Rae Armantrout (1947 -)

Life and Works

Let’s imagine a poem which could sound like a declaration of principles, a singular assertion like the following one:

It is my responsibility to squeeze the present from the past by demanding particulars

when the dog is used to represent the inner man, I need to ask "what kind of dog is it?"

Neither Rae Armantrout’s frequently exposed method of poetry composition (taking pieces and bits from here and there, including random conversations or TV programs), nor her adscription within the Language Poets of the West Coast in the 1970s, let alone the facts of her biography, may account–unless partially–for her attitude towards poetry the way such a poem does: poetry, for her, is the responsibility for knowing exactly what lies behind each metaphor, that is, for not taking for granted any of the already sanctioned “poetic”–as such–literary resonances or connotations of words. Hers is a poetry that allows for constant interruption, a poetry that questions the attempts of a predominant poetic “I” to be there and speak for herself as a full individual. As in Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady”, where the presumed wooer becomes exasperated by the questions of a Lady who will not simply take in the metaphors that are awkwardly directed to her (“Which sky?” “Which shore?” “Agh, petals maybe. How/ should I know?”), Armantrout makes the reader face a text that is not entirely the finished thought of anybody; allows for overheard expressions; and may recall, without coherent narrative or discursive procedures at the surface, a queue at the supermarket, the politics of the Iraq war and somebody’s illness, all at the same time.

The poetry or Rae Armantrout has been considered by critics like Marjorie Perloff and Stephen Burt like the epitome of our era, a world built upon middle-low class suburbs, TV fabricated speech, and an overwhelming presence of messages constantly bombarded by the media, by the technological gadgets that surround us and by all kinds of inoculating devices that disturb our own way of reasoning. In this context, Armantrout seems to claim, it is no longer possible for a reader of poetry to look for “voyeuristic identification” or “confirmation of what they already feel” in a poem. In a new turn of Keats’ “negative capability” and Eliot’s “objective correlative”, poets and readers–who turn out to be poets in many cases as well–should rather look for the open, multiple poem which, instead of pointing at definitive conclusions on any issues or keeping a coherent appearance in relation to facts and thoughts, advances a step further in the enmeshing multiplicity of voices and stimuli that surround us daily; even if the resulting movement leaves us more evidently–and hopelessly–in the side of the uncertain.

Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, in 1947, and raised in a suburb in San Diego, the only child of a working-class family. The childhood and youth memoirs she gathers in her autobiographical tale True (1998) are, in this sense, utterly enlightening: they form the real portrait of the artist as a young woman, with the inward child oscillating between an alcoholic father and a Christian Fundamentalist mother; the rebel adolescent who starts to perceive signs of another life beyond the suburb uniform dullness; the youth’s attendance to San Diego college in the late 1960s, with its effervescence of flower power and civil rights; and the student taking one year in Berkeley (San Francisco), where she had Denise Levertov as a lecturer and made friends with Ron Silliman and other members of the Language movement. There, Armantrout had the opportunity to match her own poetry to that of her peers and consider her own attitude towards poetry in a wider sense.

Even in those Berkeley days of awakening, however, Armantrout remained somewhat apart from groups and schools. So that, to this day, she acknowledges her attachment to the Language Poetry –especially on those very first days of the early 1970s– and she keeps a close friendship with many of the group members, at the same time that she has developed a poetic corpus completely of her own.

In this sense, the pages of True reveal her as intent on staying away from tricks of the mind in her memories, in the same way as she does with language and reference in her poems:

I could romanticize the Bay Area in general and in the abstract. I had more difficulty connecting with the people I met. I remember thinking that people there lacked a sense of humor. Many seemed to take themselves and/or some cause “too seriously.” How did I decide what was too serious? On the one hand, belief and passion were what made this place exciting; on the other hand, my youth had prepared me to be suspicious of zealots (quoted from Collected Prose, page 165).

Perhaps it is this suspicion, plus an acknowledged sense of not belonging to the same class, what makes Armantrout return to her home in San Diego, marry the boyfriend she had before going to Berkeley and stay there, as a poet and a Creative Writing lecturer at the University College of San Diego, for most of her life. Since then, her main stays away from home have been to nearby cities in Mexico, where she is welcomed in poetry readings, festivals and Book Fairs. None of these plain facts could give evidence by itself–as in the case of her admired poet from Amherst–of the intensity and innovation of a poetic corpus which met its maximum external acknowledgement with the award of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

