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Three Books: An Exchange

Carmine Starnino's Lazy Bastardism, Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry, and Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey.

Lazy Bastardism, by Carmine Starnino.

Gaspereau Press. $27.95.

MICHAEL LISTA: Every Canadian poet has an opinion of Carmine Starnino, and yet his detractors dislike him precisely because he has opinions. When it comes to aesthetics — or at least as they pertain to poetry — Canadians are still Victorians: opinions are fine and all, but they’re best kept buried deep within the whalebone corset. Or they’re like the Sikh Kirpan, kept sharpened but sheathed, a symbol of the truth’s shearing triumph over falsity, only ever drawn if someone else dares disturb the peace and draw his first. And if the time does indeed come for us to start getting stabby, for God’s sake do the polite thing — the Canadian thing — and stab me in the back and not in the front, please-and-thank-you, so as to avoid all the awkward eye contact.

Is this the case in the rest of the English-speaking poetry world? Here the poet-critic is at best a tattletale and at worst a scab. They’re also, if they dare to write what’s pejoratively called “evaluative criticism,” some sort of throwback to a bygone, benighted era when one poem could be better than another. And that’s just according to the poets. I have it on good authority, for example, that an earlier, shorter
version of one of the pieces in Starnino’s most recent book of criticism, Lazy Bastardism, on Margaret Atwood, was spiked by one of our daily national newspapers because the appraisal of Atwood (who in Canada is somewhere between a cottage industry and living god-head) was “negative.”

Starnino is particularly despised by the nebulous consortia we can call the avant-garde; in fact if  the avant-garde is a contemporary kind of apophatic theology, disliking Starnino might very well be the via negativa that consecrates your membership. The flower of that hatred stems from a single essay, a review from Starnino’s more combative first book, of Christian Bök’s Eunoia (an essay more understood than read) which he deliciously titled, after a Daryl Hine poem published in these pages, “Vowel Movements.” And his name is sort of a general smear too. This summer, after I published a piece of criticism that can broadly be called “negative,” the poet Sina Queyras Tweeted that 
I remind her of Starnino. She meant this as an insult.

What exactly is Starnino as Insult? Everybody knows being a Starnino means being snarky, mean, ad hominem; it means being sesquipedalian, axe-grindy, show-offy; it means being both obstinately contrarian and ostentatiously revisionary, a latter-day Yvor Winters with his provincial road-less-traveled canonizing; it means being close-minded to the new and approbative of the old. But most of all it means one thing — and of all the received, untrue diminishments above, this one is the most contagious, ineluctable, and wrong — it means you’re “conservative.”

Conservatism is the worst thing with which a critic can be charged; it implies that you’re inured to the only faculty that makes you worth reading — the ability to be surprised by the authentically new and have your mind changed by it. What makes Lazy Bastardism so surprising is how seriously it strives for what Starnino himself calls “unpigeonholeability.” What does Starnino think of visual poetry pioneer bpNichol? Everybody already knows that he would hate him — except he doesn’t. He calls Nichol “too much fun to dislike,” and when he faults him, he does so precisely because Nichol wasn’t avant-garde enough, writing that, “Nichol’s poetry has fallen short of a crucial threshold: the new that stays news.” What does Starnino think of the poetry of the formally minded Adam Kirsch? Even though everybody already knows that he would love it, he writes that Kirsch’s poetry suffers from “a begloomed, piecemeal rhetoric that feels like padding, and a cookie-cutter form that requires it.”

In other words, the lazy bastard of Lazy Bastardism is the -ism 
itself. And far from being the work of a conservative, I think the book is a challenge to the received liberalism of our time in the same way that Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” were to theirs. The aesthetic opinions at which Starnino inevitably arrives are never preset destinations that have a palpable design upon us, but the good-faith wanderings of a pilgrim with our pleasure in mind, for whom, like Keats, poetry is proved upon the pulse. The book is a raspberry-in-the-face to the lazy leftism that unthinkingly accepts as progressive anything with a vague whiff of syntactic or conceptual transgression; but it also delights in slaughtering the sacred lyric cows whose sanctity we’re told to take for granted. These essays are important, I think, not for their conclusions — many of  which I disagree with — but for their making public a private canon, a practice that’s at the heart of  liberalism.

