28 Short Lectures: Mary Ruefle | Woodberry Poetry Room



why all our literary pursuits are useless 85% of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects English is spoken by only 5% of the world's population why there may be hope one of the greatest stories ever written is the story of a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle short lecture on Shakespeare they say there are no known facts about Shakespeare because if it were his pen name as many believed then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby I knew absolutely nothing he couldn't even speak short lecture on Socrates I am forever telling my students I know nothing about poetry and they never believe me I do not know what my poems are about except on rare occasions and I never know what they mean I have met and spoken to many poets who feel the same way and one among them once put it this way the difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing I couldn't put it any better if I tried but considered this when someone admits they know nothing their words go back to the very beginnings of Western civilization palace Attica Greece a civilization you may not give a fig about but one that flourished and existed for better and for worse and one that continues to shape and influence the country you are living in today the foundations of this ancient civilization rise up and hover beneath anyone who says they know nothing for those words belong to Socrates the teacher of Plato Plato his student being the distillation of Western civilization in a single human body Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing it is his basic premise one from which all his other thoughts come and here is the story behind it the Oracle at Delphi a shrine of prophecy said that no man living was wiser than socrates Socrates was a philosopher and wanted to test the statement in order to prove it true or false first he went to the politicians this was in Athens the first democracy in the Western world around 430 BC Albi at one that excluded slaves and women well he went to the politicians because they had been elected presumably on the merit of their wisdom Socrates soon found out they knew nothing but thought they knew everything he said he supposed therefore he was wiser than they were since at least he knew in you nothing and then he went to the poets to see how wise they were for there were many wise things in their writings and the people marveled over them and among the poets he discovered an interesting thing interesting to us that is since we are poets he found out that the poets did not compose out of wisdom but out of inspiration and they were more like prophets who said many fine things but did not themselves understand any of it but the poets thought they were wise on account of all their poetry so he mixed them too then Socrates went to the craftsmen the men who made boats and sandals and pots keep in mind that today we believe poets to be craftsmen too and he found that indeed they knew many things about making boats and sandals and pots and upon this knowledge assumed they were wise but in reality their wisdom was directly tied to the specific skill they possessed and could not be carried outside it and so Socrates concluded that what the Oracle at Delphi meant was not that Socrates was wise but that at least he knew he knew nothing and now I have told you something about Socrates and I suspect I have made you happy for a moment ago you knew nothing and now you know something short lecture in the form of a diatribe addressed to students and in brief part to Oprah Winfrey whom I eventually learned took my advice though even then I would not recant my can I have to apologize before I read this lecture for its angry tone it was written in front of the television on the very afternoon she spoke some rather infinite infamous words so you want to write a book you must eat one first first you must a book and be buried under an avalanche of books you must live with one and not be the first to blink you must build a tower of books on the North Pole where there are no books and they do not matter and the questionable nature of the book Enterprise in general is brought to bear on the ridiculous hat you have placed on the earth Speight learn to walk like a book which is oxymoronic because books despise all upright activity and vastly prefer to be prone flat on their backs like a whore get used to it and if a few dead men and women have become your closest friends be willing to understand that necrophilia the next time you hear it on the evening news is your chosen lot and that in this world even a postal worker will look at your parcel and say I didn't think anyone read anymore and as ordained by federal law cross out the word books and book raped as you lover have so carefully written sending the dead to yourself and stamped the parcel media mail and that in this world even a magnificent woman intelligent and sensitive empowered and empowering idolized and obeyed by millions will stand in front of those millions and tell them her book series has ended because of quote it is getting harder and harder to find a good book which is just about the stupidest most destruction destructive long thing I have ever heard anyone say turn to the dead bitch turn to the loving arms of the dead that are full of roses even as their necks hang broken over the granite ledge so you want to write a book first you have to eat one no that is not enough in the end you must starve yourself for one you must save everything for the dead as they fed you you must feed them if you do not feed them how will they live you are the dead but if you don't read you live among the living god bless you and you will never write a book short lecture on the dead I never believed for a moment and that anyone ever learned a single thing about poetry from hearing lecture don't misunderstand me lectures are important insofar as they teach us how to talk about poems but never do they teach us how to write them nothing does except sometimes the dead why is that I wondered when poetry is alive and well insofar as plenty of still beating hearts or writing it and I came to believe call me delusional that no living poet nun could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing at least none I have talked to and I've talked quite a few John Ashbery and Billy Collins can't teach you a thing for the simple fact that they are living why is that I wondered I mean I really wondered I think it is because poets are people no matter what camp they sleep in who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about and that would be death they talked to the dead and have a rapport with the dead and they write about