Annual Elizabeth Bishop lecture features award-winning poet Mary Ruefle

Insofar as I’ve experienced it, college combines two types of genuine learning: either people won’t tell you what you’re supposed to know so you have to get it yourself, or you learn from people older than you and all you can do is bow down and be thankful. Mary Ruefle’s lecture on Wednesday typified the latter. As Bard Writer in Residence Jenny Offill worded it to me in an email, “Whenever I am having trouble writing (which is often) I reread Mary Ruefle. Her work is always surprising, funny and beautifully strange. It jumpstarts the writing part of my brain again. It was a thrill to finally hear her read in person.”

Professor of English Paul Kane, along with two donors, Priscilla H. Rockwell and H.P. Davis Rockwell, established the Elizabeth Bishop reading series in the spring of 1996 to celebrate, as Kane described in an email correspondence, “Vassar’s distinguished and on-going role in the history of American poetry.” Poet Mary Ruefle gave this year’s lecture on Sept. 29 in the Spitzer Auditorium. Ruefle has authored many books, including “Dunce,” “My Private Property,”  “Trances of the Blast” and “Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures” (Wave Books). Ruefle was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, longlisted for the National Book and the National Book Critics’ Circle Awards and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She is the poet laureate of Vermont, and the recipient of many honors, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Whiting Award. 

Every time I’ve heard her read (which is only twice), I’ve wished I had a photographic memory, but for listening, so I could remember each linguistic pairing—all the marvelous words that transform diners into spaceships, injecting normal life with these minor flourishes of strangeness and beauty through deliberate language.

On Monday afternoon, I spoke to her over the phone. She was warm and direct, and possessed a wonderful candor. When I asked Ruefle what Elizabeth Bishop meant to her as a writer, she told me that she didn’t know any American poet who didn’t love her. “And that’s saying a lot because American poetry is all over the place,” Ruefle remarked. When I asked if there was anything or anyone that had particularly influenced her writing, she added, “I cannot name names individually; everything I’ve ever read that I’ve loved influences me…If you read my work you would not see a shred of Elizabeth Bishop in it but that’s okay. We should be influenced by what we love.”

Kane, however, sees the influence in Ruefle’s writing. “Like Bishop, Mary Ruefle can write in a deceptively simple, even colloquial voice, while underneath there are darker stirrings that even her humor doesn’t quite mask … She has a keen sense of poetic form, so crucial when writing free verse.”

Ruefle read from both her prose and poetry. Her poem “Patience” mused about the anticipation of spring; the kind of waiting we do here on the East Coast, for the landscape to look as if it’s had an erection, as if champagne has been poured over the bushes and it’s all floral and fabulous, and it only lasts two days. Ruefle turned this external observation of her surroundings into interesting, personal characters, sharing with the audience, “The dogs straining at leashes in search of her/ In May, she straightens up/ Shortcuts through the hotel lobby/ Losing her scarf which was strangling her.” One poem described things to do when you are bored. She suggested to the audience that we write some of these things down and save them for rainy days when we are stuck in our dorm rooms. She read aloud, “Invent a new use for a baby; Imagine for a moment that George Washington has asked you for a loan; Prove to others that eating paste does no harm.” Another thing I liked about this reading: Everyone laughed a lot. 

Ruefle told us that she was once part of her friend’s art installation in Saratoga Springs, where she sat in a gallery for hours, writing on a typewriter. She decided to write a letter to Elizabeth Bishop. “Dear Elizabeth,/Margot, whom you’ve never met, says that my outfit is one you would not be caught dead in. But, as you are dead, I am of the surest that you would be happy to be seen alive in it,” Ruefle read aloud to the crowd. She filled Bishop in on the things that have changed since her time—poetry not being among them. Ruefle also had the difficult task of telling Bishop that her letters had been published, writing: “I don’t know who’s to blame—certainly none of your friends.”

In the Q&A portion of the talk, a student asked if Ruefle had advice for young poets. Ruefle explained that we should read, write, be patient and pay no attention to what other people think of our interior lives because we should be free to write creatively about that. When I asked her what she loves about poetry, she told me, “It stops time. I like…the feeling of time being stopped—it’s always an illusion. But it’s a welcome illusion that we need.” We spoke about the joy of being young and curious and the beauty of this stage of life, especially because it does not last forever. We talked about how young people think they are the center of the universe, and how when the high school in Ruefle’s town gets out, the kids just walk in the middle of the street. Adults and cars have no existence for them. “And the fact that they could care less as they walk around the streets at odd angles is a beautiful thing,” she expressed. “It’s also very frustrating.”

I asked her whether she had any advice for college students, and she told me, “Yes I do. I’m full of it. I could write a book about it.” The most important thing, she said, is to be patient, to let your life unfold at its own pace. “You have no idea what life has in store for you; you think you can imagine, but you can’t.” Yet as Reufle mentioned many times Wednesday night, her favorite rock ’n roll line has always been: “Take my advice, and throw it away.”

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