GWYNETH LEWIS: Michael Lista asks if hostility towards evaluative criticism exists in places other than Canada in the English-speaking world. It does. In Britain we seem to be losing the knack for valuing well-argued, considered criticism, let alone dealing constructively with the less well-motivated observations. Ad hominem attacks miss the point, but a passion for the well-being of poetry requires discrimination between the good enough and the best. Poets are, of course, notoriously short on epidermis. Dylan Thomas used to describe the job as walking over broken glass on your eyeballs. I like Starnino’s defense of criticism as “one of the forces that makes poetry possible.” I cheer his attack on that sentimentalization of  language which results when you see reading as “an assertion of integrity rather than an exercise of faculties.... A good poet, in short, will help a reader grow up.”

I agree that it matters less that Starnino is right than the fact that he’s grappling with issues that poets need to understand. Sometimes he’s silly — he has a rant against the fashion for using epigraphs and states “style is always happy.” What about style as a defense against pain in Stevie Smith, or Emily Dickinson’s “formal feeling” that’s a reaction to suffering? Starnino says, “There is nothing remotely nurturing or dopamine-inducing about the creative process.” Experiments prove that rhythmic activity in rats produces, er    ...    dopamine. Aside from enjoying the words “lazy bastardism” in the title, I feel that Starnino never develops it as a tool for judging poetry, though he’s bracingly direct about the artistic consequences of vanity, imprecision, and being content with “faking” a poem.

I had my doubts how much I’d enjoy an account of mainly Canadian poetry without knowing the poems (mea culpa), but this doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive survey so much as what pleases Starnino. I left the book with a list of new enthusiasms: the work of Margaret Avison, Michael Harris, Don McKay, Eric Ormsby, Karen Solie, and Peter Trower. I’m not sure I would have ended a volume on my own tradition with a poem of my own, as if it all led up to me. Perhaps Starnino’s editor told him it was ok. The big surprise, though, was the similarity between the perceived project of new 
poetry in Canada and the uk: to “informalize form — free it from fustiness.” It immediately makes me want to do something else.

ANGE MLINKO: Michael Lista and Gwyneth Lewis concur that the quantity and quality of “evaluative criticism” is at an all-time low in Canada and Britain respectively. I would add that the same is true in the us. But it’s not Victorianism that did it in here; it’s the sense that the lid has been ripped off any consensual definition of poetry, and that for a new generation it has been a test of one’s authenticity to write poems that evade all criteria for a “good poem.” What was once metered speech became vers libre, and what was once “a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind” (Valéry), meter or no meter, is now a machine for producing word combinations aimed at one’s coterie — or as one says in these parts, “community.” One need only crack the new edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry to see several varieties of this community machine. Such people are fond of pointing out that the word “poetry” comes from the Greek word poiesis, which merely means “to make”; therefore poetry is essentially nothing more than a “made thing.”

I blame the genteel evaluative criticism of  the eighties and nineties. One got the sense that poetry had become an inbred circle of Lowell/Bishop epigones. Had there been more non-Ivy League, rugged individualists like Carmine Starnino, with similar stature (or notoriety), poetic trends here might not swing so violently between the complacent and the insurrectionary. I don’t agree with all his conclusions 
(I enjoy Medbh McGuckian’s private language at its best), but we get pleasure from the same thing in poetry: sprezzatura, both in musicality (quoting Eric Ormsby: “The vacuum’s cannistered voracity / never gets enough: its gulf-presidium / snootsavors carpet”) and imagism (Robyn Sarah: “at the back of the palate / the ghost of  a rose /in the core of  the carrot”). He also admits a bias toward outsiders;
as a child of immigrants myself, I too have a distrust of ease. His book’s dedication reads: “In memory of my father    ...    whose choicest words for me when growing up gave this book its title.” To follow suit, I would have to name my collection of criticism, “I Could Wipe My Heinie With That Piece of Paper” (my MFA). Here’s the rub: the wonderful self-skepticism, ambivalence, and nuance of Starnino’s style has one drawback. The world does not care for skepticism, 
ambivalence, and nuance.

