Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rae Armantrout's Poetry

I’ve been a fan of Rae Amantrout’s poetry for years, so I was excited to see Versed as a finalist for the National Book Award. I’ve had a close relationship with this book this year, as I was starting to write a review of it for Jacket, when Rae Armantrout chose my poems for the Boston Review contest. My friends told me it wouldn’t do her book service to have me publish a review of it right after my poems chosen by her came out in Boston Review. After a little bit of thinking (I’d already started the review . . .), I realized they were right. I also realized I could easily toss parts of the review up here on my blog. So here goes. This was the basic approach I was going to take:

Rae Armantrout’s poetry enacts a doubled vision, as it turns both outwardly to the things and events of the world, and inwardly, to the closeness of human desire and being. Or, perhaps said a better way, she brings a “direct treatment of the thing” as straight-on and direct as I’ve ever seen. The things of her poems are the things of the world, and of being in the world. The was a caveat of after “direct treatment of the thing,” in the Imagist directives, and I think this is where Armantrout’s work can be seen as a unification of tendencies, the caveat goes: be it “objective or subjective.” This “objective or subjective” bit is where Armantrout is truly amazing, as her poems tend to change this “or” to “and,” existing as both objective and subjective, in a constant state of assertion and interrogation. This makes for a richly complex perspective, one teetering at the very brink of elusiveness, a vantage point of seeing and saying that is truly hers alone.

And here’s one of the poems to which I was going to want to pay attention:


“Widely expected,
if you will,

Things I’d say,
am saying,

to persons no longer

Yards away trim junipers
make their customary

“Oh, no thank you”
to any of it.

If you watch me
from increasing distance,

I am writing this


People are often talking about Armantrout as a funny poet. That her poems are funny. Sometimes her poems are funny, yes, but I think it’s in poems where she’s anything but funny, that her achievement can be seen most clearly. How she can be both objective and subjective at once, as in the above poem, where yes, if one were to recede from the scene of her writing at the speed of light, one could theoretically remain in the presence of her writing this. It incorporates wit, yes, but it's as chilling as it is funny.

This same sort of objective clarity can be seen in this poem:


Time is placed
to draw itself
permit itself
pendulous loops,

to allow them

this meaning,

as it goes


Chuck and I are pleased
to have found a spot
where my ashes can be scattered.
It looks like a construction site
but it’s adjacent
to a breathtaking, rocky coast.
Chuck sees places
where he might snorkel.
We’re being shown through
by a sort of realtor.
We’re interested but can’t get her
to fix the price.


“The future
is all around us.”

It’s a place,

where we don’t exist.

[NOTE: in the above poem, lines 3 (the single word "out") and 11 (the single word "along") are to be indented to the drop point of the lines above them. I couldn't get my formatting to make it work for some reason. Apologies. When I get it sorted out I'll come back and fix it. I've gotten it to work in the past.]


At 10/21/2009 8:43 AM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

Hah, as I was reading this I was thinking, And she's a funny poet -- and then of course you said that's what people are always saying, John. But that humorous edge was my entry point into her work (which I didn't think I'd like, but often did) when I read her Selected recently.

And congrats on the contest, by the way! I hadn't heard about that. You're on quite a hot streak!

At 10/21/2009 12:44 PM, Blogger Aaron Apps said...

Thanks for this. I absolutely love her poetry. I always thought it powerful (or “chilling” as you put it). The closer one reads the poems, the more this aspect of them comes forth.

WV: peepin

At 10/21/2009 2:35 PM, Blogger Matthew Thorburn said...

For folks in NYC, I just saw that Rae A. is reading at NYU on the 29th...


At 10/21/2009 4:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yet again I'm reminded of the benefits of living in NYC, if only I were living in NYC . . .


At 10/22/2009 10:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Which reminds me, I wasn't wanting to knock those who react to her humor. That's a legit part of her procedure . . . but, for me, that's just one part, and I think it can overshadow other aspects that are also very interesting, and where her work, for me at least, is most persuasive.

