Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 3: Rae Armantrout

Given her association with the much-misunderstood Language school, one might (straw man alert!!) suppose that her brief, tightly lineated poems offer no overt ideas, only loose associations between lines and images. They'd be wrong though! The poems in Armantrout's latest collection, Versed, are constructed largely of ideas--not in the sense that any word or string of words is by definition an idea, but in the sense of complex thoughts (in sentence form)--with interstitial images. As in these sections from three consecutive poems that appear early in the collection (first, from "Vehicles"):
If that (head-on car crash)
had happened, we say,

all this
would not have been--

like "having been"
were a lasting thing:

the small tree
on the highway meridian [sic?]

having been lit up
for a moment now

by sun breaking through cloud


Look how
we "attempted to express ourselves."

Every one of these words is wrong.

It wasn't us.
Or we made no real attempt.
Or there is no discernible difference
between self and expression.
"A Resemblance" (in full)
As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call
"the world.")


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



"Are you happy now?"


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,

From "Outer" (vertical bars inserted to maintain white space):
Dolls as celebrities (Barbie);
celebrities as dolls.


I'm the one who can't know if the scraggly old woman
putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels
guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She
may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic
in a film.


Removal activates glamour?

To see yourself as if from the outside -- though not as
others see you.


Carried by light,
images remain

while sensation
is so evanescent

as to be always beyond


The outer world means
State Farm Donuts Tai Kwando?

Thoughts as spent fuel rods.

Preceded and
followed by
shadows of cacti
on a lawn.
Since "idea" is such a fraught word, this definition-by-example approach might be a better way of conveying what I meant when I originally said I wanted to see more ideas in Absent submissions (not that ideas are sufficient conditions for good poems in themselves).

If I were going to write a formula for an Armantrout poem, it would go something like this:

idea + related idea + related idea + tenuously related image + found speech/text + idea

(This recipe can be multiplied.) Which is not to say I find them cheaply formulaic. I like Armantrout (who doesn't?), but I can't say I love her poems. Perhaps the cool dial (cool as in "removed") is turned up a bit too high for my tastes. Poetry I love tends to have more of a raggedy edge, or a certain sense of ironic overstatement, or a barely disguised bleeding heart.

Anyway, check out this bit from a blurb on the back of Versed: "Like a string of prize chess moves, the opening sequences draw the reader in with a mixture of intrigue and apprehension ..." Moves, y'all!


  1. I like these. And State Farm does have the most amazing Donuts.

  2. I love her work. The only book I have that I haven't loved is The Pretext. Everything else I've gobbled up whole. I find her infinitely readable and re-readable. And idea-ful. Totally.

    I'm a fan of your formula, too. :)

    Here's where I think we're butting heads: "Poetry I love tends to have more of a raggedy edge, or a certain sense of ironic overstatement, or a barely disguised bleeding heart."


  3. It seems like a warm vs. cool thing to me -- I like poetry I can buddy up to and have either a good laugh or cry with. Armantrout I appreciate very much but the poems seem to need a lot of personal space.

  4. I've read little, next to nothing, of Rae Armantrout's poetry. In general I'm either averse or indifferent to most of the poetry I've seen that could reasonably be called "Language" poetry, and most poetry of that flavor, whatever name it goes by.

    I'm kind of lukewarm to the poem and excerpts here. I realize not everyone thinks or perceives or feels in complete sentences, and reading the poems here I do have a sense of a specific person thinking, and here and there of that person talking to someone else. Everything tangential, tossed out obliquely, tentative, avoiding commitment.

    Poems with a pervasive texture of -- I can't help it, the word kept coming to me as I read -- quietude. A quiet, almost shy voice. (The pianist Glenn Gould once placed a few bars of a piano piece by the composer Anton Webern -- one of the "12 tone" group that also included Schoenberg and Alban Berg -- thin spare music, single notes following each other in angular sequence, as an example of "shy" music.)

    I conceive of poems as, among other things, three-dimensional (or four-dimensional maybe) geometric structures. When I read a poem, one of the things I listen for is the geometry, the amount of psychic distance the various moments in a poem have to travel to get from one to the next, to refer back to previous moments in the poem, to foreshadow later ones, to mirror or contrast with parallel or perpendular or tangential ones, and so on.

    In the poem and excerpts by Armantrout here, I did have a clear sense of the geometry, that the various points in the poems connected, however tenuously, with other points in the poems. The poems didn't just hover or evaporate or sit mute.

