ISSUE 8 FEATURE
from "Twenty-Two short lectures"
WHY ALL OUR LITERARY PURSUITS ARE USELESS
Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects. English is spoken by only five percent 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 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 ON ART
Sometimes I wonder if art exists at all. I think this whenever I consider that all art is, in some way, a desire to make something, an artifact or performance, that in the end leaves the artist feeling that they are always compelled to try their hand at another attempt, one that will be as fated to failure as the last. Perhaps art does not exist so much as it persists, as a desire or 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 activity, can this other activity be called art? I am thinking of all the moments of change and decision lost forever from the final form. In the 1960s someone made a documentary film of Picasso drawing—I think it was for a live television audience, and I saw it a few years ago; I don’t remember its name, but I have never forgotten the experience of watching him in the act of making, something rarely ever caught, in this instance admittedly charged with self-consciousness, but still—he would draw a few lines or loops and I would try to guess what they would become—a woman’s face would appear, but what happened in the succeeding moments became unfathomable: the woman’s face became a rooster and the rooster became a mountain and at some point no one on earth could have guessed what the final image would be. My point is that the act of making art bears no resemblance to the final artifact. There is a gulf between the two. You don’t see it when you are 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 fleeting moments of compulsive making.
SHORT LECTURE WRITTEN BY A TEN YEAR OLD
Today at school I wrote an essay about Flag Day which was so beautiful, ever so beautiful—I even used words without knowing what they meant. –Clarice Lispector, “Flying The Flag”
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 the 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 enfolded itself slowly, over millenia. A good question might be: why didn’t the brain just get bigger? Well, it did. It got bigger and the hipbones of women got bigger to accommodate the new size of the bigger brain in the bigger skull passing through the birth canal. Finally, though, this solution reached the point where there would be skeletal instability if it went on much longer, and the species had to devise a way for the brain to keep growing without physically enlarging itself. After all that endless folding came a time when the brain had to keep growing without there being any more space inside the skull. And writing and reading evolved. Writing and reading are 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 voilà—a bit of your brain gets carried outside of itself. Eventually—more millennia—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 POETRY BY VAN MORRISON
It’s quite simple: all you have to do is rave. Rave on. Pass dead bodies over your head; you are, after all, in the pit of life. Rave, raved, raving, raves: to speak wildly, irrationally, or incoherently; to roar, rage. (Please keep in mind the short lecture you have just heard on prayer; sometimes the lower register accomplishes what the higher register seeks to accomplish.) To speak with wild enthusiasm; to utter in a frenzied manner; to talk wildly as in a delirium of water, wind, storm; to make a wild and furious sound, to rage, to utter as if in madness, like King Lear; an act of appraisal, a review of something such as a play, which, according to Plato and Shakespeare, is a life.
Mary Ruefle is an American poet and writer. She has written eleven books of poetry, most recently Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013). The recipient of numerous honors, she lives in Bennington, Vermont, and teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College.