On Poetry, by Glyn Maxwell.

Oberon Books. £12.99.

GL: A tone of ambivalence scarcely appears in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry. He writes in the voice of a teacher on a crusade to persuade his students that writing without form is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maxwell echoes the half-fond, half-contemptuous tone of his teacher Derek Walcott: “Songwriters stir up a living tradition, poets make flowers grow in air. Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked about this again.” This chutzpah is attractive but it comes at a cost, shutting down speculation so quickly that I was left with distracting “buts” buzzing inside my head. Maxwell argues that, for songwriters, music plays the role of time that silence does for poets; but doesn’t meter — however free — do that for the poet? Doesn’t silence surround and inform both art forms?

Maxwell’s deity of choice is Time. His beef with free-form poetry is that “you are effectively saying that time is different these days. It’s not what it was. Maybe you think time has been broken.” Quantum physics might be said to have done so, but “time refracts oddly in the vicinity of verse” is the closest Maxwell comes to a post-Einstein concept of time. He asserts “poets are voices upon time.” No, poems
are, there’s a big difference. For a poem to live, that voice has to 
become the reader — and it’s on this divide that the terrible fragility of poetry depends.

I’ve admired Glyn Maxwell’s poetry for decades, and there are many fine things in this book. Here’s how terza rima behaves: “This is the creature on the move through life. A new rhyme comes out of the mist, is developed in thought, is left behind.” He discusses Edward Thomas’s work as an alternative to T.S. Eliot’s High Modernism and gives as accurate an account as I know of the impersonal “I” that arises in a poem:

In unrivalled brimming black, with words you didn’t expect, echoes you couldn’t foresee, matter you never chose, resonances
that crept up around you to wait for your next move. This is not you the writer of poems. This is you the poem, this is you in the language. Not you, you in the language. Not you today, you in time.

Discussing Frost, Maxwell notes “what looks like repetition isn’t repetition.” The book is full of good formalist advice with workshop ideas, my favorite being pretending that the page is physically hurt or turned on by your every word.

I count myself as being from the same stable as Maxwell, but those buts keep buzzing. He makes an acute point about the sestina as a mainly futile form and proposes it as useless other than for a monologue by a barman serving several customers. Like it or not, the sestina has survived, and therefore, by Maxwell’s own criteria, should be poetically viable. In a gesture of typical fluency, Maxwell invents characters for the students in his class and writes poems in each voice.

Maxwell claims that “No long-gone poets you can find in books or on websites are long-gone at all: if their pieces survived them they’re poets. Work out why they are. Find out what time knows and you don’t.” For my money, time doesn’t know anything, and this reading of the poetic canon sounds complacently ahistorical. Class prejudice, sexism, ageism, religious discrimination all exert force on what may be called poetry and who can be said to write it. Maxwell is very interesting on the white space around a poem — for him it represents time. Nevertheless, time also operates in the black of the words, and at different speeds. Think of the geology of words, the fingerprints of  historical experience and extra-literary psychological and material pressure, to name a few.

For Maxwell, who writes for the theater, “your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person.” Yes    ...    but there is an element in language which is non-individual — I mean political — with and against which the poet has to work. I keep thinking of Frost’s line in “Home Burial”: “Tell me about it if it’s something human.” Perhaps Rimbaud was more precise when he said “Je est un autre” 
(“I am another”).

