Milkweed Editions

Last Tuesday morning in Langdon Hammer’s ’80 GRD ’89 lecture “Poetry since 1950,” all of the students laughed, and then they went quiet. In his patient voice, Hammer read aloud Frank O’Hara’s essay “Personism: A Manifesto.” O’Hara punctuates much of the essay with his signature dry wit, helping Hammer to keep the students engaged and laughing. But eventually, O’Hara reaches a place that is more tender, more distilled. This is when the students went quiet. Hammer reads from the essay: “I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.”

In the book “Letters from Max,” the playwright, essayist and professor at Yale School of Drama Sarah Ruhl reveals a correspondence through which she and the poet Max Ritvo ’13 make art that is almost like “Personism,” but better. “Letters from Max” builds upon the tradition O’Hara created with his essay. The book is entirely composed of letters, poems, songs, emails and recounted conversations between Ruhl and Ritvo, with short paragraphs here and there to string everything together. Reading the book is like listening to a long phone call between Ruhl and Ritvo spoken solely in verse — like O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” but better, because it is never self-conscious, it is always a bit silly and there are songs and soups.

What makes the narrative of the kinship between these two artists so mythic and magical, though, is that Ritvo began as Ruhl’s student. In “Letters from Max,” Ruhl and Ritvo meet in a senior playwriting seminar at Yale. The pair, one playwright, one poet (sometimes two playwrights, sometimes two poets, sometimes just two people), begin emailing each other out of necessity. Ritvo’s missing Ruhl’s class to see a play — a good play — in New York. Ruhl gives him the okay and is impressed by his taste in theater. These logistical emails turn lengthier, more frequent. Soon, they are no longer just emailing each other, they are meeting after class. They are writing to each other. And then they are writing about one another. They are sharing soup.

The true delight of reading “Letters from Max” is indulging in the specificity and clarity that such personal poems provide. In one of her earliest letters to Ritvo, Ruhl writes, “Oh, and on the school of poets who surround you, I say: resist opacity. I think at the heart of opacity is fear.” After this proclamation, Ritvo and Ruhl’s poems to each other become progressively more courageous. They refer more and more to earlier emails and phone calls between the pair (that Ruhl so gracefully and graciously includes for us). The poems are immediately accessible and piercing in a way that most postmodern poetry resists. The two artists want their audience to know what they mean. Ruhl and Ritvo discuss this often. The accessibility of the poems is only amplified by the emails and phone calls upon which the reader eavesdrops. The refreshing lucidity of the poems is a result of the “personistic” nature of the piece and the spiritual influence in the prayer-like messages that the two exchange.

As the pages of “Letters from Max” progress, the tether between the two writers strengthens, and a sense of true spiritualism between teacher and student is born. Max has cancer. He has had cancer since Sarah met him, and because of this, questions of afterlife are present throughout nearly each letter that the two writers exchange. Ruhl and Ritvo share an infatuation with Eastern spiritual practices. Ruhl loves monks. Ritvo loves reincarnation. They each believe in the importance of idols. Meditating to honor someone is lovely and vital, they decide, especially in moments when Max is so close to death.

All along, though, Ruhl and Ritvo are becoming each other’s idol. Their emails and phone calls to one another serve as daily devotions and meditations on love and children and postmodernism. Through these letters both artists — though neither especially religious — explore spirituality as a tool in the art of survival, the art of motherhood and, most of all, the art of poetry. The correspondence captures a divine, archetypal student-teacher relationship — Ruhl the Vasudeva to Ritvo’s Siddhartha in modern academia, in modern America, in modern friendship.

In their correspondence, Ruhl and Rivo find comfort, humor and escape from the scourges of the world — cancer, conference calls — that plague them, but ultimately through this correspondence, each writer finds his or her voice. Max and Sarah’s friendship inspires readers to throw oneself tenderly, wholeheartedly, unabashedly into being a good, good friend.

Ryan Benson |