The Poetics of Protest and Prayer: Mary Ruefle on the Different Powers of the Voice Raised and the Voice Lowered

“Cries and whispers. A bang or a whimper. Whatever the case, if we want to be heard, we must raise our voice, or lower it.”


“The human race has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised against injustice, ignorance, and lust, the inquisition yet would serve the law,” Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her prescient 1914 anthem against silence. To raise one’s voice is indeed a central responsibility of being human — we have a duty to ourselves and others, as Audre Lorde insisted, to break our silences.

And yet the lacuna between silence and speech is colored by innumerable nuances, which we dull or altogether lose when we mistake the two extremes for the whole spectrum. Thoreau knew this when he observed that “there are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout.”

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A century and a half later, the poet Mary Ruefle picks up the subtleties of Thoreau’s thread in one of her “Twenty-One Short Lectures,” found in her magnificent prose collection Madness, Rack, and Honey (public library), which also gave us Ruefle’s masterpiece Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.

Although she is writing about the art of poetry, her central point radiates outwardly into the broadest art of living. In a sentiment evocative of Simone Weil’s memorable assertion that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” Ruefle writes:

James Fenton, in An Introduction to English Poetry, puts forth the idea that poetry happens when one raises their voice. I agree, but I also believe that poetry happens when one lowers their voice. In the first instance, the raised voice, we have the street hawkers, the singers, the storytellers, the priests — anyone who wants to be heard over the din — but in the second we include the tellers of secrets, the lovers, the password keepers — all those who want to be heard beneath the din, not by the din itself but by one singular other who is part of the din, as when in the middle of a concert we lean to the person next to us and cup our hand around our mouth, forming a private amphitheater, a concert within a concert, connecting ourselves to one the way the concert is connecting itself to everyone.

[…]

Cries and whispers. A bang or a whimper. Whatever the case, if we want to be heard, we must raise our voice, or lower it.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic Madness, Rack, and Honey with Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication.


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