Mary Ruefle

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Early morning in Small Point Maine

I just returned from a long weekend in Small Point, Maine. This quiet outcropping surrounded by the Atlantic on three sides has been my favorite migratory site for many years. Annual visits here are like the kitchen wall where penciled lines mark a child’s growth. This landscape is my personal caliper for measuring movement, some of it subtle and not so obvious.

Yes, things change here too. Each year the sand reconfigures the terrain of that enormous stretch of beach. New rock outcroppings appear. The meanders of the Morse River find new inevitable pathways to the sea. But this place feels like it has always been its own unalterable self. And if left alone (god willing), it will continue being that place, being exactly what it is.

Looking back on a life can bring up feelings of sentimentality, of nostalgia. John Gardner‘s definition of sentimental is “causeless emotion, indulgence of more emotion than seems warranted by the stimulus.” In poet Mary Ruefle‘s essay, “On Sentimentality,” from her collection, Madness, Rack and Honey, she describes nostalgia as belonging “exclusively to culture. Because it belongs to the idea of progress and change and the idea of accumulation, accretion and storage. Only highly developed cultures foster feelings of nostalgia.” She goes on to quote Peter Hoeg: “Sentimentality will always be man’s first revolt against development.” When it comes to sentimentality, she states the conundrum succinctly: You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

This has been a summer of exploring some of my own back pages. It started with Rachel Kushner‘s novel set in the art world of the 1970s, The Flamethrowers. That look back was followed by another by way of Janet Malcolm‘s collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, many of which were written about that same demi-monde one decade later, in the 1980s.

One of Malcolm’s pieces is a portrait of Ingrid Sischy, written just a few years after Sischy took over the helm of Artforum magazine as a relatively unknown young woman in 1979. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Malcolm interviewed many of the leading art critics at that time—Rosalind Krauss, Don Kuspit, Rene Ricard, Thomas McEvilley, Barbara Rose, Carter Ratcliff, Thomas Lawson, among others. This multi-valenced portrait encapsulates many of the conversations and concerns I remember from that period.

For example, Lawson describes the experience he and his friends had in coming to New York City as young artists in the early 1970s. They arrived in Manhattan about the same time I did, when everywhere was heard the edict, “Painting is Dead.” Like Lawson and his friends, that fierce dismissal deeply informed my work:

When I first arrived here postminimalism was very systematic and black and low performance, which was fine, but it was the only game in town….

There is something melancholy about our work. If pop art represented a kind of optimistic acceptance of mass culture, ours is a kind of melancholic acceptance. We never had coherence as a movement. For some reason, this generation has a particularly high incidence of extreme individualism and paranoia about one’s peers. So there has never been much of a group. This all took place after “the death of painting.” We had all been schooled in the idea that painting was finished, and the second perverse thing we did was decide to paint. Since there’s a deadness to mass-media imagery, there was a fittingness to our decision to work in a medium that we didn’t have all that much conviction about. But, interestingly, once you start working in it you become more and more convinced by it. All these years later, painting actually seems interesting in itself, rather than a mere perverse thing.

Perversity was not the driving force in my decision to be a painter, but I do remember making the concerted decision to plow through in spite of the dismissals that were heard everywhere during that era. If artists are by nature subversive, there was nothing more subversive than to paint. Ironically enough, many young painters today face an updated version of that easy dismissal. Like those of us who came of age during a previous era, they are also claiming the counterposition and subverting prevailing norms.

Like the landscape in Small Point where surface changes happen but an underlying essence remains in tact, most serious artists find their essential metier and hold to it regardless of the passing whims of culture, market or colleagues. Some artists are lucky and hit that sweet spot, where their work and trends coalesce. Those individuals are the minority however. Most of us are fueling our efforts on our own, and our work gets better the closer we cut into that essence that is each of us.

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I have written about Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack and Honey so many times here that I thought it would be apropos to share one of her poetic ventures as well. I keep my copy of the slight but beguiling A Little White Shadow nearby. It is a visual and poetic pleasure to open it to a random page and see what shows up.


Mary Ruefle, excerpt from A Little White Shadow. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ruefle. Photo: Wave Books/Verse Press

Meanwhile on a more personal note…I am off to Utah for the wedding of my niece, the one and only Trina Ricks, who will wed Quinn Peterson. Back here next week.


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George Saunders
George Saunders (Photo: The Guardian)

Is it just my bias or is it truly hard to find an artist who is a gifted creator and also wise? Another personal bias (since we’re divulging these proclivities): It is my experience that wisdom comes from those who have figured out how to get out beyond the distracting lights of egocentricity, careerism, competition, self promotion. They take on a sense of humility as part of their wisdoming. Their way of looking at the world feels slowed down. Stripped to the essentials. Primal.

