She makes you an offer you can’t understand

We’ve been reading Rae Armantrout, considered one of the more accessible of the Language Poets.  You might think that poets by their nature would be in love with language, but the Language Poets seem to have been named by the people who brought you Peacekeeper missiles and security police.  Armantrout and her fellows (Charles Bernstein and Lyn Hejinian come to mind) treat language like an abusive ex-boyfriend that they would ditch if they could, even if it meant moving to Fargo.

Their attitude stems, so far as I can figure it out, from a sense that language encodes culture, so that when we imagine ourselves to be expressing our individuality through language, it is really language expressing itself, its existing structures and frameworks (gender, the division of subject and object, the coneptualization of time…) through us.  The other day I was at a performance where young women delivered a series of personal monologues; one of them talked about how in the past other people’s words had defined her identity, her body, her sexuality, but from now on she would use her own words and define herself.  I wish her luck, but I wonder if she realizes what I titanic creative achievement that would be.  It seems to me that most avant-garde poets share her feelings about the past but not her optimism. 

Here’s one of Armantrout’s more comprehensible poems, “Two, Three”:

The opening notes, in a rather quirky way, how language brings the individual into being (“how many traits must a thing have in order to be singular?”).  It is true that the piling on of adjectives successively refines the group of things described, though this is not necessarily their purpose (when Shelley writes of an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king, he is not mainly interested in making sure you know which king he’s talking about).  At any rate, her focus is on the mechanism of language more than the things referred to.

Her interpretation of echo (one of her obsessions, it appears in many poems) is also idiosyncratic: instead of showing how the world corresponds to us and resonates with what we say (a reassuringly Romantic image), it is a sign that whatever we say has always already been said.  Like the horrified golem-maker in Borges’ “Circular Ruin,” we see that we ourselves are also a reproduction.

I suppose the final lines are also about a form of echo, in which the beloved echoes the self–is this love or solipsism?  The poem overall has a kind of coherence that makes it seem to me a poor example of Language poetry–more often, it feels as though we’re just settling into something resembling an image or an argument when the zombies burst in and eat our brains.  “Thing” can serve as an example of what prompted one reader in my hearing to say “God, I hate this shit!” though it is certainly not the worst offender:

In reading Armantrout, I do have the hope, with each poem, that it may offer some pleasure; this is more than I can say for most Language poets.  And, in a genre notorious for more bark and less wag, she has a sense of humor.  “Scumble” is the poem of hers that most stays with me:

Kind of speaks for itself.

PS the joke about Peacekeeper missiles and security police as examples of ‘ironic’ nomenclature is stolen from Bill James.

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18 Responses to She makes you an offer you can’t understand

  1. shellewe says:

    Nice post, Roy!

    • Roy says:

      Guars! Weirdly RA’s poetry is making more and more sense to me, which is probably a bad sign.

      I still don’t think anybody’s dying for lack of what is found there.

    • Mary Evelyn White says:

      “treat language like an abusive ex-boyfriend that they would ditch if they could, even if it meant moving to Fargo.” priceless!

      • Megan Kasten says:

        I agree! My favorite part.
        I get that art must sometimes (if not often) describe suffering, but I don’t get why the reader must suffer in the process of reading. I want the experience of reading to feel as if I am being pulled along by a glorious sled with smooth rails…and I can’t wait to see what it behind the next tree….the way I feel when reading, say, Marquez ( cliche or not, I don’t care) I don’t want to feel as if I’m pushing a metal steamer trunk up a knobbly hill wearing greased crocs (as I felt when reading Franzen’s Freedom).
        It seems to me a form of arrogance to expect the reader to tolerate so much unpleasant writing in order to get to the center of the tootsie pop. “Ooo, look at me; aren’t I clever and nimble with the English language?”
        Or maybe I’m just impatient…I did enjoy the “About the Author” blurb. If you don’t click on ‘more’, it says: “Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California in 1947, and grew up.”

      • Roy says:

        Well, I should admit that reading poetry almost always contains an element of the steamer trunk, so I’m kinda used to that. But I would like the author to give me a beer or something when I get to the top, instead of just saying, yeah, I’ve demonstrated that I can get suckers to push my steamer trunk around!”

      • beth mchugh says:

        True, true, Mary! Roy, this was my favorite line in your post!

  2. Kath Jesme says:

    Are you reading *Versed*? That book won a Pulitzer, and it is a fabulous book. Armantrout is “associated” with the language poets, but I don’t really find her to be one. I think her work is comprehensible and insightful. The poems are condensed, not obscure. And now that you are reading more of her, you are finding her sense. Some poets make you work harder, but in this case, I believe it’s worth it!

