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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures Paperback – August 7, 2012
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"Madness, Rack, and Honey" is a collection of Ruefle’s lectures to graduate students dating from 1994.The lectures presented in Madness, Rack, and Honey, while for the purpose of educating poets, are nothing akin to the more common perception of a lecture. Such discourse is generally associated with the clichéd image that one is being spoken at, tendentiously, tediously, in a flat and bland style. Ruefle, however, is not standing at the lectern here, reading at the students from the same textbook they were assigned at semester’s beginning. She is not the jaded and worn speaker who can recite the words backward, forward, sideways, and while playing poker on Friday night. Ruefle’s lectures stand out like gold charms on a bracelet – each collected for a specific memory, place, or event, able to stand on its own, yet as a collection, they combine and connect one to another, to form a bracelet as unique and special as the person wearing it. The book presents 14 charms, each its own story, and together as a collection, a precious and unique whole.
Reading this book made me want to break out in song. It is melodic and lyrical, a sweet violin andante that pushes forward while you long to be held back in its grasp. There is a waywardness to her lectures. They follow no known map; the actually resist being mapped. Ruefle shares discourse on Emily Dickinson, secrets, endings and beginnings, fear, poetry and the moon. And upon introduction of one of these topics, she then wanders far and wide away from and back to the beginning. There is such a beauty in how she performs this magic. She makes extensive use of the voice of others, often relying on the wisdom of others to attempt an explanation, or certify a digression.
What is madness, rack, honey? It is Ruefle’s metaphor for what is poetry, a paradox, a non-linear abstraction, the essence of poetry. As she puts it:
“As practitioners of poetry you are practitioners of madness, rack, and honey. You are mercy-givers who execute. You are executioners who show mercy.” (p. 141). This definition is exquisite. Read it again. Mercy-givers and executioners, such a bold thought. A contradiction. A magical cloak for the poet to wear; turn right and it is one thing, turn left, the opposite. A paradox which Ruefle attempts to resolve in her collected lectures. One which she speaks contrary to her assertions frequently and with full knowing. She admits she is serving up truth which she then belies. Part of the fascination for the poet in poetry is that it bends back upon itself, snaking away from certainty which presenting a truth for the moment. “It is also the nature of poetry to determine or affirm one’s relation to the incomprehensible condition of existence (p.132).” There are options here, not certainties.
Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures
The edition by Wave Books is comfortable to read, on sturdy paper and with nice wide margins for making notes.