death as if they have done it which is utterly ridiculous because they are not dead and never have been and cannot teach us a single thing about death and being dead and yet and here's the really weird thing the minute they become dead they can teach us everything why why is that I think it's because the minute they are dead all of their poems about death become poems about being alive and we are alive and can be taught something about that I mean it John Ashbery or Billy Collins can teach you nothing about poetry today September 19 2013 but if one of them were to die tomorrow he could teach you something about poetry on September 20th 2013 poets are dead people talking about being alive it's that simple people who are alive are not really people because they haven't died but people who have been alive and then died are the whole kind of people that we want to be our teachers I can't really explain it being alive in law short lecture in the form of a course description my idea for a class is you just sit in the classroom and read aloud until everyone is smiling and then you look around and if someone is not smiling you ask them why and then you keep reading it may take many different books until they start smiling too short lecture a short lecture occurring in the middle of a poem I heard the owl last night I thought you were calling me from out of my sleep to come play in the dream of dreams no one reads poetry until they die and then no one understands it we picnicked over this at the mouth of the waterfall we opened our baskets and looked at the plants inside soon you had a leaf in your teeth and said to me so what short lecture on prayer James Fenton in an introduction to English poetry puts forth the idea that poetry happens when one raises their voice I agree but I also believe that poetry happens when one lowers their voice in the first instance the raised voice we have street hawkers singers the storytellers the priests anyone who wants to be heard over the din but in the second we include the tellers of Secrets the lovers the password keepers all those who want to be heard beneath the din not by the din itself but by one singular other who is part of the dim as when in the middle of a concert we lean to the person next to us and cup our hand around our mouth forming a private amphitheater a concert within a concert connecting ourselves to one the way the concert is connecting itself to everyone and I was thinking about prayer and those who must raise their voice in order to be heard in their emergency and desperation Oh Lord out of all those who are vying for your attention at this moment please hear my prayer and I think actually those raised prayers are direct directed toward the gods in the plural which would be ad in the din of gods caretakers of all the multiple things that can happen to us but the prayer of the lowered register no longer has a chance of being heard has abandoned that chance given up we say it retains the desire to speak and I think these are the prayers addressed to God who has become a singular absence there is no one in the next seat the ether becomes an ear cries and whispers a bang or a whimper whatever the case if we want to be heard we must raise our voice or lower it short lecture on your own happiness you know how to write poetry it is all you need to be happy but you will not be happy you will be miserable thinking you need so many other things and in years and years of misery you have only one thing as poets to look forward to the day you will not want what you haven't got the thing you have got is poetry let nothing cheat steal or deflect you from it even poetry itself and why are you sitting there you should have fled before I finished the first sentence short lecture on voice hello hi hail to the blitz spirit out of the murderous innocence of the sea night night when students are searching for their voice they are searching for poetry when they find their voice they will have found poetry and when they find poetry they will live to regret it short lecture on art sometimes I wonder if art exists at all I think this whenever I consider that all art is in some way the desire to make something an artifact or performance or display of some kind that in the end leaves the artist feeling they have not quite wholly done what they set out to do in the sense they are always compelled to have another go to try their hand at another attempt one that will be as fated to failure as the last perhaps art does not exist as much as it persists in this compulsion and everything we call art is simply a sign of this persistence these ongoing active attempts common to all artists great and small if all the results the things you go to see or hear are little more than crude signs of this other activity can this other activity be called art I'm thinking of all the moments of change indecision lost forever in the final form in 1955 Omri Shores plazo made a documentary film called the mystery of Picasso a film that the French government eventually declared a national treasure using inks that bled through the paper Picasso rapidly created fanciful drawings that Clouseau was able to film from the reverse side capturing their creation in real time I saw the film a few years ago and I have never forgotten the experience of watching so in the act of making he would draw a few lines or loops and I would try to guess what they would become and at first it was easy I would guess a woman's face and a woman's face would appear but what happened in the succeeding moments became unfathomable the face became a rooster the rooster became a boat that became a train that became a mountain and at some point no one on earth not even Picasso himself could ever guess what the final image would be my point is that the act of making bears no resemblance to the final artifact there's a gulf between the two you don't see the first when you're standing in a museum at a concert or reading a book it doesn't exist in anything you ever actually see yet it persists every minute all over the world in the fleeting moments of actual making short lecture on the nature of things you think the vase has become a hat and it has not my body has become an upside-down flower short lecture on translation I asked my friend the translator what was the first known act of translation in the history of mankind his answer was probably something into or out of Egyptian I thought about this for a while and ventured a certainty no I said it was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry and had to decide in an instant what it meant short lecture written by a ten-year-old today at school I wrote an essay about Flag Day which was so beautiful but ever so beautiful for I even