    • Roy says:

      I have not read Versed; we did Next Life and I’ve read a few others of her poems.

      I do like some of the poems, and it is possible that I will come to like more of them. Others…it’s hard for me to believe that they represent an attempt to communicate something worthwhile, beyond an antagonism toward communication itself.

      I find myself repelled by both poles of the poetic world, the bland Ted Kooser or Mary Oliver and those that I find so obscure as to be downright unfriendly. Sometimes Armantrout strikes me that way.

  3. Ann Foxen says:

    So would you say the Language Poets are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Billy Collins? He read to a mob of fans at Politics and Prose last night. People were breaking the rules of being polite in public, shouldering their way through the standing room only throngs to get a glimpse. He said a college professor had expressed surprise that such large audiences would turn out for poetry, and Collins replied that he himself was surprised that X-million Americans would tune in to watch American Idol.
    Does he remind anyone else of Bob Newhart? He described his current outlook as “grimly optimistic.”
    He said someone e-mailed him after a reading to say, “People here haven’t stopped talking about your reading!” And then a follow-up e-mail: “Now they have.”

    • Roy says:

      Billy Collins, whose earlier work I admire this side idolatry, has several opposites, and the Language Poets are one of them, along the spectrum of reader-friendliness.
      Other opposites would include:
      Wordsworth or Rilke, along the humorless/humorous spectrum

      Blake or Dante or Margaret Atwood, along the politically evasive-committed spectrum

      Allen Ginsberg (sp?) or Rimbaud along the middle-class suburbanite-poete maudit axis

      You can make up your own.

    • Mary Evelyn White says:

      Ha! I love that. I think BC is charming and I love to read his poems. I’m not a poet and I don’t want to work hard to understand a poem. I don’t like most abstract art either even though it is hanging in a museum and someone must think it’s wonderful. I don’t care. It doesn’t have to be beautiful for me to like it, but it has to be intriguing or interesting or it has to draw me in in some way. I want for the artist to actually care that I am looking or listening or wanting to understand – otherwise – why write it or compose it or paint it?

      • Roy says:

        As I said elsewhere, I am not opposed in principle to working to understand something, but if you’re going to make me work harder than, say, reading Dante in the original, you should offer something really exciting in return.

        But perhaps your comment that you are not a poet is the key. I am not a poet either, of course, and maybe serious poetry today is written only for insiders. One might reasonably ask what this says about its future as a meaningful form of culture.

  4. Alena says:

    Well, Roy, I really enjoyed the post. But. I also enjoyed the poems, all three that you linked, very much. Which, I suppose, must mean that you failed in the task that you set for yourself. I didn’t have to do any work to read (and enjoy) any of the poems. (The other possibility is that I might be a very superficial reader; that, too, would explain the ease, I suppose.)

    I think that “Is it the beginning or end/of real love/when we pity a person/because, in him/we see ourselves?” is gonna stay with me for a while..

    • Roy says:

      It is kind of a failure, in that the more I talk about Armantrout the more I like the poems. But I liked “Scumble” a lot already.

    • Roy says:

      Part of the problem is that I naturally chose the most appealing of avant-garde poets to talk about–I’m not going to read a whole book of crappy poetry just so I can trash it (that’s what grad school was for).

      • beth mchugh says:

        Roy, this post generated some great comments…and by your responses I gather you enjoyed them too. For me this is the best pleasure…first I get to read your excellent posts (and I like “Scumble” too) and then enjoy all the comments! Thanks for the fun!

  5. Megan Kasten says:

    I agree with Alena; I did enjoy the poems you linked, which seems counter to the purpose of some language poets. I saw in Scumble some of what makes language fun rather than a chore to be mastered and dutifully utilized.
    I guess I am put off by poetry, as well as art, that seems aloof, which I suppose is the whole idea of being aloof in the first place. It strikes me a bit like The Emperor With No Clothes. I bet plenty of patrons who buy the most abstract art would not hang it where it can’t be seen and the owner admired for what he wishes everyone to consider good taste. I like to get a sense that the poet/artist is actually trying to communicate something, even if it’s only to him or herself….and I guess that’s when the zombies come in?

    • Roy says:

      Ha, it seems I have been a weirdly effective ambassador for Armantrout. I can tell you that the frustration you describe was the overall mood when we met to talk about her book on Sunday–I think it’s fair to say I was the most pro-‘Trout person in the room.

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