The full essay appears here.
One might be misled by the seeming operative terms of the lecture: sincerity and irreverence. However, there’s no dualistic, either/or thinking here. Rather than preferring one to the other, or even presenting an even-handed view of their respective strengths and shortcomings, Ruefle shows how their inherent antagonism creates not a sum of the two, but something other:
To those who think poetry is dependent on the past: it isn’t. It is dependent on the present, the moment of the poem’s making, the mysterious presence of its absence (that pressure in the head), and after the artifact of the poem has been made it becomes, rather quickly, a thing of the past, and so readers and critics will treat it as a past event—the one thing the poem was unaware of, and didn’t want to be—and yet became, was becoming!
John Dewey once described the world as a “moving, unbalanced balance of things” and this interplay of resolve and doubt, sincerity and irreverence, past and present, stasis and change is central to Ruefle’s poetics. Such antimonies name nothing more than abstracted moments of a larger “becoming.” It’s the moving—balance, its loss, its recovery, etc—that matters.
Like the alchemist, the poet discovers that the goal is not changing lead into gold, or making something bad, better, but transformation in itself. Each word, line, poem edges toward an emergent, as-of-yet unnamed “something evermore about to be.”