William Ruleman: Profane and Sacred Love, Feather Books, 2002 and reprint 2014

by James Sale

Having read some excellent poetry by William Ruleman on the pages of the SCP I determined to buy a collection so that I could take a bigger view of his work. I mention this because it seems one of the valuable services that the SCP offers its readers: we can be sure of finding real formalist poets and thus be able to get more deeply into their work. Indeed, I note on the acknowledgements’ page of Profane and Sacred Love (PSL) that one or more of Ruleman’s poems have appeared in the UK magazine, Tears in the Fence, whose editor I personally know, to which I used to subscribe in my greener days, and which is based in the same county of England, Dorset, as I; in short, is metaphorically down the road from me (and in American terms is next door)! But I would hardly call Tears in the Fence a formalist or classical poetry publication, but by and large rather a purveyor of free verse; so I probably would not have picked up the ‘Trojan’ contributions of Ruleman even if I had read him in that magazine. Our expectations of what’s there can actually conceal from us what is there, and so blind us to genuine merit.

PSL is a collection of well over 100 poems, which is very substantial. Its title attracted me as it represents a central dichotomy between Eros and Agape, a topic of great interest. And the dichotomy seems to reflect the inner psyche of the author himself who, on the one hand in poems such as ‘In Debt to my Wife and Daughter’, ‘To An Only Daughter’, or ‘Volta’ seems to be a happily married man and father of longstanding, and who is conscious of having made the right choices; and on the other, in poems such as ‘Petrarchan on Women in Love’, ‘A Modern Madrigal or Good Question’, seems if not tormented by the roads not taken, then preoccupied by the red brick road, and the sirens of the flesh who always call, beckon, and seduce.

The poems are divided into five unequal sections: Love and Lust in the Western World; Künstlerleben, Künstlerwerke; Sounds from a Sickly Corporate Culture; A Modern Ecstasy; and On Mortality and Beyond. But the divisions, whilst useful, are not water-tight, and the poet invites us to read across these divisions. For example, poems ‘Denial’ and ‘Denial II’ are both found in Sounds from a Sickly Corporate Culture, whereas ‘Denial III’ comes round again in A Modern Ecstasy. Or, we find ‘Keats in a Capsule’ under Künstlerleben, Künstlerwerke and “‘To Autumn” Re-Told’ appears in A Modern Ecstasy, and Keats more generally elsewhere too in spirit. In fact, Ruleman, lightly but definitively, reveals massive learning and profound erudition as he ranges across huge swathes of European literature and art, whilst at the same time indicting our contemporary culture and its facile mores. Perhaps most tellingly is his dissection of the corporate culture that is so much one of the big American contributions to the world order. In this latter case, what gives him bite, I feel, is a personal sense of injury: in poems like ‘The HR Director from Hell’, ‘One Yes Man’s Confession’, ‘The Informers’ and most of all in the unusual dedication to the section’s title itself – (‘For all whose work goes under-recognised, under-valued’) – we sense, but do not know for certain, the bitterness that unjust rejections experienced by Ruleman throughout his long professional career may have engendered; ‘injured merit’, certainly.

This, then, is a brilliant collection, full of wonderful things, and possibly something good for everybody. If you like Rilke, which candidly I am not so keen on, then there are plenty of Rilke translations and German inspired poems; if you like Shakespeare (or Keats – both of whom I love), then this book is for you; if you like England, and I suspect Ruleman is a committed Anglophile (what else accounts for a poem on Inspector Morse?), then get this; if you like mythology, there’s plenty here; and if you like European art and ekphrastic poetry, truly you will marvel at his skilful and intelligent use of the Masters to deliberate on and shake-up meanings through his sharp and pointed observations. One small criticism, alas, I have to make of the book, though, is his choice of cover: a fine piece of art by himself. Fine, yes, but when you consider the title, Profane and Sacred Loves, is also a poem in the collection, Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (note the inversion of adjectives, which may itself contribute to the conundrum that is Titian’s work, for which of the two women actually is the Profane, and which the Sacred?), then surely, Professor Ruleman, Titian would have been the better, the more relevant, the more striking cover? It is enough for you to be the poet; not the artist too!

Given constrictions of space, what I’d like to do now is point out some specific technical points about three of his poems, which for me show that here we have a consummate poet.

First, his poem ‘Or So One Version Has It’ is a superb re-working of the old story of Menelaus stalking the ruins of Troy in search of wreaking vengeance on his wife, the faithless Helen. The poem begins like this:

When Menelaus trod through the burning streets of Troy,
he had only one thing on his mind, and that was to kill
any Trojan he saw, including that estranged and faithless wife
(the whore, he felt, and wondered …

We note the almost prosaic lineation, lacking rhyme and regular meter, but ‘meandering’ on in a sort of menacing and purposeful way: we want to know more about that ‘one thing on his mind’, even though we think we know what it is. But the title has already planted a doubt in our mind: one version has it, but what does his version say? And so the poem with no stanzaic breaks, like one whole paragraph, unfolds the tale in only 23 lines. We see the fires, the burning flesh and babies screaming, and more beside, all tautly and economically described; till we reach what we have been waiting for: Menelaus sees Helen.

but seeing
… one radiant, sweat-glazed pearly pear
of a breast, and, as one version has it, he let both sword
and shield fall upon the ground with a ringing clatter,
realising then, I supposed, the things that truly matter.

That is writing – poetry – of the first order: and a brilliant and only (though there are other widely spaced rhymes) use of rhyme. Suddenly her beauty comes into focus (and so of course a feminine rhyme emerges) and what it produces in Menelaus is the complete transformation – metamorphosis of him – from a rage filled animal to an uncontrolled lover worshipping at the shrine of beauty itself. If I may say so, the concluding couplet comes (pun intended) with all the force of an orgasmic release – one suppressed for so long. And the thing is, as well, Ruleman makes it sound so matter of fact: beauty, Helen, his relationship with her has become a thing that truly matters. But it is that one rhyme, coming where it does, that makes this poem so powerful.

‘Or So One Version Has It’ comes in the first section, Love and Lust in the Western World. My next outstanding poem, ‘We’re Sorry Now’, is found in the fourth section, Sounds from a Sickly Corporate Culture. Since I have been in business for nearly 25 years and write books on management and leadership, this has to be a special section for me: yes, I recognise so much of what Ruleman writes about! And ‘We’re Sorry Now’ perfectly captures that loss that is sometimes expressed in the corporate world by the expression, ‘No-one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time in the office’.

Somewhere, in the scramble for power and wealth,
amnesia set in, and we forgot
the place where the rainbow and waterfall met;
we nurtured a saneness centred on money,
ignoring the once-cherished, kindly face
that kept one forever in grateful debt,
ensuring a servant’s anxious health.
We forgot that life could ever be funny.

A short eight-line poem, not regular again, but plain and clear: and this time, equally perfectly, the rhymes do all the work, but how differently from ‘Or So One Version Has It’. Here there are oblique, slant and perfect rhymes, though wealth and health may not be close enough to hear easily, but mimetically they are distanced just as in the corporate world making money can so easily distance one’s self from good health. But the most brilliant rhyme is money/funny (this is of course not an original rhyme, but its power comes from its being spaced so far apart – a faint echo, as it were) and that marvellous last line. Note how it is a sentence all to itself; after rehearsing how business once involved working for that ‘once-cherished, kindly face’ – that is to say, was personal and paternal – what has the impersonal and egalitarian corporate produced in its pursuit of the dollar? The complete absence of humour – what makes life worth living. A ‘saneness’ – a reason, a logic – centred on money has no ambiguity, has no subtlety, no personality, and so the title kicks in: we’re sorry for we have lost not just humour, but wonder (the rainbow and the waterfall) and beauty. In so few words Ruleman has managed to convey devastating loss.

Finally, in this brief overview, we have ‘Femina Nova, Novus Homo’, from the A Modern Ecstasy section. This poem is a searing indictment of feminism and of mankind generally. As with many Ruleman poem it reads like an extended meditation on a contemporary situation, and a contemporary is to hand: the first line begins –

Whatever happened to women like Joan Fontaine?

Indeed, what did? We no longer admire ‘tender smiles’ or weakness that may be ‘a subtle kind of strength’. Instead, ‘it’s all’ – which I take euphemistically to mean ‘she’s all’ –

all steel and spit and spunk and spleen,
And a viper’s look that freezes before it kills,
And a nasal insect voice that rasps at length
If it feels a slight or cannot get its way.

Ruleman then reflects on a time before, which perhaps never was, but in it there was the ‘yearning for the ideal / of feminine grace … to which every male / might bow …’

But now we find, in tragic conclusion for both sexes:

… Now neither sex can feel
any need to submit, adoring instead its own will.

There we have it: males and females adoring their own wills – the self, the ego, at the centre of the cosmos, and all in a dog-eat-dog world. And this is where the new woman and the new man lead to. Ruleman doesn’t preach but his descriptions do all his preaching for him: steel, spit, spunk and spleen and the viper look. Yes, seen that.

I think William Ruleman, then, a very fine poet indeed. Technically, there are many excellencies in his work, his range is wide, his learning deep, his imagination fertile, and he brings together what I like most: the relevance of our past great poets and artists to our situation now. Any open-minded reader of the SCP will, I think, really enjoy this collection and I strongly recommend it.


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2 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    James, It is good to see quality “free verse” poetry affirmed in your review as being fully capable of embracing “Classical” images of truth and beauty. There is so much bad poetry around these days that it is easy (and tempting) to reject “free verse” out-of-hand as being inexorably inter-twined with Modernism and moral decadence. Marshall Mcluan was not entirely correct when he famously declared that “the medium is the message.” In most things, including poetry, the message IS the message, regardless of the medium in which it is packaged. While “Classical” poetry can capture and express truth and beauty in a unique and valuable way, it is not the only poetic “medium” capable of doing so. It does, of course, have the advantage of being “Rhyming, Rhythmic, and Rapturous!”

    Reply
  2. james sale

    Thanks James. You are so right. There are some wonderful things in William Ruleman’s poetry – including what I hope I have described in terms of his use of rhyme; namely, what I would call a real poet’s ability to deploy it successfully and without strain. And you are so right about the fact that not every poem has to be metered, or structured in a certain way. I have a predilection for form, regard form as the essence of classical or formal poetry, but sometimes one is surprised on the up-side by a piece of work that isn’t formal. All my reviews attempt to find the ‘good’ in the works under scrutiny whoever has written them; I think that is only to be fair to poets. And again you are right: Ruleman’s work certainly does achieve rhyme, rhythm and rapture very frequently as you read through. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. Much appreciated.

    Reply

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