Teaching The “New” Poetries

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Kiosk: A Joural of Poetry, Poetics, and Experimental Prose, 1 (2002) pp. 235-60.

How does the avant-garde poetry being written today play out in the contemporary college classroom? Having taught courses in “Modern Poetry” since 1965, when I began my career at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., let me begin by saying that, paradoxically, the poems of, say, Bruce Andrews or Harryette Mullen are, at one level, more accessible to students than are those of W. B. Yeats or Ezra Pound. For however scrambled a new “experimental” poem may be, however non-syntactic, non-linear, or linguistically complex, it is, after all, written in the language of the present, which is to say the language of the students who are reading it. On the other hand—and here’s the rub—since the contemporary undergraduate is likely to have almost no familiarity with poetry, beyond the obligatory Robert Frost poem that may or may not have been taught in high school, the class will have a lot of catching up to do. Indeed, the notion of teaching “beyond the familiar canon” which I have been asked to discuss here is something of a mystery to me because there is no longer a canon beyond which to go! At StanfordUniversity, where I now teach, we have English PhD candidates who have never read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” much less Milton’s “Lycidas.” And when I recently gave an invited lecture to the Engineering Honors Club at the University of Southern California on the topic “What is Poetry?” I learned that most of these juniors and seniors—high I.Q. students, all of them–had never read any poetry and couldn’t cite the name of a single poet. The only work they had all read—and I doubt it will help them with the analysis of radical poetries today—is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

So much for the “familiar canon,” the irony being that the lack of consensus is not necessarily a blessing for the avant-garde. For the absence of a serious discourse about poetry, a real debate as to the merits of X or Y, coupled with a commercial poetry scene controlled by only a few publishing houses whose chosen poets win the big prizes and find their way into the New Yorker, makes is difficult to teach students how poetry actually works and when a given poem has value. Accordingly, those of us who want to broaden the readership for the new poetries, must take nothing for granted, must take up the work of the contemporaries we care about and read their work closely and critically, bearing in mind that Official Verse Culture, as Charles Bernstein has dubbed it, tends to valorize very different models.

Let me illustrate how this might work, using as an example a subtle and intriguing new book published by Green Integer Press: Rae Armantrout’s The Pretext (2001). Armantrout is a leading and, we might say, established language poet—the author of seven previous collections, including one in French, and a prose memoir–but she is hardly canonical on the New York publishing scene represented by Norton or Viking, Knopf or Farrar, Straus & Giroux, by the New York Review of Books or New York Times Book Review. I shall speculate, later in this essay why this might be the case, comparing Rae Armantrout’s poems to some recent work by a female poet of the very same generation, whose poetry has won every prize including a MacArthur, and who is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard. I am thinking, of course, of Jorie Graham.

For the moment, however, let’s consider how one might teach The Pretext, Like Armantrout’s earlier books, this one is slender and compact: its ninety-one pages include forty short poems, typically made up of two and three-line free-verse stanzas. There are also some prose poems like “Performers” and some mixed verse-prose ones like the title poem. Although the lyrics are self-contained poems, this book does have a narrative thread of sorts: it concerns the poet’s regular visits to a nursing home where her mother is evidently dying. Only a portion of the poems are directly “about” the mother, but death is, however obliquely and sardonically, a presence throughout. Here is a representative poem:


Age as a centripetal force.

She can’t hold the fictive
panoply of characters

Is that scary?

Origin’s a sore point.

(When the old woman sheds tears,
I say, “What’s wrong?”

as if surprised

the way Peter denied
he knew Jesus in the bible.

But Jesus too
refused to recognize his mom.)

We want a more distant relation

like that of Christmas tree ornament
to fruit.         (60-61)

How would I go about discussing this poem in the classroom? Students who have at least some familiarity with poetry are likely to have two contradictory reactions. On the one hand, “Direction” looks familiar on the page. Its short free-verse lines and small stanzaic units, its largely casual, colloquial diction and phrasing, its everyday references: these are fairly standard in poetry anthologies today. If the students have already been exposed (as I hope they have) to the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, they will recognize these poets as obvious influences on Armantrout. A less obvious, but perhaps more striking, presence here is that of Sylvia Plath: such one line observations as “Age as a centripetal force” and “Is that scary?” recall poems like “Cut Thumb” and “Love Song.”

