Rae Armantrout - Versed - NBCC in Poetry Winner
For several years now, the NBCC has had the most interesting list of finalists and winners, and I’m quite excited with the possibility of where such things might be headed, as this year the National Book Awards list was also quite exciting (Rae Armantrout, Versed; Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again; Carl Phillips, Speak Low; Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval; Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy).
[Sidebar: I predict that Kay Ryan is going to win at least the Pulitzer next year (I think it’s written into her Laureate contract), but, outside of that, the lists are shaking up and moving away from completely safe, predictable choices.]
When John Ashbery, in 1976, won the triple crown (as they said at the time), it was for what was the most “gettable” of his books, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, mostly due to the long title poem that is an excellent, but also one that is ekphrastic. And with the art on the cover, it allowed people an Ah-ha moment into his work. It’s “accessible” even, they say, or almost accessible.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is one of the best of Ashbery’s books, and anything that brings readers to it is fine with me. It’s allowed a way in. It’s a friendly way to think of Ashbery’s work in general and has spilled over into his other books: yes, he is writing about things, real things, but in slippery, sideways glances. The more content available books teach people how to read the rest of the books.
The same sort of thing is available in the Bang and Armantrout books. The death at the center of Bang’s Elegy and the cancer at the center of Armantrout’s Versed, allow readers who wouldn’t normally find a way into these books or authors a context, and while that context might tend to reduce these books (the bad thing, as these books are about more than just the base upon which they were conceived), it also allows readers to allow themselves into the work in general (the good thing). You can see this dichotomy in action here, in the most complete citation I could find from the NBCC on Versed:
“for its demonstration of superb intellect and technique, its melding of experimental poetics but down-to-earth subject matter to create poems you are compelled to return to, that get richer with each reading.”
It’s just this sort of reading that people don’t often allow themselves with poets like Armantrout. There’s this myth out there that “experimental” poets don’t have a center, or a reason to be re-read. Books like Versed or Elegy or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (or Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies, to add another current award winner), could, if they’re not just token wins (the cynical reading of this is that the awards cycles are tagged by method, and this was the year “experimental” poetry’s number came up).
All this is to say that this year’s win by Rae Armantrout, who I think of next to Ashbery as a fundamentally important poet, thrills me. It just completely thrills me. It’s a long-overdue and deserving win.
And to close, here’s this, from the Buffalo News:
“Versed moves toward a deceptively simple, almost lyrical concision, but always in service of probing the dizzying discontinuities in language and thought. In its two long sections "Versed" and "Dark Matter," she writes unsparingly and unsentimentally on the occurrence of cancer (her own) not only as a physical ailment, but also as a crisis of representation for the language of illness, the body and the self. The poet-critic Ron Silliman has described Armantrout's work 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.’”