Maxwell has strong poetic fathers — we share several — but he shows little evidence of struggling intellectually with them. He quotes Joseph Brodsky saying, “In poetic thought the role of  the subconscious is played by euphony.” This is good, but you can use the music of a poem to disrupt the natural cadence of the unconscious — in fact, a poem is a clash between the will and the unknown. What’s missing in this book is the sound of balls cracking (metaphorically, I mean), the sense of the received being interrogated and developed in new directions.

The art of poetry exists on a spectrum between versification and the wider category of poetry. Maxwell confines himself to verse, the how. The first modern criticism on poetry, Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry (1595), recognizes that versification is only half  the story: “One may be a poet without versing, and a versifier without poetry.” I can’t agree that “the only worthwhile study the poet, as a maker, can make of poetry is — which forms survived and for what reason?” An account of poetry requires attention to “whatness” as well as “howness.” The argument between truth and beauty affects the content as well as the form of poetry, and there are legitimate questions to be asked about imagination’s morality. Perhaps the book should have been called On Verse. Billed as such, this is an original and bravura reiteration of the formalist position. It’s of interest as Maxwell’s own ars poetica, but it has its limitations. “On Poetry” is yet to be written and requires a wider scope and, maybe, less certainty.

AM: I agree with Gwyneth Lewis: this is a very good book on verse, not “poetry.” She asks: Is there a book to be written on the content of poetry, the “imagination’s morality”? Possibly; but just to stick for a moment with the “howness” rather than the “whatness,” I was disappointed that Maxwell ducked the most difficult craft question of all, the art of making metaphors: “that alone cannot be learnt; it is the token of genius. For the right use of metaphor means an eye for resemblances” (Aristotle). Not that Maxwell isn’t capable of finding wonderful metaphors himself — his distinction between a poem’s “solar meaning” and “lunar meaning” will be part of my classroom tool kit forthwith.

To take as an example the lines I quoted from Robyn Sarah, was 
I really drawn to them because of the versification?

at the back of the palate
the ghost of a rose
in the core of the carrot.

Well, I admit, the anapest-ish bounce of those lines has something to do with their memorability, and the palate/carrot rhyme is indispensable, but the real achievement here is the oxymoronic yoking of the rose and the carrot (smell vs. taste; sweet vs. bitter; pretty vs. nutritive; pink vs. orange). Oxymoronic, but surprisingly true — 
I taste that rose now in raw carrots, indelibly. I think Maxwell would wager that the lightning-strike freshness of metaphor arose organically (no pun intended) from the modulation of the vowels and the fatedness of the rhyme. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that versification is a poetic machinery by which you find yourself saying smarter things than you would have otherwise (to paraphrase James Merrill). But I could just as easily posit that Sarah was actually cutting the top off a carrot, saw the radial symmetry of its core, glimpsed (at a lightning stroke) the visual rhyme with a rose, and constructed the musical lines to be the best container for this metaphor. I’m remembering now Amy Clampitt’s glimpse of Perseus’s mirrored shield as the progenitor of evolution: “one wet / eyeblink in the antediluvial
dark.” Nature really does advance by mirroring; poets really do have an essential truth at the core of their endeavor when they find 
resemblances. Maxwell leans on evolutionary biology to bolster his arguments for forms that have “survived.” He could have taken it further by arguing that these particular forms may have survived, but our job is also to see that metaphors are continually evolving.

ML: I don’t think it’s just the art of making metaphors that’s the difficult question, but the art of making metaphors of form. It takes Maxwell until the back quarter of On Poetry to get around to the connection, and when he does it’s a bit too freighted for my taste, and a bit too brief: “Any form in poetry, be it meter, rhyme, line-break, is a metaphor for creaturely life.” Cut the creaturely life bit and you’re onto something. Acknowledging the important qualifications Gwyneth Lewis raises as to why some poems survive and some perish, I think what the best poems we’ve received have in common is that their forms are doing metaphorical work.

