You have said before that within each poem lies another, smaller poem. What do you mean by that? And what is the relationship between the two poems?

Well, plenty of people would say that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem! But that’s not the way I look at things. Years of making erasures has led me to another view. One thing erasure work has taught me is that no matter how much you hone something down, you can’t lose the essence of what was there in the first place. A metaphor I might use to talk about this is the metaphor of a clay; within each day are hours, smaller units of time, and every day has some special hour that seems to be a distillation of the day. One hour which can be viewed as representative of the day. The relationship between these two is that of the part to the whole, and in all things we have no way of ever really knowing the Whole, but we can know a part of it, and that part has to suffice. I am definitely now talking about the universe and individual lives within it, and also of the sense that every poem is just a part of something, call it a life, the poem is just one little stone, no one can see the configuration all the stones make together, but on any given day, one stone will have to suffice. For the Whole. Oh, I am talking about fractals! I promised myself I wouldn’t do that! But when you think of it, in terms of fractals, those who think that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem, are right—the part and the Whole in the end are the same. But I am one who is inclined to chip away. You know what I love? I love haiku. It is impossible to find within them another, smaller poem. But in every novel there is a short story, and in every story a poem, and in every poem a haiku. And in every haiku there is a moment that stands for all of time.

But to answer your question directly, in a workshop when I say there is in a poem another, smaller poem, I am simply finding a pleasant, encouraging way to ask you to please make some more cuts!


When I first saw you give a reading, you read “that letter” from James Wright’s Selected Letters. (I am referring to the letter written to Susan Gardner on December 23, 1964.) Every other time I have seen you read, you insist on reading something someone else wrote. Why do you do that?

I like to read the writings of other people for several reasons. One is because they are so much better than my own! Another is because we simply do not have enough poetry readings of the great poems written by the great masters of the past, those who have died. Because of this, I once decided to give a “lecture” which consisted of nothing but me reading the poems of the dead for three-quarters of an hour. I read everything from Keats to Berryman to Desnos to Issa to Mew and back again. And it was a complete failure. My trusted friends and colleagues all agreed, we talked about it later—it was a failure. And we wondered why. Everyone had a different theory. To this day I don’t know why. Someone said it was because there was no “arc” but I’ve never been much invested in arcs. I don’t think that’s why. I think it’s because when we attend something called a lecture, we are looking for something, and of course poetry is just plain looking. And all these great poets, the only ones who can really teach us anything, I don’t think at that moment the students felt they were learning anything, and though that was my whole point—looking, not looking for—that was the lesson, the whole thing imploded in some terrible sad way, which broke my heart. It’s really hard to give a lesson about unlearning, because it’s such a contradiction in terms. It may well be impossible. On a brighter note, once I delivered, word by word, John Cage’s famous “Lecture on Nothing” and it was a great success. Cage was able to do it in his own way, using his own words, and that is really something. Anyway, when I read all those great poems from the past, I only read about a quarter of the ones I had chosen—there wasn’t enough time for them all—and I hope one day to read the rest, to just stand up and try again. And fail again. And keep failing. And keep having my heart broken. And this has everything to do with audience—finding the audience who is receptive to poetry rather than endless commentary on it. And yet I feel tenderness towards young people who are searching, who are seeking, who are looking for rather than looking, because I once was young myself, and doing just that, and I see now it is the beginning of the path that leads to looking.

On another note, lately I have taken to reading at readings a letter written by my great aunt in 1978, when she was 92 and senile. She wasn’t a literary person in the least, she was just an ordinary woman, yet remarkable in her day—she was born in the nineteenth century—insofar as she never married and held a job her whole life and thereby earned enough money to send two of her nephews (one of them my father) to college when they otherwise could not have afforded it. To contribute to the education of two children who are not your own—that strikes me as something.

It’s a quotidian, rambling letter about the weather and loneliness and stuff like that, but in it she repeatedly mentions writing—by which she means letter-writing, the only form of writing that ever occurred to her—as something essential to her life. I read this letter because I never sufficiently appreciated her while she was alive—I was too young and preoccupied—and because she clearly “got” something essential about writing, writing in any form, and because letter-writing is actually secretly perhaps my favorite form of writing, and it is near extinction. And because I want to give her an audience. This is a quote from her letter, “Seems to me I did just write to you folks but I will mail this anyway. I get a thrill just sitting writing a letter, so will just keep it up.” Which is exactly why, once having written a poem, we sit and write another. Which is why audience is of no import.


To read this entire extensive interview with Mary Ruefle, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .