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.