To answer Ange Mlinko’s question, yes, I do think we’re drawn to the Sarah lines in large part because of the versification — it’s itself metaphoric. Yes, the “anapest-ish” bounce is part of it, but so too is the circularity and symmetry of (to use words Maxwell dislikes) the assonance and consonance (at, back, palate/ghost, rose/core, carrot) and that lovely slant rhyme of “palate” and “carrot.” The total effect is to give the aural, synesthetic impression of  both the cross-cut carrot and the spiraled petals of a rose. The metaphor is itself contained within a mnemonic metaphor, which makes forgetting the lines next to impossible.

Today both bad free verse and bad formalism disappoint for the same reason: the form has been divorced from its metaphor. In the case of bad free verse, the form feels arbitrarily default, like a font. With bad formalism, it feels willfully decorative, like a font. When poems of each kind succeed, it’s because their containers — poetry
 is the only art form that is its own container — are constructed out of the materials of their contents, in a kind of infinite feedback loop. No one has done this better than Dante. When Maxwell writes about The Comedy’s terza rima he never looks beyond the lineation of the canto. But each of the three canticles is made up of thirty-three cantos, and so the whole three-book poem is shaped by the fractal Thomism of the triune God. Form achieves a cosmological meaning; hell, purgatory, and heaven are governed by the same ineluctable laws. The three great American free-versifiers — Whitman, Eliot, and Ashbery — succeed because they each achieve a distinct formal meaning: Whitman’s is the expansiveness of the manifest destiny of self; Eliot’s is the failing and fragmentation of the old Western order; Ashbery’s, the channel-surfing ticker of thought.

Taking this too far leads to what Yvor Winters called the fallacy of imitative form (and for my money lots of George Herbert’s concrete poems in The Temple jumped the shark before Canadians and Brazilians made a movement out of them hundreds of years later). But I have to agree with Maxwell that some of the freshest poetry today is employing some of the stalest techniques, because the techniques are taking on new meanings that free verse can’t accommodate: the intractability of human nature in A.E. Stallings, the tautologies of late capitalism in Michael Robbins, the equivalent pleasures of high and low culture in David McGimpsey.

Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle.

Wave Books. $25.00.

AM: Mary Ruefle shares Glyn Maxwell’s preoccupation with time and poetry, but her method and conclusions could not be more different. They both begin at the beginning, yet even their beginnings diverge. Maxwell puts us on the savannah with Pleistocene man (and, implicitly, Denis Dutton, whose best-selling The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution popularized the view that our conventional notions of  beauty are an evolutionary adaptation). Ruefle’s first essay, “On Beginnings,” places us somewhere in the vicinity of Genesis, Paul Valéry, and the pre-Socratics. That is, her first sentence would not sound out of place in a collection of  Heraclitean or Pythagorian aphorisms: “In life, the number of  beginnings is 
exactly equal to the number of endings: no one has yet to begin a life who will not end it.” As for Valéry: “the opening line of a poem, he said, is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.” Next to this Symbolist tree of  knowledge Ruefle sets “In the beginning was the Word” — and thus puts us in a terrain closer to metaphysics than evolutionary psychology.

There didn’t seem to be room in Maxwell’s short, pithy, and 
urgent book for an acknowledgement like Ruefle’s:

The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart.

And unlike Maxwell (but more like Starnino), Ruefle embraces her own oscillations in mood and opinion over time. She often recalls her younger self and notes the changes of mind that mark a decades-long obsession with poetry: “When I look back at [A Vision] now and read some of the passages my nineteen-year-old hand underlined, I sometimes laugh out loud.” Maybe this is why her essay “Poetry and the Moon” is so wise. In English poetry, the fickle mistress changes like the moon; as do the arts, which in Raleigh’s words, “vary by esteeming.” Does this make poetry an insubstantial thing? Far from it. Ruefle notes the intersection of the literal-historical (nasa’s moon) and the poetical (Yeats’s moon, or Sappho’s). Rather than obsolescing the poetical, the literal — 
as with all solid bodies — is simply folded into the poetical as a form of memory. Time, we see, turns everything into poetry. Fact.