On the other hand, in Armantrout’s poem, there is much less continuity than in either Creeley or Plath. There is no positioned observer, whose insights are detailed, one by one. The first line, “Age as a centripetal force” sets the stage: the reference is to the increasing inward turn, the withdrawal from contact with the outside world that characterizes old age, as memory comes to replace action as well as anticipation of a possible future.

The “Direction” of the title is thus inward. But who is “she” and why can’t she hold even “the fictive / panoply of characters / apart”? Evidently “she” is the “old woman” who “sheds tears” in line 7; even the soap opera she watches on TV, perhaps, has become too complicated for her to follow. And “that,” of course is “scary” to the “I” of line 8, who is evidently at her bedside. But “Is that scary?” may also be the “old woman’s question about the “fictive panoply” she is watching on TV or reading about. Indeed, everything is scary in this context, especially since “Origin’s a sore point.” The “Origin” of what? Of illness? Of the first signs of memory loss or Alzheimers? Of the lack of rapport between the two people in question, who may well be (but we can’t say for certain) mother and daughter. Armantrout doesn’t spell it out so that it seems all the more sinister and frustrating.

The narrator tries to keep things normal, unemotional: “When the old woman sheds tears / I say What’s wrong / as if surprised.” Such pretense is perhaps necessary but it can also be perceived as cruel—a denial that the poem likens to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and, in turn, Jesus’s refusal to acknowledge Mary as his mother. The poet is uncomfortable with bedside scenes and she may not be close to this “old woman” even though the situation is obviously painful for them both. The last lines, in any case, are equivocal: “We want a more distant relation,” she says, “like that of Christmas tree ornament / to fruit.” Who, to begin with is “we”? Human beings in general in their dealings with relatives or perhaps even friends? Young people? Children of the elderly and sick? Or specifically daughters? Or certain kinds of daughters? The simile, far from being graphic is purposely open to interpretation. If the Christmas tree ornament is an angel, its relation to fruit is indeed “distant.” If it is a blue metal ball that looks rather like a plum, the distance decreases. Then again, the piece of fruit may be the Christmas tree ornament itself. In that case, how distant is a “more distant relation”? And how easily can the “I” actually detach herself from the old woman’s plight?

Let us now step back and see what assumptions have been made thus far. First, that any serious poem, however disjointed and “nonsensical,” is meaningful. Second, that the poem’s meanings are never quite paraphraseable, never univocal: numbers of alternate readings are possible. And third, that the only way to get at the poem is in fact to read it, word for word, line by line. Much of what passes for poetry criticism today refuses to do this: it picks up on one item that arrests the reader’s attention and often ignores the rest. But a close reading—and there is no other way to understand poetry which is, as Ezra Pound so succinctly put it, “news that stays news,” has to account for all the elements in a given text, not just the ones that support a particular interpretation.

From this perspective, we read Armantrout’s poem as we would any other, whether “experimental” or conventional, contemporary or seventeenth-century. But such a preliminary reading is not worth much unless we now start to ask larger questions. What matters, after all, is not what this little poem “says” about old age or mother-daughter relationships, but how it says it and why. The next step, then, is to place the poem in a number of larger frames: first the book in which it appears and Armantrout’s oeuvre as a whole, then its genre and stylistic conventions, and then its cultural and historical markers vis-à-vis other comparable poems of the period.

First, then, context. The opening poem of Armantrout’s book is called “Birthmark: The Pretext” and begins as follows:

You want something, that’s the pretext. I recently abandoned a dream

narrative called “Mark.” You can see it, since you asked.


I’m with three friends.

We’ve parked in a lot downtown,

lucky to get a slot.

My son’s friend

asks him if he’s divided

his homework in three parts;

luckily he has.

Suddenly, I’m the teacher.

I see a line of Milton’s

I’m glad I haven’t marked it wrong;

at first I thought it didn’t fit.

Here is the same mix of the colloquial and the oblique, the literal and the punning, we witnessed in “Direction.” A “pretext” is both an excuse for doing something and a pre-text or preface that anticipates what is to come. In the poet’s case, the “pretext” has to do with a series of recent events. But this is never said directly. Instead, she gives us a “dream narrative” called “Mark” that looks absolutely naturalistic and flat except that the three stanzas don’t cohere. What do the three friends of the first have to do with dividing homework into three parts and the issue of “marking” (with its pun on “Mark”) a line of Milton’s (the poet or a student in the poet’s writing class) that didn’t “fit”? In the prose that follows, we read:

That’s not very interesting or it’s only
interesting because it’s real. It’s a real

dream composed of three banal vignettes in which the same elements appear, luck, parts, and fit. It’s interesting to the extent that the divisions and the fitting together arise spontaneously, without pretext. In other words, to the extent that there is a stranger in my head arranging things for me. Of course, I divided the poem in three parts. I chose the word lucky.

Luck, parts, and fit: Armantrout’s “three banal vignettes” indeed fuse these three elements: the luck of finding the parking space, the tripartite division, both of the son’s homework and her own poem, and issue of parts—in this case, lines—that fit. In real dreams, Armantrout posits, images obviously don’t cohere. The poet must capture that “reality” even as she is the one choosing the words and dividing her poem into particular parts.

Here, then, is a statement of poetic that is itself poetically rendered. The rest of the piece turns to Armantrout’s own “reality”: the strawberry-colored birthmark on her outer left thigh, her small breasts, her rebellion against gender identification related in her reaction to the image of Marilyn Monroe. Here again the three-fold topos of the poem—luck, parts, and fit—become the object of self-scrutiny. Was Monroe lucky to have her particular parts? Is the poet comfortable with her own? “Funny,” she remarks, “how you can be excited without fitting in anywhere.” This seemingly casual observation provides the “pretext” for the rest of the book, with its peculiar tension between not “fitting in” and “excitement,” of separation and absorption into what is an alien but enticing culture—the culture in which the great star, blessed with those amazing breasts, nevertheless has “a squeaky little girl voice.” “The Birthmark” ends with the sentence, “But I’ve gone off on a tangent when what I wanted to do was swallow my own pretext.” The metaphor is apt: what may look “tangential” is really a “pretext” the poet has carefully “swallowed” or made her own as the motive that looks ahead to, and is the raison d’être for, what follows.

What sort of poetry is this and where is it positioned in the culture? Why, for example, is this “poem” written primarily in prose? Readers new to this work sometimes object that poems like “The Birthmark” and “Direction” are not sufficiently concrete or graphic, that this poet’s ruminations on “luck, parts, and fit” are not properly “emotive” and hence “moving”. Isn’t poetry, at least in the extracts from the Norton Anthology they may have seen, the expression of powerful feelings? Why, then, Armantrout’s largely abstract diction? And why speak of the female gender as an oppressive “birthmark” rather than dramatizing the specific sexual feelings this particular woman might have?

To answer such potential objections, the instructor must confront issues of genre and convention. It is not enough to say that Armantrout’s predilection for abstract nouns and adjectives and “prosaic” rhythms has to do with her status as a “Language poet,” or again, that the “fragmentation” and dislocation of her phrasing is a feminist response to patriarchy. Armantrout herself has remarked, in an interview with Lyn Hejinian, “I don’t think we can say that fragmentation and polyvalence are feminine styles sometimes appropriated by men. . . . Aren’t these the techniques of all the great modernists (Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and the later Williams as well as Stein and H.D.)?” [1] At the same time—and I shall come back to this point—gender obviously does make a difference in The Pretext as does Armantrout’s long involvement with the Language community. But, for the moment, it should be noted that Armantrout’s poetry is really very unlike that of Ron Silliman or Bob Perelman or even that of Lyn Hejinian. What, then, is it like? What assumptions govern its verbal and rhythmical choices?

The first thing to say—though it may seem obvious—is that Armantrout’s is a decidedly American poetic. There are, in her lyrics, no appreciable echoes of British poetry, no allusions to Wordsworth or Keats or, for that matter, such early Modernists as Yeats and Hardy. The British exclusion immediately differentiates Armantrout’s lyric, not only from a poet like Allen Ginsberg, for whom Blake was central, but also from John Ashbery’s, where, despite an overlay of French Dada and Surrealism, allusions to and borrowings from the Romantic and Victorian poets are decisive. Then, too, Armantrout’s syntactic structures are largely those of American working-class speech, minimally grammatical and often slangy, as in “She said, ‘If you’re gonna hire / the dummies, I quit!” (“The Past”). And the minimalism of her free-verse stanzas, with their curious line breaks and incorporated silences suggest that traditional verse forms have long since lost any attraction as have genres like elegy or pastoral. Armantrout’s is poetry written in the Williams mode, as that mode was developed by Creeley, George Oppen, and especially Lorine Niedecker. Like Niedecker, whose poems the students might be given as analogues, Armantrout writes as a self-acknowledged outsider, a loner. “I myself,” as she puts it in “Writing” (10), “was always a forwarding address.” But, again like Niedecker, this poet is tough-minded and self-reliant: “People come first, but / categories outlast them,” she tells herself (21). And like Niedecker, she has a crusty, quirky sense of humor that distinguishes her poetry from the surface sophistications of its New York counterpart. “Sound / as a drum / or tight as a drum?” she asks wryly in “The Past” (21), and then responds with the single word “Quick!”, followed by the poignant question, “Is recognition / sentimental?”

Neither Niedecker or Plath, however, foregrounded pop culture as does Armantrout in The Pretext: the difference, no doubt, is generational. Armantrout’s particular discourse radius is that of comic books and late night TV, movie stars and department store clerks, the CBS evening news and the parking lot. Domesticity, in this world of “Flagpole[s] on a traffic island,” is itself mediated by media images: to be a housewife, this poetry suggests, is not to be baking a cake or making new curtains but to be watching TV and day-dreaming about Art Garfunkel and Joanne Woodward. In this sense, Armantrout’s is very much a poetry of our moment—a poetry of bedroom communities like La Jolla where neighbors don’t really know one another, and half one’s waking hours are spent driving around in one’s car. Indeed, even without any biographical knowledge, the reader surmises that Armantrout’s giant peonies and clunky telephone poles are located in communities that have little history, that her “yard strung with plastic Jack-O-Lanterns, / some filled with poinsettias” is remarkable precisely for its lack of distinction. Her landscape is a long way from Robert Lowell’s Boston Common or Frank O’Hara’s lunch-hour Manhattan.

This brings us to larger historical and cultural issues. What does it mean, for starters, to have a book of poems so dismissive of everything that traditionally goes with poetry: intricate sound repetition, stanzaic layout, and especially a coherent “I,” whose reflections one can follow throughout the poem, a lyric self that stands behind the poem’s metaphors and symbols? Then, too, what happens when “poetry” declares itself to be without generic markers, whether with respect to larger verse forms—sonnet, sestina, quatrain—or conventions, such as those of the dramatic monologue, the pastoral elegy, ode, or ballad? If the “new poetry” does without all these, what does it substitute?

Armantrout herself suggests that what she is writing is collage. “I do a kind of faux-collage where I’m mixing familiar tones and voices—say the diction of a TV anchor man with that of an Alzheimer’s patient” (WS 12). But collage is actually not quite the right term for Armantrout’s “tone-shifting” and “peculiar overlaps,” as she calls them, for collage entails the juxtaposition, on the same verbal plane, of concrete images pasted together, whereas an Armantrout poem consists of a sequence of tenuously interconnected clauses and phrases, where the connections between abstract statements are regularly blurred. Brian Reed has referred to this mode as an “attenuated hypotaxis” [2]—a useful designation, reminding us that disjunction need not be, as is often thought, paratactic—phrases and clauses strung together by a series of “and’s”—that a pseudo-hypotaxis in which B seems to follow A, only to turn out to be a disconnect is another interesting mode of procedure—indeed a more radical mode than collage, which was, after all, the dominant poetic mode of Modernism.

What is the meaning of such hypotaxis? For many poets of Armantrout’s generation, all ordering principles are suspect as are the conventional genres. In the age of media, as I have argued in Radical Artifice, linear structures with beginning, middle, and end and forms of musical repetition have been viewed as failing to “measure” and critique the actual social and political structures within which we live in late twentieth-century (now twenty-first century) America. And from her position as a woman and hence, as we see throughout the pages of The Pretext, forced to assume the role of caretaker, whether for her son or her mother, the institutional structures seem especially oppressive:

When her mother worsens,

She imagines the funeral

Of a living celebrity.

