Poetry News

Mary Ruefle's Elegant 'Lectures I Will Never Give' at The Rumpus

By Harriet Staff

Käthe Kollwitz Käthe Kollwitz

The Rumpus has a great piece up by poet and essayist Mary Ruefle called "Lectures I Will Never Give"--it is, of course, an excerpt from her book of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books 2013). Here's a bit of this amazingness:

The composer Dmitry Shostakovich’s certainty that musical notes radiated from a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain.

I have always believed I became a writer because in the fifth grade I had a pencil fight with a classmate and a piece of graphite has been lodged in my palm ever since.


If art were about intellect there would be no artists there would be only intellectuals.


Someone gave me a lecture this summer. A woman I know very, very, very slightly was sitting next to me at a lake where we had come to swim. As it happens, the lake has been the backdrop of my life, and I was looking out at a raft that was so rotted and bleached and lopsided that it was apparent its life was nearly finished. This made me sad, for I loved that raft; in fact, if you were to look inside my wallet right now, as it sleeps quietly in my purse, you would find a picture of the raft tucked in a secret compartment.

In a rare moment of emotional candor I turned to this woman and told her how sad I was sitting there looking at the dilapidated raft. That was when she gave me her lecture. “YOU’RE SO NEGATIVE! STOP IDENTIFYING WITH A PIECE OF WOOD! IT’S NOT YOU! SNAP OUT OF IT!”

I went into something resembling shock. That is not a lecture I could give—it’s not something I believe in. The next day I returned to the lake and the raft was gone.

Bin of animals

at the Goodwill—

all my friends

in one place.


For a long, long time I wanted to write a lecture called “Asylum.” An asylum is a secure place of refuge, shelter, or retreat. It is a sanctuary, an inviolable place from which one cannot be removed without sacrilege. An asylum is a benevolent institution affording shelter and protection to some class of the afflicted. It is also an insane place, full of shouts and cries and cries and whispers. An asylum is a place of hopeless suffering and endless misunderstanding, a place of restriction and desperation. I like the word asylum. Poetry is an asylum to me. Do you know what insanity is? Insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning. The argument over madness can be reduced to this: madness is excluded from thought vs. madness is “one case of thought (within thought)” (Derrida). The whole history of poetry could ensue from such a discussion. I don’t want to have it.

Once I spent hours in a room trying to decide which was more accurate:

I am paved with purple rushes
I am paid with purple thrushes.

I was in agony, trying to decide.

And apologies for being out of order, but we like this part too:

Once I wanted to write a lecture on two self-portraits by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and achieved recognition when it was still extremely rare for women artists.

Single self-portraits are not half as interesting as two self-portraits by the same artist painted thirty or forty years apart. When Käthe painted herself as a young woman she had a very pale and serene face against a dark background. Her hand rested on an open book. She was reading by lamplight. She was, obviously, a young woman with an inner life, and the portrait is composed as if to say, “I am a sensitive, curious, intelligent being, and in my search for knowledge and experience I will learn all there is to know about the world around me—here, I give you my pledge by placing my hand on this open book.” It is a nineteenth-century oil painting of quiet and penetrating elegance.

Thirty-five years later she draws herself again—for it’s a drawing this time and not a painting—with excruciating rapidity. Her face is scrawled in black ink out of a series of highly agitated circles and at a distance might easily be mistaken for a tightly wound clockspring. Gone is the book—this time her hand appears to be driving itself into her forehead with the force of a nail. She’s pressing her head so hard the viewer is taken aback.

This twentieth-century drawing says, “All that was to be known was inside me and bit by bit it did its work and made this tormented and exhausted head.” Her face has become the open book.

But that’s a lecture that has to be lived.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2013