Case in point, the spectacularly inventive writer George Saunders. His commencement address at Syracuse this year was published in the New York Times this week. Commencement speeches are a form of sermonizing—they typically aim for the concise and the pithy, with a message that is relevant to the young and the old. And like a homily, the best ones leave you with a kernel idea to pull up later. For Saunders’ speech, the word is kindness.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE…

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

I have thought about this speech for days (and thank you to my alert niece Rebecca Ricks for flagging it for me.) I have also been wisdomed by a gloriously protracted read of the poet Mary Ruefle‘s terrific collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey. In her introduction she self-effacingly says:

I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sounds, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush…but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “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.

Later, in a chapter entitled “On Sentimentality” she waxes wise when addressing a scholar’s disapproval of the use of the “vague you” pronoun in American poetry. She is straightforward in getting past what seems like a pointless discussion:

Mr. Sterling asserts we don’t participate in such poems, but become “a passive observer, an eavesdropper”—as if it were of the utmost importance that we always, always, participate, participate, participate. When was the last time you participated in a poem by Emily Dickinson, no matter what pronoun she was using? Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.

Her simple defense of privileged eavesdropping rather than participation parallels tendencies in the visual arts regarding the dominance of installations focused on social practice, politics, conceptual constructs. The mystery in seeing, looking and experiencing a work retinally has been put aside as unimportant. In that tension between content and appearance, the pendulum is swinging heavily into the former. As is often the case, what beleaguers poetry and poetry making is relevant to what beleaguers the visual arts. As Ruefle suggests, there is—and ought to be—room for both/and.

Kindness, and the privilege of being an eavesdropper. There is a welcome in those words, almost a soul’s sigh, that comes up in me when I think about embracing those two states of mind.

Mary Ruefle (Photo: Matt Valentine)
Other Slow Muse posts on:

George Saunders

Lovell’s Quiet Portrait of George Saunders

Zadie Smith

Mary Ruefle

Safekeeping the Not Knowing


Images, Ideas and Tension

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The first part of the Return from Parnassus, by Cy Twombly

The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness, which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.

This quote from poet John Crowe Ransom was referenced by the late painter Cy Twombly who, interestingly enough, employed a lot of text, often from Dante, in his effusive and expressive canvases. It’s a powerful set of sentences. As a visual artist, I was caught by its boldness.

In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle references this quote as well in her essay, “On Beginnings.” This piece pokes and prods at just how a poem actually starts as well as how it finds its way to its end, into closure.

This essay, like the rest in Ruefle’s book, is compelling, playful, wide ranging and smart.

From a review by David Kirby in the New York Times:

Ruefle’s mission is not to—yawn—remind everybody how precious poetry is; rather, it’s to give pleasure by showing how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably.

In this she succeeds. Typically, she begins a thought with a quotation from a sage (“Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), then develops the thought to give it her own spin (concluding, in the case of Bachelard, that we can at least dignify our dashed hopes “by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it”). Now this sounds like poetry to me, but it also sounds like my thoughts on the last overpriced restaurant meal I ate, as well as the American political system. And that’s the point: we begin in one place, then we’re all over the map, but we’ve been up a time or two before, so now we’re bringing that thought in for a nice soft landing.

Poets continue to speak most saliently to me about the process I experience in the studio. They are wordsmiths after all, and they are better at calling forth the furtive and the fragile.

Here’s another theorist referenced by Ruefle in a passage that every painter can identify with (from Poetic Closure: A Study in How Poems End by Barbara Herrnstein Smith):

Perhaps all we can say, and even this may be too much, is that varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released. Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations that are aroused are also fulfilled.

That’s a set of issues I work on just about every day.

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Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City

In Mary Ruefle‘s Madness, Rack and Honey, she references the concept of “unhitching.” The very word delights me: the idea of not being tethered or contained, of being let loose.

It can mean so many different things of course, but Ruefle is referencing its particular use in Claude Lévi-Strauss‘s Tristes Tropiques, a book that she says “for better or for worse, changed the views of Western civilization in the twentieth century.”

The full quote from Lévi-Strauss is below, a wild and rhapsodic invitation:

When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists—Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations!—in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.

I have read this passage about ten times, and every pass through feels like the words moved off the page since the last time I was there. It’s a full spectrum quote.

But it also feels like an apropos parting nod. I will be away from Slow Muse for two weeks while I am in Utah and New Mexico. As always when traveling, I fantasize about being engaged in all manner of unhitchedness, wandering far afield of hive-like activities. I will be looking for an entrance into the contemplation of mineral, and of the lily’s heart.

Adieu til June 19.

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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.”


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