The expansive Ruefle doesn’t argue so much as she meanders, digresses, and juxtaposes; her awareness that she is helping us waste our time compels her to be as charming and humorous and equanimous as a good host. Yet she is not giving us anything so concrete as a set of tools with which to write poetry. And I do mean poetry, not verse. Her titles seem to promise information — “On Beginnings,” “Poetry and the Moon,” “On Sentimentality,” “On Secrets.” But she is likely to say, as she does of metaphor, that poetry “doesn’t actually exist, insofar as it does not reside in nature, but it exists insofar as it spontaneously arises in the human mind as a perceptual event. To conceive of things that don’t exist is a natural act for a human being.”

Her “Short Lecture on Craft” seems to poke fun at the whole 
notion; it takes the form of a pun: “By 700 bc the Phoenicians were sailing.” That is, “craft” is a boat, and moreover, “the most primitive craft is a raft, whose very word is embedded in the word craft.” While she paints a picture of unknown Polynesian raft-builders (much as Maxwell paints us a picture of the savannah dwellers), she points us toward another dictionary definition of craft: “skill in evasion or 
deception.” “Those unknown men and women lashing together their gigantic raft, what were they evading, whom were they deceiving? Were they evading hunger, disaster, unspeakable loss?” Ruefle ends her parable with apophatic rapture: “But surely there must have been a moment of glorious well-being when they slid their raft into the water and discovered that it could float, and would hold them all, as they set out to cut a hole in time.”

Notice how poems cut a hole in time rather than master time, as Maxwell claims measure does. Which do we want: to manipulate time or to confuse it? To make it stand still or to escape it — carried off, as the etymology of rapture would have it, in a divine kidnapping?

ML: “Apophatic rapture” — yes, and there’s that word again. Part of what makes this one of the most moving books on poetry in recent memory is how infrequently it’s actually about poetry. But of course it’s never about anything else. That’s the genius of  Ruefle’s dialectic: she can always have it both ways. “True or false; the subject or topic of a poem is never really its subject or topic.” Notice that isn’t a question, but here’s one: How should one write about theme in poetry? By writing about Polartec Fleece bathrobes, Shaker and Las Vegas civic design, the Walt Disney Florida town of Celebration — everything except theme in poetry, of course. “The two sides of a secret are repression and expression, just as the two sides of the poem are the told and untold.” Or as Aristotle said, by way of Auden: the mark of genius is being able to hold two incongruous thoughts in one’s head at once.

As Ange Mlinko observes, Ruefle’s circular way of thinking comes from her marrying the twin chambers of Western poetry — the Hebraic and the Hellenic. The result is cardiovascular thinking, the arterial going-forth of Genesis-Exodus, and the venous return of the Odyssey. The best example of this is in her essay “On Sentimentality.” First, in her understated fashion, she coaxes us into understanding early Modernism (or Imagism) in a new way:

The effect of an image in a poem often acts like a kitten: we are expected to go “ah” deep down in our interior sphere, and to slightly elevate ourselves in relation to the world, as if the soul were a beach ball.

Purring, big-eyed, and there — Of course an image is sentimental; in a poem an image is only just barely words, so undeservedly convincing of a feeling it can’t even bring itself to express! But what is sentimentality? A “causeless emotion.” Then Ruefle writes: “one day I realized that causeless emotion was an even better definition of poetry.”