  5. Typo in my comment above: should say that the pianist Glenn Gould played a few bars... =)

  6. Hi, Lyle,

    I enjoy several poets associated with the Language school, especially Lynn Hejinian, Michael Palmer and Bob Perelman. I'm not saying this is true of you, but I feel like there's a pervasive idea in the culture (of those aware of poetry at all) that "Language poetry" is just random word collages like "pony toothpaste mustache" or whatever. I don't know if this all comes from Joan Houlihan or the movement's more incompetent poets or what.

    Out of curiosity, what schools and/or poets do you prefer?

  7. I've been enjoying the back & forth between you & Brooklyn and feel that Rae Armantrout's poetry is an excellent example of "idea" poetry.

  8. Hey you! XO (I just saw your name in that Free Verse thing and I'm too tired to read it, but I look forward to it, as well as your chapbook collaboration, which is at the tippy-top of my next batch of booklets to order.)

    I agree that she's an excellent example of idea-poetry. And I understand what you mean, Elisa, about her work needing personal space. However, I read that "cool" feeling as an invitation to "make of it what I will," so to speak, not as prickliness. The fragment-tangent-visceral-line thing is so powerful to me, especially seeing the poems on the page. I've tried listening to her work over at PennSound, and it doesn't do much for me, read aloud.

    I can't "buddy up" to poems. I feel alienated by poems that want me to buddy up to them. I feel like you have to want to buddy up to the poet to want to buddy up to their poems- these type of poems, to me, demand that the reader spends entirely too much time inside the poet's head, rather than letting a poem just "exist" and breathe and give freely of itself. I think because Armantrout's work is so compact, typically, it really is the gift that keeps on giving. Her poems seem to exist to jog the recesses of the reader's memory and imagination, rather than explode all over the place with off-the-wall lines about the recesses of her own memory and imagination. --It's like, even when she's talking about herself (if she is), she's talking about YOU.

    I'm pretty hit-or-miss with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (I feel more alienated by it than anything, though I enjoy language-play, as I've mentioned somewhere recently (and riffed, I think, from WCW), when it contributes to the natural musicality of our everyday language). I feel like Armantrout often transcends that association in her work. She's up there with H D, Mina Loy, Niedecker and Guest as far as my racing-reading-pulse is concerned. :-)

  9. Thanks, Steven!

    B, I'm with you on needing to see poetry on the page. Some poets are great performers, but I never feel like I _know_ a poem until I read it on paper.

  10. Oh, do I misread the end of the blurb. I thought it read: "like a prize of string cheese moves" – which I like. I guess it doesn't work as well.

    And I agree and also wish for warmth. You know who I like? Joseph Ceravolo. Odd to look for warmth in language poetry, but I think if the poet has warmth, it can't be contained or disguised. "He was a parade with a gift."


  11. Ceravolo. YES! YES! YES!

    BC- Thanxs:)

  12. String cheese moves! Those are the best.

    I find warmth in My Life, but it's probably an exception. It feels so rich to me, like looking at old photographs arranged in no particular order.

  13. Elisa -- to answer your question:

    The two poets I usually name first when people ask me who I like to read are Thomas McGrath and Sharon Doubiago. Others include Kenneth Rexroth, Federico Garcia Lorca, Tomas Transtromer, Yosano Akiko, Sappho, Tu Fu (or Du Fu), Etheridge Knight, Pablo Neruda, Miroslav Holub, Paul Eluard, Muriel Rukeyser, Carl Sandburg, Nancy Morejon, Joy Harjo, Martin Espada, Otto Rene Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Yannis Ritsos, Nazim Hikmet, Takamura Kotaro, Olga Broumas...

    Poets I like to read who are maybe less widely known include Dale Jacobson, Jenne Andrews, Erika Wurth, Anya Achtenberg, Mira Shimabukuro, Zoe Anglesey, Roy McBride, Sheryl Noethe, Robert Edwards, Ruben Medina, Diego Quiros, Gerrye Payne, Floyce Alexander, Franklin Brainard, Don Gordon, Vincent Ferrini, Naomi Replansky...

    In general, I lean strongly to poetry that deals explicitly or consciously with left-leaning political ideas, history, events of the public world. "Political" in a fairly broad sense: a love poem or a poem about nature, for instance, can -- in the right context -- be as political as a poem about war or a labor union strike.