use words without really knowing what they meant a short lecture on a discovery I know many of the world over know this but one afternoon at 3:46 p.m. I discovered it for myself the word art can only be turned into the words tar and raft short lecture on hypocrisy I despise people who talk on their cell phones while they are driving when someone calls me I always ask if they are in their car and if they say yes I hang up I have joined an organization whose sole purpose is to have cell phone usage and automobiles banned in each of the 50 states as soon as possible in one fell swoop such bans are currently under state jurisdiction and not federally regulated as they should be I am a hypocrite every poem I've ever written has been written in my head while driving the lines going round and round repeatedly in a loop of frenzied activity that does not stop until I reach a piece of paper twice I had been stopped by authorities for traffic infractions I was unaware of it is clear I could kill someone by writing a poem every creative act is an act of hypocrisy and violence you may have to think about it for a while but I am sure you can discover your own short lecture on lying in this lecture I only lie three times this is one of them short lecture enacting the inner life of a poet short lecture on a problem every great poem has a problem the problem of itself of how it got stuck in space how it got wedged in this world the problem of being in the first place this is not a problem one wants to eradicate this is a problem one wants to preserve and honor even as it eternally frustrates one unsolvable as it is short lecture on a second problem I think poetry is merely a stage in the history of ideas and that it is vanity to assume it represents the finest most final way for men and women to express themselves on the other hand I don't believe in progress how to reconcile these two is my problem short lecture on evolution the development of the human brain is a fascinating evolution I mean the physical brain the endless folding of the cerebrum and cerebellum in such a small enclosed space as the human skull all that folding is part of an attempt to include as many capacities and possibilities as possible inside the skull the brain in folded itself slowly over millennia a good question might be why didn't the brain just get bigger well it did it got bigger and the hip bones of women got bigger to accommodate the new size of the bigger brain in the bigger skull passing through the birth canal finally though simple enlargement reached the point where there would be skeletal instability if it went on much longer and the species had to devise an alternative so the brain could keep growing after all the endless that endless folding came a time when the brain had to keep growing without there being any more space inside the skull and that's when writing and reading evolved writing and reading our ways the brain can contain itself outside of itself if you can't remember the ingredients you need to make dinner you make a list and voila a bit of your brain gets carried outside of itself eventually more millenia books came into being and the human brain was able to keep expanding a book is a physical expansion of the human brain it is not an object to be treated lightly when you hold a book in your hands you are holding a piece of cerebrum in your hands like st. Denis himself who walked for miles carrying his head in his own two hands after he had been beheaded short lecture on the brain research on the human brain continues to be a last frontier of exploration it's that in outer space the two together representing the outer reaches of human seeking at this time how we are to get along with each other remains of course the most crucial of the inner reaches but as for the outer reaches well friends it's the brain and the stars so much research has been done and reported on that you and I are likely to take for granted certain conclusions that are bound to be knocked down and busted through and reduced to rubble in the future and one of them has to do with creativity and it has become to my mind such a cliche that we must be vigilant and I am talking about the right-brain left-brain cliche the right hemisphere of the brain is the center of musical and artistic creation and the perception of shape and form even the sense of humor the left hemisphere generally controls the ability to read speak and do mathematical problems this past year I found myself to my horror telling a student to write with your right brain revised with your left but writers clearly have the ability to read and speak left brain and also the ability to understand shape and form the fundamental aspects of artistic creation right brain I believe I myself possess both these abilities and I do not jump back and forth between them for me they are the same thing to write a sentence takes an understanding of form I do not possess a shred of mathematical ability left brain the same side that enables me to read and write nor do I possess a shred of musical ability right brain the same side that favors artistic creation and it is a documented fact that many musicians are mathematically inclined and many mathematicians musically inclined and I don't think that a mathematician at the end of the day says to himself time to give the love brain arrest better go pick up my violin the more I think about it the stranger it becomes because I do not think for an instant what you may be thinking now Oh Mary it's a delicate balance and interplay between the two you see I don't think there's anything balanced about artistic creation at all I think it's a lopsided way of being an obsessive and off balance way of perceiving and being in the world I mean most people when they see a baby Fox playing with butterflies don't have to write a poem about it especially a poem where the baby fox winds up dead on the side of the road with butterflies gambling around its splayed intestines but if artistic ability is connected to an understanding of shape and form how can it be so off balance in the first place I mean how can such off-balance people be so obsessed with shape and form how can the idea of balance reside at only one side of a seesaw and this is what troubles me when I think about the notion of right-brain left-brain and every time I use the distinction I'm ashamed because I know it can't help an artist nor can it help the person who can read and speak and God help the one who can do both short lecture on lectures ramakrishna said given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven people would choose a lecture that is remarkably true and remarkably sad and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry here