A book must be the axe for the frozen see within us. —Kafka
Some books I read to escape myself; others, to find myself. Madness, Rack, and Honey is one of the latter. A series of lectures on poetry and writing, Ruefle’s book is full of fresh reflections on life and language. It’s also full of digressions, playfulness, even nonsense. It is, in sum, the perfect salve for a too-serious life.
I kept it on my bedside table and would hardly notice it for weeks. Then, I’d read one chapter at the end of a tedious day and discover anew the meager boundaries of the little box in which I’d been living. What I love best about this book is how Ruefle takes her time. And I mean that in the sense that she claims it, seizes it. And what does she do with that time? Why, she wastes it. And for good reason:
John Ashbery, in an interview in the Poetry Miscellany, talks about wasting time: “I waste a lot of time. That’s part of the [creative process]….The problem is, you can’t really use this wasted time. You have to have it wasted. Poetry disequips you for the requirements of life. You can’t use your time.” In other words, wasted time cannot be filled, or changed into another habit; it is a necessary void of fomentation. And I am wasting your time, and I am aware that I am wasting it; how could it be otherwise? Many others have spoken about this. Tess Gallagher: “I sit in the motel room, a place of much passage and no record, and feel I have made an important assault on the Great Nothing.” Gertrude Stein: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” Mary Oppen: “When Heidegger speaks of boredom he allies it very closely with that moment of awe in which one’s mind begins to reach beyond. And that is a poetic moment, a moment in which a poem might well have been written.” 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.
We must waste what little time we can with all our heart. What a thought! To to spend one’s time to no discernible purpose is a heresy in our hyperactive age, but an indiscernible purpose is not the same as no purpose at all. Ruefle ties this to writing:
I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said when I wanted to say”; but now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.
I love that line: not yet heard what I’ve been listening to. We do a lot of listening, don’t we? To the news, to Twitter, the chatter of Facebook. But how much do we really hear? I’ve been reflecting on my podcast listening habits lately. When I first discovered the medium, podcasts seemed like a great way to reclaim wasted time. Whether driving or doing dishes (even, dangerously for a while, in the shower), I could put my time to work and learn about science, history, and philosophy. The medium flourished, giving me more fascinating audio programs than I could handle and sending me on a crusade against wasted time. The short walk to the store, a few minutes in the bathroom, the dozen minutes between getting into bed and falling asleep: all were pressed into the service of emptying my growing podcast queue. I’ve never listened to so much, and heard so little. And I don’t even mean the actual sounds of the world I was missing, but even the podcasts themselves. As soon as one would end, I’d queue up the next, never giving my brain time to consider or even commit to memory what I’d just heard. I recall one day when I forced myself to listen to music on my commute, and what a terrible relief it was.
All of this is to say that I think I get Ruefle’s point. Wasted time is like manure. Too much is unseemly, but without enough of it, the mind, perhaps even the soul, grows undernourished.
I enjoyed this passage about how reading, while perhaps a waste of time, is also an extension of time:
We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love—a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is spoken every day into the years of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created…
We are all one question. I love the ambiguity of this statement. Is is that each of us is alone a single question? Or is it that all of us, we the accretion of humanity, are together a single question? It is, of course, both, though in both cases I believe the question is “Why?”
Speaking of what we are:
Here we are, each of us alive and on earth, all alive and on earth. Each of us the envy of every dead man, woman, and child. And—why not?—the envy of each impatient unborn unsexed entity, waiting in the great nebula to take its turn on earth. How lucky we are! Yet none of us actually feeling lucky. None of us actually feeling the undeniable fact of the Now. No, each one feeling like a wretched piece of trash not even worth the tossing out, each one feeling envy, greed, boredom, anger, annoyance, conflict, and insecurity. That’s the beginning of a lecture called “Quiet Lemons,” but I never could find its subject.
I laughed out loud upon reading that last sentence, and it wasn’t the only time. But while Ruefle has a delightful sense of humor, she’s also capable of the exceptional gravity of a poet. This line, for instance, knocked the wind right out of me:
I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.
A reminder not just that one day I’ll perish from the earth, but that, should I be lucky enough to live to a decent age, I’ll have grieved for the world I was born into long before departing the one it will have become.
It too me much too long to get through Madness, Rack, and Honey, but I am so glad I took the time.