    This anyway is as close as I can get to defining or describing any "school" or tendencies I prefer in poetry. I do try to read as broadly as I can, and at the same time I have strong preferences.

  14. ceravolo was a language poet?

  15. That's a tricky question. I don't think he would have said so. I think he would have just said that he was a poet. I also don't think Allen Ginsberg would have called himself a beat poet, nor Frank O'Hara a New York Poet. His closets association, I suppose, was with Kenneth Koch (a New York poet, I don't know...) I also don't think he associated with those most frequently associated with LANGUAGE poetry (sorry, too lazy to do the equal marks) – but I always considered him one of the best practitioners of the form, even though many of his pieces had a distinct linear narrative, even though I hate labels, and also hate saying cliches like that one I just did.

    There is only one thing for certain: he was a civil engineer. Thank God for jobs.

  16. Thanks for sharing Lyle. Many of those names are new to me. I'm guessing a good bit of it is in translation. I <3 Transtromer.

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  18. Not a tricky question. Ceravolo was not a Language poet. Even Mr. Silliamn doesn't try to claim him for the group!


  19. Maybe he should!

    I don't know if I take Ron Silliman's word for gospel. I still get an antsy and grumpy feeling when I hear his talk of 'The School of Quietude.' That being said, I really don't care for the labels in general, because they only sometimes apply and often are very limiting.

    This is all I really think about it: Ceravolo was a very gifted poet who often wrote non-linear verse filled with abstract and non-correlative sequences that were beautiful to the ear. And oh, I wish he were still around.

  20. The whole business of trying to identify movements or "schools" of poetry (or any other type of creative work) can get tricky. I recall Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at a public event years back, taking questions from the audience -- someone asked a question something about the San Francisco Renaissance (as it's sometimes known), and Ferlinghetti said flatly, "There was no San Francisco renaissance. They were all carpetbaggers from the east coast. Ginsberg was from New York. Kerouac was from Massachusetts. I was from New York."

    As another example, a similar instance: Diane DiPrima did a reading a few years back, and took questions from the audience, and someone asked a question something about the Beat movement, and DiPrima immediately shook her head no, and said, "No, no, there wasn't any Beat movement. It was just a bunch of us who were friends and we were writing poetry, and getting together and talking about poetry, and and publishing each other, and doing readings when we could." She said there were maybe 200 people scattered across the United States and a few places elsewhere, poets and writers, artists, etc., who were loosely and variously in contact with each other, who constituted what some people now refer to as the Beat movement.

    DiPrima went on to say that it should be possible to start a poetry movement with, say, five people, start meeting regularly, start a magazine or newsletter and publish your poems in it, your ideas about poetry, organize some readings at whatever places will let you in, these days you could start a blog or website, and so on, and you've got a poetry movement.

  21. Given the day, permit me to begin by offer happy valentines to you and yours and to yr blog and yr blog's readers and to this post.

    Especially to this post since it had me pulling Versed off the shelf to read again, to check your claim about ideas and the "something like" formula for Armantrout's poems. I enjoy re-reading based on someone else's thoughts about the poetry.

    Some poems in Versed somewhat fit your "something like" formula. That includes the one I happened to have written about a couple months ago. But even there, the images are far stronger elements than your formula suggests.

    But mostly I think the suggested formulas doesn't fit the poems of Versed. As one example, see (hear) "Music" at page 76. It seems more purely a series of images, at least until the final sentence (poem is below).

    And even in the poems that more or less fit the formula you suggest, there's the space between the sections, what happens in the silences. The "something like" formula doesn't include that element. Or the connotations and sounds of the words.

    Anyways, here's Armantrout's "Music"

    Still the run-up
    to the primaries.

    Hot searches:

    tiger attack,
    polar bears.


    Or a hint
    of bitters
    at the scoured edge.

    Three piccolo notes
    from the bushes.

    A snatch
    of music. Call it

  22. Hi Steven,

    Happy V-Day to you too! The formula wasn't meant to include effects, but I do think the space between elements (ideas and images and found words) has a powerful effect (in fact I think this idea of creating space between utterances is one of the most important take-aways from what the so-called Language poets were trying to do). For this reader, the ideas (connotations and sounds and syntax included) are what I latch onto, but I can see that the mystery in the images (why this image? why now?) would be the more powerful element to others.

  23. I like Armantrout (who doesn't?)


  24. I really think you may be the first person I've ever heard say that!

    Why don't you like Armantrout?