Madness, Rack, and Honey: Mary Ruefle on What Makes People Write Poetry

Some books start from the end, others start from the middle, others start from the beginning, and there are books that start from everywhere. The first thing this book does to you is to introduce you to the underlying forces of writing; it is the opening sentence; Mary writes, “I never set out to write this book.” And then she continues into more subtleties, she declares: “I am a writer and writing is my natural act.”

Mary Ruefle’s book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, remains one of the best books I have read this year—and one of the best book about writing I would recommend anytime. It is a collection of lectures and short lectures. It is a collection or say, the book is a conference of madness, rack and honey—in the same symbolic manner of milk and honey.

There are fifteen (15) chapters in the book: On Beginnings; Poetry and the Moon; On Sentimentality; On Theme; On Secrets: Eight Beginnings, Two Ends; On Fear; Madness, Rack and Honey; My Emily Dickinson; Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World; Remarks on Letters; Kangaroo Beach; I Remember, I Remember; Twenty-Two Short Lectures; Lectures I Will Never Give.

What makes people write poetry? What do poets enjoy when they write? What compels us to create, to design, to love, and to even die? In Madness, Rack, and Honey Mary writes: “Anyone who has not experienced the joy, pleasure, transport, and sweetness of writing poems has not written poems. If it has never once been fun for you, you probably haven’t experienced what we talk about when we talk about poetry.” (pp. 130-131).

“As practitioners of poetry you are practitioners of madness, rack, and honey. You are mercy-givers who execute.” (p. 141).

Poetry: imagination, rhythms, forms and flowers, rooms and rags, grace and gods and gold, infinity, presence, sorry and solitary, babies and beauty.  

“A drop of honey is a powerful thing,” (p. 142) Mary says.

This book is not only about poetry or the writing of poems; the book is a million things: about the moon; about fear; about secrets—the making, the keeping, and the opening of secrets; about Emily Dickinson, Anne Frank, John Keats; about silence, solitary; about reading; about letters, love, about lows, about highs; about personal stories.

Mary Ruefle has every sense of humor. Reading her ‘I Remember, I Remember’ on a train or any public setting will make people ask themselves if you’re mad; because every paragraph is a form of laughing gas; you will not stop laughing out loud. Here: “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats” (p. 238). This reminds me: I remember the year I was fifteen or so, and my mum gave me money to buy trousers, and I went straight to a bookstore and bought The Glory of Living by Myles Munroe.

While Madness, Rack, and Honey is about writing, Mary Ruefle does not pretend to be an authority of the craft to the extent of dishing out rules of writing. Mary herself gives no ten (10) commandments of writing; hers is simply a devotion to the arts. Hear her: “…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…”

And I totally agree with her because it speaks the exact formation of my enthusiasm for poetry and life. She says, “I am absolutely free to do whatever I want, in my writing, until I die…” (p. 290).

Madness, Rack and Honey is available from Wave Books. A preview is available here.