In 1994, Vermont College of Fine Arts hired Mary Ruefle to teach poetry to graduate students in their low-residency writing program. A reluctant public speaker, she was terrified to learn that the job would require her to give biannual standing lectures, and she responded by writing out her lectures, which she then read aloud to students. It turns out that Ruefle’s discomfort with public speaking is a gift to readers, for this book is the collection of those written lectures. However, to relegate the book to that narrow definition would be a mistake. Ruefle’s lectures are thoughtful, thought-provoking essays about art, literature, the moon, life, love, language, and philosophy viewed from the perspective of a wise poet who prefers asking questions to making proclamations.
Ruefle’s writing is direct, clear, and contemporary, accentuated with frequent exclamation marks and italics. This modern, unconventional style creates a casual, conversational tone and highlights her sense of humor.
Her writing also reveals how her thoughts move from idea and image to contrast and comparison. For example, in the title essay she considers a magazine ad that features Albert Einstein’s great-grandson. The caption that accompanies the photograph claims that the younger Einstein enjoys reading “literature, philosophy, and fine poetry,” a distinction that upsets Ruefle. She writes, “So why am I so upset by this little phrase fine poetry? And why do I want so badly to insert the words madness, rack, and honey in its place?” She defines and describes each element of this phrase, which came to her in a dream, in a chapter that includes snippets of poems, quotes by writers, and stories from history and various religious traditions. A story about a Japanese soldier seriously wounded in the bombing of Hiroshima illustrates how these elements work together. While wandering streets littered with thousands of dead and injured victims, this soldier remembers a poem he learned in middle school thirty years earlier, and there amid the ruin, for the first time, he understands the poem’s meaning. Ruefle writes, “There’s the madness of honey—a poem by Li Po! after thirty years!—and there’s the madness of the rack that was Hiroshima. That they are capable of exchanging energy is what I mean by madness.”
Although these lectures are aimed at poetry students, Ruefle discusses an expansive range of topics. For example, the lecture “Poetry and the Moon” includes several moon metaphors found in poetry, cultural traditions based on the moon, and also quotations by several astronauts who have walked on the moon. Ruefle defines the moon as “the first study in contrasts” and quotes Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace: “You there—me here.” The astronauts explain that, “it was not being on the moon that profoundly affected them as much as it was looking at the earth from the vantage point of the moon. The earth became the Other. You there—me here.”
Ruefle explores this notion of isolation and the human need for connection throughout the book. She writes, “There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.” The reader understands Ruefle’s conviction that poetry and writing can bridge this gap when she writes, “We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things.” By this definition, Ruefle’s book is a portrait of love, in which she finds thoughtful, sometimes touching, and sometimes silly connections between incongruous images, ideas, and themes. I would change only one thing about this book—its description as a collection of poetry lectures, for it expands far beyond that narrow definition. Anyone who enjoys reading poetry, language, philosophy, humor, reading, the writing life, or the creative process will treasure this book, which has earned a permanent place on my night table.