Who would attend?

Why or why not?

Is this dream logic? (“Her References,” 18)

In her willingness to do without so much of the usual accoutrements of poetry, Armantrout gives her full attention to its one indispensable element: language. “All our nouns / will be back momentarily,” we read in a poem called “No,” that ends with the couplet, “As if it were needless / to say,” with its play on that most common of qualifiers, “Needless to say . . .” (46-47). What a close reading of The Pretext will reveal is that this is a poetry obsessive about language itself, its “luck, parts, and [especially its] fit.” Poetry, in other words, can do without symbol, metaphor, metrical elegance, and so on, but what it cannot do without is what Aristotle called to prepon—fitness or relatedness. In the line “Origin’s a sore point,” for example, “sore point” is obviously a dead metaphor, but in the poem “Direction,” in which the old woman “sheds tears,” the “sore point” is also a literal reference. In the metonymic network of the poem, cliché is regularly twisted (often into pun) so as to yield new meanings, as in “To postpone withdrawal / by spreading oneself thin.”

Poetry, in this scheme of things, is, as David Antin put it, the language art, and so the relative success of a given set of poems has to do with its recharging of the language, its ability to make words and lines resonate. Sound (repetition, internal rhyme, consonance) does play a part as does the poem’s placement of text and white space. The question, one of Armantrout’s favorite rhetorical devices, is regularly left hanging, and when, down the page, a putative answer comes, it seems to be to another question. And the sudden shifts from concrete image to abstract noun and verb, many of them placed within pseudo-propositions, suggest that one cannot make present the world outside oneself; there are only tentative moves in that direction. In “Greeting,” for example, the image of the telephone pole, “shouldering a complement / of knobs” (68), suddenly yields to thoughts of circumstance: “the way a single word / could mean / necessary, relative, / provisional.” The force of these meditative lines is to transform the image of the “wood pole’s / rosy crossbar” into an anticipation of the death prefigured in the bird’s “flick past” on the final lines. We can’t read “Greeting,” we can only reread it.

The complexities of this fragmentary minimalist poetry will make more sense to students if it is read against its alternatives on the current poetry scene. An interesting variant, as I mentioned above, is found in the poetry of Jorie Graham, one of the most successful poets writing in America today. Here is her “Evolution,” published in the London Review of Books (5 July 2001).

One’s nakedness is very slow.

One calls to it, one wastes one’s sympathy.

Comparison, too, is very slow.

Where is the past?

I sense that we should keep this coming.

Something like joy rivulets along the sand.

I insist that we “go in.” We go in.

One cannot keep all of it. What is enough

of it. And keep?—I am being swept away—

what is keep?— A waking good.

Visibility blocking the view.

Although we associate the manifest with kindness,

we do. The way it goes, where it goes, slight downslope,

Like the word “suddenly,” the incline it causes.

Also the eye’s wild joy sucked down the slope the minutes wave

by wave

pack down and slick.

The journey—some journey—visits one.

The journey—some journey—visits me.

Then this downslope once again.

And how it makes what happens

Always more heavily

laden, this self only able to sink (albeit also

lifting as in a

sudden draught) into the future. Our future. Where everyone

is patient.

Where all the sentences come to complete themselves.

Where what wants to be human still won’t show

its face.

Like Armantrout’s poems, this twenty-seven line lyric [3] is written in free verse, although Graham’s “free verse” is obviously quite unlike Armantrout’s. Graham’s lines are mostly long and prosaically understressed, but they culminate in the iambic hexameter of the conclusion: “where áll the séntencés cóme to compléte themsélves./ Where whát wánts to be húman stíll won’t shów its fáce.” The move toward metrical stability is not surprising, for Graham’s lyric exhibits an emotive and temporal coherence. However oblique some of its images and references, B follows from A here, and C from B in a sequence that has its own inner logic. One cannot, for example, reverse the order of these largely grammatical sentences and clauses.

