Prose, Poetry, and the Hunt
This week I ran across an interview of Mary Ruefle by Caitlin Youngquist published December 12, 2016, in The Paris Review. The article was titled, Becoming Invisible. www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/12/12/becoming-invisible-an-interview-with-mary-ruefle/
I was actually fascinated with a number of things said. Ruefle's distinction between poetry and prose was easily spelled out. She says, "My interest in drawing lines between genres and coming up with very clear definitions for these things is very … well, if I’m being frank, I just don’t have enough time left on this earth to spend doing that. So for me, if I write something and it’s lineated, it’s poetry. If it’s not lineated, it’s prose. I read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and I love them all. I can’t sluice them anymore than I can sluice my love of open fields and deep woods."
It's such an easy distinction, one that I've no doubt many scholars of writing and poetry have spent hours discussing. And aimless endeavor. Possibly. Ruefle's tune is, why bother to spend time "naming." I love the simplicity of it.
What I find more intriguing though is how she talks about her emotional relationship with prose vs. poetry. She feels so nervous, she says, when writing prose, because she KNOWS people will read it. Remarkably, she says, "If I’m writing a poem, it never occurs to me that somebody is going to read it." This she attributes to public vs. private language. It's not a distinction that has ever occurred to me. She states, "It’s different because prose is a public language and poetry is a private language, and every person on the planet who is fortunate enough to be able to speak, speaks in sentences—fragments, too, but often full sentences. The standards for public discourse are very different from poetry."
She goes on to talk about her belief that poems ARE her inner life. When she writes a poem, she's writing for herself, which is how she circles back to the idea of Becoming Invisible, something she says happens as we age (particularly for women). I think it's worth quoting another section of this interview:
Men don’t become invisible in the same way. There’s a difference in power between men and women, and I know I’m using an archaic formula but I do belong to another century. For the longest time, male power was posited in the accumulation of wealth or experience, and experience was something every man could have. And a woman’s power was always posited on physical attractiveness, the ability to have children. So as a man ages, he gains power, and as a woman ages, she loses it, or feels as though she does. If you go back to this paradox, which I understand people may find antiquated, you find there are still shards and shreds of it everywhere.
One of my mentors began the chit-chat pre-class one evening by saying she's decided that she no longer cares about how others perceive her appearance. It's a startling statement at first, especially given the flash and shine that blinds us everywhere we go. I have to agree with Ruefle--poetry is our inner life, or at least my inner life, but unlike Ruefle, putting my poetry out there DOES make me nervous at times. And I do find it is a way NOT to be invisible in one way. Ruefle would have us believe that our inner life is what we become when the body is no more, possibly not in the sense of death but in importance. A kind of eternal life, I guess. Poetry is, poetry reveals, the inner life. Without being personal or revelatory in the sense of telling secrets.
In a prose piece that appeared in Poetry Magazine, Ruefle quotes Lorca: "The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart."
The contrast in thought is striking. Is writing a poem a mere tinkering with and unraveling a bit of our inner life, neither frightening nor wholly public, or is it as Lorca states, the "hunt" that takes us to the "remotest of forests" stirring dread in our hearts.
I think I land somewhere in between. I do have a sense of dread often about the "hunt" that begins a poem, initial dread, but as the poem unspools when I enter the words, the lines, the thinking self, the"younger" more self-conscious self, grows less fearful, and the inner self plops itself down on the page and says, "Here I am." And sometimes I am content in knowing that maybe someone will read it, like it, and maybe not.
More by and about Mary Ruefle:
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