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Mary Ruefle on Clarice Lispector for Music & Literature 4

By Harriet Staff

m&l

Music & Literature 4 is now out and features a massive amount of content from smart people on Clarice Lispector–a very rare journal, indeed. Mary Ruefle is among the contributors; here’re the top of “Remarks on Lispector” (purchase is necessary to keep on):

I discovered the work of Clarice Lispector rather late in life. When a reader is young, a constant stream of discovery flows through one‘s reading life, but after one has “read everything” (an utter impossibility, but nonetheless a persistent literary feeling) the authors that constitute a major discovery flood one with a special kind of hopefulness I cannot explain; who believes they will find a new best friend after fifty? But it happens.

When I first read the stories in Soulstorm, they shocked me. And in the “explanation” that precedes the stories, Clarice Lispector says “I was shocked by reality.” This by a woman already famous for writing fantastical stories such as “The Smallest Woman in the World,” the tale of a lady 17 3/4 inches high, which I had read years earlier in an anthology and marked as a wonder, without paying much attention to who the author was. I was shocked by reality. This statement is an artistic one. It brings the world to a standstill, which is very often what art does; it does this despite the fact it is impossible.

When I think of Clarice Lispector, I think of her years as a diplomat’s wife in Washington, D.C., and the endless round of cocktail and dinner parties that are a necessary part of that life, and how her existence as a writer must have been relegated to a place so inner it was in danger of disappearing; at the very least, no one sitting next to her could see it. But this place—the inner life—is the one thing that can never vanish, or if it were ever to vanish, literature itself would vanish with it.

But Ruefle herself is also celebrated here! In Part III of the issue, poems, essays, homage and conversation abound. An excerpt from her talk with the magazine:

When I first saw you give a reading, you read “that letter” from James Wright’s Selected Letters. (I am referring to the letter written to Susan Gardner on December 23, 1964.) Every other time I have seen you read, you insist on reading something someone else wrote. Why do you do that?

I like to read the writings of other people for several reasons. One is because they are so much better than my own! Another is because we simply do not have enough poetry readings of the great poems written by the great masters of the past, those who have died. Because of this, I once decided to give a “lecture” which consisted of nothing but me reading the poems of the dead for three-quarters of an hour. I read everything from Keats to Berryman to Desnos to Issa to Mew and back again. And it was a complete failure. My trusted friends and colleagues all agreed, we talked about it later—it was a failure. And we wondered why. Everyone had a different theory. To this day I don’t know why. Someone said it was because there was no “arc” but I’ve never been much invested in arcs. I don’t think that’s why. I think it’s because when we attend something called a lecture, we are looking for something, and of course poetry is just plain looking. And all these great poets, the only ones who can really teach us anything, I don’t think at that moment the students felt they were learning anything, and though that was my whole point—looking, not looking for—that was the lesson, the whole thing imploded in some terrible sad way, which broke my heart. It’s really hard to give a lesson about unlearning, because it’s such a contradiction in terms. It may well be impossible. On a brighter note, once I delivered, word by word, John Cage’s famous “Lecture on Nothing” and it was a great success. Cage was able to do it in his own way, using his own words, and that is really something. Anyway, when I read all those great poems from the past, I only read about a quarter of the ones I had chosen—there wasn’t enough time for them all—and I hope one day to read the rest, to just stand up and try again. And fail again. And keep failing. And keep having my heart broken. And this has everything to do with audience—finding the audience who is receptive to poetry rather than endless commentary on it. And yet I feel tenderness towards young people who are searching, who are seeking, who are looking for rather than looking, because I once was young myself, and doing just that, and I see now it is the beginning of the path that leads to looking.

Read what you can at Music & Literature. Part II looks at Swiss baroque violinist Maya Homburger and her partner, the British composer-double bassist Barry Guy.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, March 24th, 2014 by Harriet Staff.