Editorial Assistant Emily Rose Cole: There is little said in Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (Wave Books, 2012) that I don’t wholeheartedly agree with. In fact, Ruefle’s meditations on craft put into words many truths I have always believed about poetry but could never fully articulate. In the essay “On Secrets,” for example, she posits that “the origins of poetry are clearly rooted in obscurity, in secretiveness, in incantation, in spells that must at once invoke and protect, tell a secret and keep it.” How apt, to describe poetry as both the telling and the keeping of a secret. We come to poetry, she seems to assert, for both reasons—because we want to be told a secret, but because the secret will reveal itself only if it remains half-obscure.
I like that approach far better than the one commonly embraced by students (and, I think, sometimes even by poets themselves) in which a poem is not a secret but rather a riddle we must solve. Riddles are also obscure, but they want to keep their truths hidden from you, putting the onus of finding the truth on the reader. A secret aches to be shared. After all, as Ruefle points out, “the words secret and sacred are siblings.”
In the collection’s opening essay, “Poetry and the Moon,” Ruefle lightly chastises critics who say that we have enough poems about the moon. She not only gives poets permission to write about our lunar neighbor but she takes its importance a step further, saying that “stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers. But the moon was the first poem, in the lyric sense, an entity complete in itself, recognizable at a glance, one that played upon the emotions so strongly that the context of time and place hardly seemed to matter.” It was, for me, a great personal relief to see such pro-moon sentiments stated so openly, and Ruefle does not end her dispensations there.
In the next essay in the collection, “On Sentimentality,” for example, she confirms what I have suspected about poetry for a long time: that it is OK for a poem to be sentimental. Sentimentality, whether inspired by the moon or by a kitten, has long been verboten in certain types of poetry, and poets and critics have long attempted to regulate its use and chide its overuse (particularly when the “sentimental” poet possesses certain characteristics, such as a vagina, or nonwhite skin, or a disability). Fortunately, Ruefle is here to remind us that “we are human beings. Our expressions are always inadequate, often pitiful. Poetry is sentimental to begin with. To write a sentimental poem is an act of redundancy.” During my MFA, a phrase often said in workshops was that a poem “risked sentimentality.” But according to Ruefle, sentimentality is not risk in poems. It’s a necessity.
I underlined a great many passages in this book, but I think my biggest takeaway comes from a passage in one of her “Twenty-Two Short Lectures”: “I am forever telling my students that I know nothing about poetry,” she writes, “and they never believe me. I do not know what my poems are about, except on rare occasions, and I never know what they mean. I have met and spoken to many poets who feel the same way, and one among them put it this way: ‘The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.’ I couldn’t have put it better if I tried.” Both in her poems and in her prose, Ruefle revels in not knowing what she’s doing. The madness, rack, and honey that she speaks of come only from the freedom of letting go, of leaning into secrets and fear, and facing sentimentality unafraid.
Emily Rose Cole is a writer and lyricist from Pennsylvania, and the author of a chapbook, Love and a Loaded Gun, forthcoming from Minerva Rising Press. She has received awards from Jabberwock Review, Ruminate Magazine, and the Academy of American Poets, and her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Pinch, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. You can reach her via her website at emilyrosecolepoetry.com.