During more than four decades, Rae Armantrout has been publishing poetry books on a constant basis. Her first book, Extremities, appeared in Berkeley in 1978. It is the one she recognizes as the most clearly influenced by the Language movement, and is composed in the short lines and frequent blank spaces that will conform most of her future poetry. In its pages, condensation has, most of the times, the quality of the haiku, though the double/triple meanings, so typical of her subsequent books, are more limited in their multiplicity of reference than in the longer pieces she will build afterwards. As she writes about those early times among generation mates she acknowledges that “from the start, we set ourselves against poetry that seemed tame or trivial. I know I wanted poems to ask real questions, to put things at stake. I still do.” Later, when the movement started to be accused of elitism and a too evident dependence on Derrida and his theories on reference, Armantrout would argue that they–the Language poets–were focused on questioning the reference issue before even having heard of Derrida. Something was in the air, it seems, and each individual (poet or philosopher) would deal with it from his/her own viewpoint.

Armantrout’s titles after Exremities follow within the years (The Invention of Hunger, 1979; Precedence, 1981; Necromance, 1991; Made to Seem, 1995; The Pretext, 2001), apparently without much notice out of selected poetic circles. But a landmark is achieved with the publication of her anthology Veil: New and Selected Poems, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2001, with a foreword by Ron Silliman.

From then on, Armantrout will continue publishing in Wesleyan University Press, her present publisher (Up to Speed, 2004; Next Life, 2007). The game of multiple voices and extracts in her poems, with no apparent common thread among them in the surface, will take even further risks. And her poetry will be defined by Silliman as “the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities” (Foreword to Veil, page ix).

The three most recent books of Rae Armantrout, including the Pulitzer-awarded Versed (2009), Money Shot (2010) and Just Saying (2013) incorporate aspects like the financial crisis of our century (Money Shot), the possibility of imminent death (Versed) and the traditional concerns about language, thought and the “I” who inhabits the poem: “Certainly/ I distinguish myself/ from what I hear// and from what I overhear/ myself think”, says a poem from Just Saying.

The short sentences–or should we say “utterances”?–of sharp, condensed assertiveness which characterize these recent books have been defined as little thought-bombs which explode in our minds time after having been read: “Metaphor/ is ritual sacrifice.// It kills the look-alike.// No/ metaphor is homeopathy.// A healthy cell/ exhibits contact inhibition.” (from Versed); “”Uncertainty” predicts/ that the more clearly we understand// (waves) (particles)// the less clearly/ we see/ what it means to be reflected” (from Money Shot); “At sunset, pigeons/ practice synchronized flying.// Thus “are” becomes “is”,/ “is” becomes “ness.”” (from Just Saying). Whichever page we open, we will come across such quick, almost casual remarks that resist a single lecture, let alone a finished interpretation.

At this point in her career, critics identify her style as unique, and different in many senses from that of her colleagues in Berkeley (Chiasson, “Entangled: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout, 2010; Görtshacher, “Poetry in Times of the Great Recession, 2010). The topics were already there, in titles like Made to Seem and Up to Speed–language, matter, energy, metaphysics, time–but the word precision and the intensity of communication has grown deeper, probably under the influence of the author’s own life events. Her interest in the universe and the transcendent questions of existence, however undermined by the multiple voices of irony and escape from solemnity, finds its scope, as she explained in a recent interview for Jotdown (2012):

Experience feels somehow incomplete to me. I sense that it feels that way to most other people as well. That could be what’s worst or best about humans. We always think there must be something more, something else. That’s why my poems end suddenly, perhaps without punctuation, certainly without a sense of true conclusion. They are leaning out into what’s missing.

According to Perloff, in her essay “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric” (2012), Rae Armantrout is the visible face of the 21st-century avant-garde in poetry, and her work, a coherent alternative to the uniform poetry that the US national system of creative writing courses and awards has enhanced. If the postwar era brought about the lack of consensus in regard to canonical poetry, she argues, and present uniformity in the form of post-confessional, post-structural or any other “post-isms” sounds too much as déjà vu, appropriation in the way John Cage, Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein or Rae Armantrout practice it, by dealing with discourses other than their own and meshing them in theunpredicted context of the assembled poem, may be a coherent stance towards the present modes of dealing with knowledge or information in general.

Finally, the sharpness of Rae Armantrout as a literary critic and a theoretician must be highlighted. Her essays and interviews, gathered in the volume Collected Prose (2007), are neither long nor numerous, but so lucid in their intellectual commitment and so brave in contesting inherited literary truisms, that they largely complete the picture of a poet with a high capacity of reflection upon her own task. Her close readings of Lorine Niedecker and Emily Dickinson would serve by themselves to dignify a volume where statements like this can be read: “My poetry isn’t built on hope.” Whatever it is built on, it is certainly for the involved reader to guess.

Natalia Carbajosa (Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena)