It’s 2005 in a class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I’ve signed up for seminar with Mary Ruefle, visiting poet. The room is overfull with young writers; there aren’t enough seats for everyone. Mary begins by reading her course description. Once she’s finished, she lets out a sigh—half exasperation, half ennui. “I have no idea what I meant when I wrote that, but I guess we’ll spend this semester finding out.” This book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to take a class from Mary Ruefle.
The next week, eight students remained. It was the best class ever. (And I can use hyperbole unironically now because I’ve taken a class with Mary.) From week to week, I never knew where the discussion might take us. Oh, sure. I knew we were reading Keats’ odes, but would we spend the whole class on words within words in his “Autumn”? We did. Would Mary ditch the original plan for her own original thoughts on the Kantian nature of the sublime, even if she hadn’t read the philosopher in question? You know the answer. “I made up my mind never to read any more theory because there are too many other beautiful things to read.” Once, she brought us her collection of advertisements with the word poetry in them. Shaking her head, she said, “Some students of mine do this now. Write copy.” Then, as she flung the heap on the table before us, she earnestly uttered (yes, uttered), “Please don’t use poetry to sell things.”
“Did you know that people decorate their home with bound stacks of antique letters?” a horrified Mary asked us one week. “I buy them myself because I actually read them.” After class, she invited us to accompany her to a dog race.
Another time, Mary found a xeroxed pencil on the floor of an empty classroom on campus and based her lecture on that. Raising an unsharpened pencil before us, she asked, “Where does the writing happen? When the pencil in hand hits the paper or before in the mind? Of course, it can’t happen if the pencil isn’t sharpened.” I, always one to go along with absurdity, offered, “You know, when I was a kid, I hated coloring, so I used to take unsharpened pencils and draw pictures with them because they’ll actually make smudges if you push on the paper really hard.” Mary, serious, right back at me, “That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
Oh, Mary. I could hug her now as I think of the writers she defended: John Clare, O. Henry, Rod McKuen. “The Gift of the Magi,” to Mary: wonderful. I once heard her defend it to the bitter end when another professor criticized it. She made me second-guess why I hated what I thought I hated. Afterward, I, for the most part, still hated what I hated, but at least I could better articulate why I hated it because of Mary. I imagine it was the same for the other students.
I regret not trying to learn more from the indelible Mary Ruefle, and, by indelible, I mean that her lectures, poems, and presence leave their mark on a person: I can’t forget her, or her class. At least someone thought to put together this marvelous book. That first day of class, quoting “someone,” she said, “It is the job of every teacher to lead students to a deep, dark place then leave them there.” Then again, Mary Ruefle has rue and mar in it.