Applying Mary Ruefle’s Philosophy to Classroom Lessons


If I were to choose two highlights from Mary Ruefle’s reading on Thursday, April 20th, they would be: her definition of poetry as “a configuration of linguistic energy,” and that she read work that she fished out of the garbage with an umbrella on a dumpster-diving trip, a task she completed to find text. The segment she read came from a stack of someone’s old high school homework. Ruefle later mentioned that she considers herself a collector of text, which seems like it defines her work as well. Her book of erasures, A Little White Shadow, uses a “forgotten nineteenth-century book” to create new poems. Using white-out as her erasing technique, the old, yellow pages of the original text are contrasted with the large white blocks on each page. The white-out lines stop at a word that remains and the words dance down the page because of space created by the erasure.  

While I did not have A Little White Shadow to show my students when I taught an erasure lesson at Safford Middle School, I felt that the ideas that Ruefle discussed during her reading were pertinent to my lesson and that her book of erasures represents her method. Erasure takes language that is already configured and redistributes the form and energy. If a poem needs just language, form, and energy, then that gives writers the freedom to explore and not worry about other stereotypical “requirements” of poetry, something my students, who were often concerned about doing or writing the wrong thing, truly benefited from. My students also struggled with finding the right language to express their thoughts. Erasure seemed to work well because it provided them with a plethora of words that were at their disposal.  

I did bring in examples. The first, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, features rectangular cut-outs within the text, allowing the reader to see through the book, creating ambiguity of the order in which to read the text. The second, Tom Phillips’ A Humument, weaves obstruction of text with drawings. The students were excited by the lesson and by the books. It was the crossing out, cutting out, obstructing, and erasing--or, in other words, the destruction--that appealed to them first. But as the students worked, they moved past just crossing out. They started to make bits of narrative from what they had and coherent sentences that were wonderfully imaginative. From their destruction, they were able to begin to create. 

Instead of providing random text or newspapers, I chose to give the students published poems. Part of my objective was to get the students to think of the poem as a non-precious object. By giving them the opportunity to cross out words and lines from published poems, I wanted them to see that even poems can be destroyed to loosen the pressure surrounding writing. Once they completed their erasures, I had the students copy their poems onto a separate sheet of paper, and rotate them within their small table groups. The students still had a copy of the original poem they made, but were able to further understand the idea of the poem as a non-precious object because their classmates crossed out and made another erasure from an erasure poem. I wanted them to see that their poems could be treated the same way as published ones. I wanted them to see that they could be inspired by what they read and encounter on a daily basis to start their creating. I wanted them to understand that a poem is just language, which can come from anywhere—a poem or a garbage bin—and can be configured in many ways, as became clear by the variety of ways that students crossed-out work, proof that they are all adding their own energy to their selection of words. Or, in other words, I wanted my students to leave with Mary Ruefle’s definition of a poem: that it is just “a configuration of linguistic energy.”