Safekeeping the Not Knowing


As most of my readers know, I rely on poets to describe—as much as it can be described—what takes place in the isolation of my painting studio day after day, month after month, year after year. There are so many who can wield the word wand so much better than I can, many of whom I have quoted previously such as Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Robert Haas, Christian Wiman, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Dean Young, among many others.

But I now have another to add to my list of “dealers”—those suppliers of words that I desperately, deeply, undeniably cannot live without—Mary Ruefle. Her recent collection of lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, is full of worthy descriptions (as well as warnings) of that hairy cliff’s edge where many of us have chosen to set up shop. Her tone is attuned to my high regard for anyone who admits that they do not have the answers and do not pretend to have it all figured out. I don’t, and I don’t mind saying so. In fact a steady willingness to be with the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind has served me well all these many years.

Here’s an example of Ruefle’s self effacing stance:

I always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things. On the other hand, the evening news tells us a corporation is not interested in protecting anything other than itself. This is best contemplated by the younger generation, on whom it will have the greatest impact.

I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways become boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves.

Ruefle goes on to equate poetry with a “wandering little drift of unidentified sound” and a bit like following a thrush into the woods. If you persist, she points out, the thrush just goes deeper into the woods and you will never actually see it. “‘Fret not after knowledge, I have none,’ is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.”


1 Comment

  1. rick shiels says:

    These thoughts are well worth drinking a sip of more than once a day. There have been many noble and fetching attempts to define poetry, to capture it– Eliot’s “the meat the imaginary burglar throws to the house dog” or Kafka’s “the ax that cracks the frozen ice within us,” (paraphrase). In these cases the “capturing” is poetry itself of a kind. But poetry, like life itself, is threaded with mystery. So one of many reasons for reading it is the deep sense that it works on one’s “unconscious,” roiling it or making it soar at frequencies beyond our ‘hearing.’ Again, one of many…

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