Friday, May 21, 2010

As "the Pulitzer Prize is mainly a prize for the news" why not a reductive argument?

Dan Chiasson Does a Dance in The New Yorker

So anyway, I went away for a little vacation, so I missed a couple comments on my last post. I thought about replying to them, but why revisit the past when there’s such a future ahead of us?

Here’s something else I missed, and am just now getting to: Dan Chiasson, in last week’s New Yorker, wrote about Rae Armantrout’s poetry. It’s a moment to celebrate, as Rae Armantrout is a vital, necessary poet, or at least it should be. In order to get Armantrout’s poetry into the house of poetry, Chiasson first must domesticate it. And domestication procedures are such heavy handed things.

I was driving with a friend last fall and we were talking about Armantrout (at least this is how I remember it), how her work was under the radar for a couple decades, and then, after the selected poems she seemed on this upward trajectory of visibility, and part of this visibility comes at a cost. What I was thinking about at that time was the way I saw people react to her work, how, once they were told it was funny, it gave them something to latch onto, so that seeing her read briefly at AWP last year had a slightly surreal air, which is, as soon as she started reading, people started laughing. All she’d have to say would be something like “McDonald’s” and then people would treat it as a punch line. She’s funny. And they’re not wrong, they’re just latching onto a part and making it the whole. They’re getting to Armantrout through metonymy, which is the same thing Chiasson is doing, in his slightly different way. They all see something in Armantrout that is valuable and persuasive, and they want to talk about it, but like the blind men with the elephant (how’s that story go again? I’ll have to look it up), they all feel a different creature in front of them and decide that’s the creature (Its a snake! It's a wall!).

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Here are a couple critiques of Chiasson that I came across, linked from Ron Silliman’s blog. The first, from

“I don’t necessarily disagree with Chiasson’s conclusion, that “there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” Conjecture and reverie are quite enjoyable routes for the mind to take. That Armantrout’s poems open life up to us is not something I’d contest. But let’s back up a bit in the review. Chiasson selects “Presto” as his favorite poem in the collection. He then proceeds to “decode” the poem, filling in the “blanks” with what he knows of Armantrout’s life. It’s the poem that he can best pull what he feels is the necessary backstory to “unlock” the poem — that this poem succeeds best because, to him, it behaves most like a confessional poem. He then goes on to hail that this “is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Ah, the hybrid again. Versed then is only due its honors by creating this tenuous bridge.”

And the second, from

“see . . . Dan Chiasson’s entirely awkward piece “Entangled” in a recent New Yorker, how he (repeatedly) explains (away) Rae Armantrout, grabbing one (short) straw after another: “Somewhere behind this poem is 9 / 11 (when ‘breaking news’ became standard fare)” (hunh?), or “Like Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Versed is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Look, too, at the total anxiety in Chiasson’s final lines—attempting a light-heart’d riff off Frost’s “We dance around in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows”—: “Poets like Ashbery and Armantrout are secret-keepers. For the rest of us, there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” A nod—unsolicit’d, probably unintend’d—at the “genuinely experimental” (Chiasson’s words)’s assuming the center (where silence and pretence serve mostly to prolong the power arrangement.)”

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One of the things Chiasson is doing to Armantrout is similar (but with a little more cause) to what Vendler tried to do to Stevens in a recent bit on his collected poems, namely, to read them as autobiography. Chiasson reads her poems by filling in the white space with what he knows of her biography: a son, her cancer, etc., as well as historicizing it, as exemplified by the completely odd bit about 9 – 11 mentioned above. This might be Chiasson’s way into Armantout, but it’s not the best way, just as thinking of her as a comedian is a way in, but not the best way, as neither of these ways in is going to be helpful past a few carefully selected examples. Her work is complex (as all agree), and I think of it as complex in an inverse way to Ashbery’s complexity. Ashbery is complex through plenitude while Armantrout is complex through fragment. Both poets are actively engaged in the way thinking moves and winds and folds, and where Ashbery throws everything in from the field, Armantrout leaps through the field. She is a deeply clever poet, one always both focused and distractible. It will be autobiography she uses, but then, just as quickly, and more importantly, just as present, autobiography will be gone and she’ll be dwelling in found text or the thread of an idea.

So, this said, I’m not writing against Chiasson here, I’m just saying that he’s participating in a domestication process, one that I believe is sure to quickly disappoint new readers of Armantrout if they are going to read her work through his lens.