among us this evening short lecture on craft this lecture would a magazine refused to publish this because and I asked they said because it was anti intellectual and stupid that's as far as I'll go to get my benches short lecture on craft by 700 BC the Phoenicians were sailing we know this because there are records we know nothing about the time before records it is not an easy task for men to move on water so difficult a task is it that as recently as 1940 no one believed that men ignorant of the uses of iron were capable of sailing let alone navigating great waters least of all the greatest of all the Pacific Ocean not even professional Mariners believed it but Thor Heyerdahl believed it he believed that human beings ignorant of the uses of iron living on what we now call the North and South American continents were capable of crossing what we now call the Pacific Ocean and settling a number of small mountainous Islands and flat coral reefs we now call Polynesia and so he built a raft modeled on those the ancient Incans used for fishing in local waters a raft made from nine ecuadorian balsa logs lashed together with hemp rope using no nails wire or metal of any kind a raft with an open bamboo cabin and a crude sail that looked like a piece of cloth hung to dry on a pole and on this raft with five companions and a green parrot he set out on April 28 1947 from the coast of Peru to prove that it was possible after 101 days at sea 4,300 miles later they landed on an South Sea Island it had been done there was now at least one record of such a thing what was their secret how did they do it the secret of the kontiki is that it was a very large cork their raft rolled with the waves that's all it could do it couldn't even turn back it was cork and the men who were on it were cork a craft is a boat ship or airplane the most primitive craft is a raft whose very word is embedded inside the word craft great skill is involved in building a craft for it is far from easy to make things that float or fly inside the word raft is the word aft which means located near the rear as opposed to the fore which means located near the front fore and aft means therefore running the length of a craft from front to rear not talk to bottom front to rear fore and aft before and after running a length of time which creates time without time there is no length there is no counting before time before the raft Thor Hydra doll christened Kon Tiki after the Incan Sun God no one thought it was possible but after men knew that in prehistory without records without iron such craft existed men knew the Phoenicians were not alone and men knew too that it was probable 10 such rafts sank to the bottom for every one that sailed those unknown men and women who with the labour of their minds devised a raft and with the labour of their hands tied the logs together and tested the seaworthiness of the raft who taught them their craft there is of course another meaning of the word craft it is the second or third meaning given in any dictionary craft skill in evasion or deception those unknown men and women lashing together a gigantic raft what were they evading whom were they deceiving were they themselves deceived and evading they're deceivers were they evading hunger disaster unspeakable loss we don't know 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 short lecture on the said and the made they say the human is the said what are these people thinking other animals have language and say and sing things this is beyond dispute so they said the human is the maid what were they saying had they never seen a bird's nest a spider's web an anthill watched a wasp but she makes paper layer upon layer in which to live we are not the only ones who speak and make and I once heard WS merwin argue that other animals are capable of thinking figuratively employing metaphor long considered the mark of a human and the example he used was were the Penguins who employ in their mating ritual a pebble which is representative of the future egg and in an instant I was convinced but who can make a thing out of the set who can make a thing out of the set when the said becomes a thing we call it a poem or we call it all of literature but still it's a thing made from the said and these things are among us now from out of the past we have countless examples of the thing made from the said and so the poem still seems to me to be the mark of the human and though it may well perish from the earth around the same time we will there is still among us this thing these things that we have made out of the said I don't want to argue its importance I only want to shiver over its existence and I don't want to offend any architects but a poem seems more human to me than a house for leji honk Libra I did read this book I did live there short lecture on living alone if I were to be taken beyond the ocean into paradise and forbidden to write I would refuse the ocean and paradise and what were they anyway sprigs of grass things of blue for a long time I wanted to use words then I didn't it is no different than not living alone short lecture on poetry by Van Morrison it's quite simple all you have to do is rave rave on past dead bodies over your head you are after all in the pen of life rave rave draping grapes to speak wildly irrationally or incoherent roar rage please keep in mind this short lecture you just heard on prayer sometimes the lowered register accomplishes what the higher register seeks to accomplish she speak with wild enthusiasm to utter in a frenzied manner to talk loudly as in a delirium of water we storm to make a wild and furious sound to rage to utter as if in madness light King Lear in a verbal appraisal a review of Revlon off such as a play which according to Plato and shaker near the wigs of bitches on he's alive on dark dank pools rev on dinosaur the Industrial Revolution and parasitism louder von dieser Riven well with the nose-down of wet grass rayvon fill the senses are nature's bright great shitty paths rev oh no mark I am real von coddled Gibran Oh with swine sweet wine we drink at the celebration of the hill we will drink the wine and break the holy bread rayvon let America Maya Marley Revlon mr. Yates ribbed wonder through thy holy Rosie cross grieve on down through theosophy in the cold dawn Ramon through the writing of inflation reform career phone Ranma Ranma John Donne fool to the width Avengers are you're the boss Russia and the atomic in you Blair Oh I've been happy to answer any questions wonderful thing to have no questions truly wonderful thing to have no questions in life it very rarely happens let's take advantage of thank you so much for thing

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