At 10/26/2009 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it just me or are Armantrout and Kay Ryan very very similar, so long as one ignores the obviously less rhyme-laden quality of Armantrout: they both have a very clear (by which I mean recognizable, not transparent) manner, which Ryan doesn't deviate from at-all, and Armantrout only rarely; they both work a wisdom-literature space; they both use short lines and anecdotes--or perhaps more accurately information soundbites--verging on conceits etc. The real difference I see has not to do with their words, but with the way people see them: Armantrout is hip-hip-hip (so much so she's close to being a mainstay and can a mainstay be hip?), whereas Ryan--if one remotely goes for "quietism/non-quietism--is square-square-square, exceopt of course she's a lesbian so she's, grin, not that at-all.

Adam Strauss

At 10/26/2009 4:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I love this question!

I don't know Ryan's work deeply. I just ordered one of her books. Until it arrives, I will say that I can only go by what I've seen around--though there has been a lot of Kay Ryan stuff around the last couple years.

In the end, I think I'll disagree with you. I think there's a large difference in their poetry, in its approach as well as in its relation to the world, but I'll have to wait for more examples from Ryan to see if what I think holds water.

Ryan, though she does seem to be a skeptic, allows her poems to enact a sort of extended metaphor -- to flesh out its possibilities, as in "when the cows come home" + "when the chickens come back to roost," while Armantrout has no such desires or procedures, she's more interested in offering a truism of sorts, then illustarting it, then flipping it, or undoing it, or simply to question it.

I don't see that same kind of questioning in Ryan, at least in what I've read.

At 10/27/2009 1:50 PM, Anonymous Rob said...

Many thanks for posting your review, John!

I've been reading Rae Armantrout far longer than I've been reading Kay Ryan, but I noticed some overlap too (to be honest, my reaction on first reading Ryan in-depth was "Oh, this is a little like watered down Rae Armantrout"). I think Ryan can be a little too 'neat' (her use of rhyme to 'close' poems often underlines this) compared to Armantrout (whose poems more often fragment and segment to offer fresh and unexpected perspectives), but her best poems demonstrate serious thought and do have that quality of sticking in the mind, like a useful irritant. Both poets 'sources' seem similar, perhaps - WCW in particular - but Ryan leans more toward a Marianne Moore-like moralising-through-natural-particulars. This poem, "The Paw of a Cat," from a recent New Yorker is pretty typical:

The first trickle
of water down
a dry ditch stretches
like the paw
of a cat, slightly
tucked at the front,
about auguring
wet. It may sink
later but it hasn’t

Maybe their similarites only serve to highlight their differences, but I still think Adam's point about who get's to be 'cool' deserves some reflection!

Rob Stanton

At 10/27/2009 1:54 PM, Anonymous Rob said...

Oops - apostrophes getting away from me: it should read "poets'" and "gets" above....

Another point: isn't Armantrout "funny" AND "chilling"? Often in quick succession, which only makes it more chilling (or more funny)....

At 10/28/2009 5:34 PM, Blogger F.F. said...

At 10/28/2009 6:04 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Rob, I agree. The tension between the two heightens both of them.

At 2/04/2011 8:37 AM, Anonymous Viagra Online said...

This is the kind of poetry that also drove me toward poetry, it is really bizarre and unique.

At 11/11/2011 11:43 AM, Anonymous samrx said...

I think the same thing I began to be fan of Rae Amantrout since 1 year I know it is not long time ago but in that time I learned to love it, I consider it has been an excellent approach for me and knowing a little bit more of poetry.

At 11/18/2011 8:01 AM, Anonymous pharmacy reviews said...

Well it is almost perfect poetry, almost all of the poems are so so good, as good as this review.

At 12/04/2011 3:24 AM, Anonymous Generic ambien said...

I will say that I can only go by what I've seen around--though there has been a lot of Kay Ryan stuff around the last couple years.


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