and places. So of course he loves Tolkien! I’m going to be daydreaming through Tolkien readings for months to come.

Have a good week everyone!