So whereas Starnino and Maxwell focus on verse, which is made of words, how the mechanics of words in a poem please and disappoint, Ruefle is focused on poetry, the Word, which isn’t just pre-material,
but pre-linguistic. Isn’t every poem the record of its failed reckoning with the impulse that inspired it? How then can we possibly write about that shadow-side of poetry, its perfect pre-verbal dimension, which even in the best poems we can only get glimpses of  ? Apophatically. Madness, Rack, and Honey does just that: “The poem, once begun, is so physical that it cannot realize itself: like an actual physical event (not like a poem at all) it must die, finish, or end without completion.” Which seems to suggest, thankfully, that whatever hunger makes us love poetry can’t be satisfied by poems alone.

GL: Michael Lista asks how it’s possible to write about the pre-verbal
dimension of poetry. Indirectly, it’s the ur-subject for poets —  Coleridge’s pleasure-dome, Dante’s paradise. But it’s mainly the way each poet’s mind sashays to the subconscious wordless tune whose rhythmical impulses dictate all form. (The best account I know of this is in theologian Jacques Maritain’s Mellon lectures, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry.) Michael Lista’s formulation of poetry as a “mnemonic metaphor” is exactly right.

Mary Ruefle’s book is the fruit of fifteen years’ lecturing and it shows. She explores the poetic hinterland of the human mind. Ruefle’s insight about the skies took my breath away: “Stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers.” There is a theory that the Iliad’s epic images were originally devised to recall the movement of the stars.

Ruefle makes a powerful case for the irreality (her word) of poetry:
“I love pretension. It is a mark of  human earthly abstraction, whereas
humility is a mark of  human divine abstraction. I will have all of 
eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.” I’d answer that humility gets you a piece of heaven ahead of schedule. I’m not as sure as Ange Mlinko that time “turns 
everything into poetry,” it tends to dust around here. At times, Ruefle’s book becomes a compendium of quotes, but I found new gems.

I’m intrigued by a point that both Ruefle and Maxwell raise, that “images and metaphors are often rhetorical stand-ins.” For what? As she mentions René Girard’s work, I wondered if she was about to argue for poem as scapegoat. The French theologian depicts Christ as the place onto which we project all that we most hate and fear, though we know him to represent the truth. If poetry’s a similar scapegoat, then that would explain our ambivalent feelings towards it.

This book is useful about other aspects of  being a poet: “I want to say the poet is never afraid because he is unceasingly afraid    ...    you might say fear is the poet’s procedure, that which he has been trained to concentrate on.” Thank God for a poet who values silence as much as talking: “I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say…. But I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

  • A poet, playwright, lawyer, and statesman, Archibald MacLeish's roots were firmly planted in both the new and the old worlds. His father, the son of a poor shopkeeper in Glasgow, Scotland, was born in 1837—the year of Victoria's coronation as Queen of England—and ran away first to London and then,...

  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

  • Gwyneth Lewis’s most recent book is Sparrow Tree (Bloodaxe Books, 2011). She has also written two memoirs, Sunbathing in the Rain (Flamingo, 2002) and Two in a Boat (Harper Perennial, 2007).

  • Michael Lista is the author of Bloom (House of Anansi Press, 2010). He is poetry editor of the Walrus and poetry columnist for the National Post. He lives in Toronto.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Three Books: An Exchange

Carmine Starnino's Lazy Bastardism, Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry, and Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey.
  • A poet, playwright, lawyer, and statesman, Archibald MacLeish's roots were firmly planted in both the new and the old worlds. His father, the son of a poor shopkeeper in Glasgow, Scotland, was born in 1837—the year of Victoria's coronation as Queen of England—and ran away first to London and then,...

  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

  • Gwyneth Lewis’s most recent book is Sparrow Tree (Bloodaxe Books, 2011). She has also written two memoirs, Sunbathing in the Rain (Flamingo, 2002) and Two in a Boat (Harper Perennial, 2007).

  • Michael Lista is the author of Bloom (House of Anansi Press, 2010). He is poetry editor of the Walrus and poetry columnist for the National Post. He lives in Toronto.

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