A side argument he makes is much more aggressive, and worth noting, for it’s another entry in the battle for the story of our time. It’s his version of what Language poetry was and what it was against. In short form it posits the same old dichotomy of the 80s, the “post-confessional poem” vs. Language poetry. Well, there’s some truth to that. There certainly was a “post-confessional poetry” that was the period style (I posit that it’s STILL the period style, if you look to the total number of poems and books published), but the story of how Language poetry went from avant-garde to Pulitzer Prize is painted over with cartoon lines. That this might become the dominant narrative is irritating, and does little to explain what happened in the 90s, when, for want of a theoretical term, all hell broke loose.


At 5/21/2010 5:25 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


(advice to budding poets)

Make one. Then disguise it.
Make them all try
to figure it out.
Be witty and clever
and erudite.
Make sure they get
too frustrated
in the searching
to really get it.

Many references, too.
Some obscure, so they appear
to reflect a cultured mind.
Be scholarly and ever
more unclear.
Offer a gift but hide it,
something they will never find.
Tie it much too tight
to unwrap. Lock it,
without a key,
behind a door.

To the sad word-bound
this will be a joy…
another literary puzzle
to struggle with and pass empty
time, but to the rest of us
such a bore.

Copyright 2009 - Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 5/22/2010 7:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a nice side argument about what Language poetry was, I agree, that was interesting; I enjoyed that dissection. But it seemed to me that the whole thesis of that side argument started to waggle when he offered what he perceives as the strength of Versed in particular--fills in those white spaces, as you call them, with biography, nearly ... See Moreconfessional. It suggests that Versed succeeds because it makes what Armantrout represents to the non Armantrouters out there--whatever Language poetry is now--worthwhile by making it not Language poetry.


At 5/22/2010 7:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I wasn't as fond of the side argument as you were. I thought he was knocking off too many corners to make his pegs fit. Which is where I agree with you about his bit on Armantrout, which seems to be: "She's OK to like. She was never really one of them. She's always been one of us."

At 5/22/2010 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's exactly what it felt like to me too.

And I agree, the side argument was reductive, but for the space, it felt like it was really going to lead to something, to find a way to Versed with those gradual distinctions. But then it did not.


At 5/22/2010 7:37 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed! He was trying to take on a lot of material in a tight space. He should've just skipped it. He could have talked about Armantrout without it.

At 5/23/2010 8:39 AM, Blogger Steven Fama said...

To repeat something I peanut-galleried over at Ron Silliman Blog, Professor Chiasson's "side argument" about Language essentially dismissed all other poetry written by those writers. I find that astonishing.

At 5/23/2010 9:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi Steven,

Indeed. There's a pebble of sense in what he says, but a whole mountain of exclusion.

As much as I see his reading of Armantrout to be reductive, his reading of the 70s / 80s is rather astonishing. Such things run the risk of becoming thumbnail truths. That would be unfortunate.

At 6/02/2010 4:38 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I only just read the article, so I have the wrong sequence in mind: first Gallaher, then Chiasson.

But I must admit that, from your discussion of it, John, I expected Chiasson's review to be much more ambivalent than it is. I kept waiting for his comments about Armantrout to seem like back-handed compliments, and they aren't. It seems to me that he genuinely likes her work, and without reservation.

That said, I was not surprised to see remarks in the comment stream here about Chiasson's dismissal of all the rest of the Language poets as being significantly inferior to RA!

More to say, but unfortunately I have to run!

At 6/02/2010 7:02 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You’re right, he does like Armantrout’s work, but he likes it in a specific way—as he’s able to fill in the story as if she had a story and then did an erasure on it. It’s a perfectly fine way to read some of her poems, as one can follow the logic of the jump at times, but it’s a terrible way to release someone onto her work in general, as I believe it would only leave readers with a feeling of frustration that they’re mostly not able to do that. His examples were carefully chosen. And even then, the whole 9/11 thing was just weird.

In short: He wants the reader to do a sort of biographical / historicist reading/rendering of her work that just isn’t possible.

She IS a poet of gaps and leaps, but filling them in? Is what’s not there a place for the reader to re-surface? Or, better, might be a discussion of how the interruptions and moments of blank canvas contribute to the work, rather than give someone a homework assignment, not be more helpful to a reader of her work in general? I think yes.


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