Again, like Armantrout’s, Graham’s language is predominantly abstract: her poem contains primarily conceptual nouns like “sympathy,” “Comparison,” “past,” “joy” “good,” and “kindness,” even as the predominant verb is the copula, as in “Where is the past?” or “what is keep? A waking good.” But “Evolution” has none of the gaps we find in, say, “Direction” where the line “Age is a centripetal force” is followed by the words, “She can’t hold the fictive panoply,” with no indication who “she” is. Nor does “Evolution” use the casual diction, slang, or popular culture references we find in Armantrout’s work. Graham’s language is stately and remote—rather like the language of a Victorian novel: “joy rivulets along the sand,” “what happens” is “always more heavily laden,” the self is “only able to sink (albeit also lifting. . .),” and so on. True, these elaborate phrases are punctuated by staccato, more colloquial ones like “I insist that we ‘go in’. We go in,” but its general tenor is one of high seriousness. Then, too, the poet’s voice is carefully distanced by the use of the pronoun “One” (5 instances) and “we” or “our” (6), as compared to only three references to the first person, in each instance brought in only to qualify a generalization about “one”: as in:

The journey—some journey—visits one.

The journey—some journey—visits me.

“Evolution” is an oblique and highly wrought poem, but its central meanings are not difficult to understand, once we recognize that it uses the subject of Darwinian Evolution as a pretext (that word again!) or occasion for a meditation on what it means to be “human,” to have “evolved” from the animals unto a “higher” nature? Where does such evolution leave our powerful sexual instincts? The poem’s difficulties are generated, not by semantic gaps and dislocations, as is the case in Armantrout’s work, but by circumlocution and indirection. The first line, “One’s nakedness is very slow,” for example, seems puzzling since nakedness is a condition and hence cannot be either “fast” or “slow,” but what the poet is really saying here is that one’s acknowledgement of one’s nakedness, or one’s awareness of one’s nakedness is what comes only slowly. And, as the prosopopeia of the second line suggests, we are trained to regard the body as somehow outside the self so that “One calls to it, one wastes one’s sympathy.”

As such locutions testify, in Graham’s poem, the irony is multiplex. One wants, the poem suggests, to live instinctually but “One cannot keep all of it.” Then again, “what is keep? A waking good.” So, much as one dutifully insists “that we ‘go in’,” and we do “go in,” one resists such rational behavior and is “swept away” down “the incline.” Graham’s is in fact a latter-day “Dialogue of Self and Soul” [Yeats], a débat between the longing for “something like joy” that “rivulets along the sand,” and the recognition that “the eye’s wild joy sucked down the slope the minutes wave by wave / pack down and slick.” The Shakespeare echo (“Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten to their end”), paves the way for a moment of self-recognition. Facing oneself and letting go is hard: it is not darkness but ironically “visibility” that is “blocking the view.” The future of Evolution—a future where perhaps we accept ourselves as we are, is never quite complete.

These speculations on the aporias of sexual love and responsibility evidently have urgency for the poet. But it is interesting to compare such generalizations as “Where what wants to be human still won’t show its face,” to an Armantrout line like “Age as a centripetal force.” In the latter case, as I remarked earlier, what is said about old age remains equivocal: is the increasing solipsism a good thing or not? In Graham’s “Evolution,” on the other hand, the assertion is presented as a hard-earned truth that the narrator has made her own. True, the conclusion is presented obliquely. “What wants to be human” is evidently the woman’s inner “animal” nature, the “wild joy sucked down” that “still won’t show its face.” But if the line is designed to mystify the reader, the poet herself seems to know exactly how she feels about sexuality and the need for restraint. It is not, in other words, that the speaker herself has doubts as to the “wisdom” put forward in her ruminations on the erotic life. Indeed—and here is an unanticipated irony—despite the talk of “wild joy” and the “sinking” which is also a “lifting,” there is no abandon in the formal structure of the poem. On the contrary, its elements are everywhere controlled, its tone carefully modulated. .

Tone, more specifically voice and address, is one of the hardest things to talk about when analyzing poetry. But consider the following. Why is Graham’s poem, with its evident desire for letting go, a series of complete sentences and clauses? To whom is she speaking when she asks questions like “Where is the past?” or “What is keep?” She is clearly not asking herself because, having raises these issues, she goes on to spell out what the whole situation means. Nor is she addressing her lover, the person referred to in lines like “I insist that we ‘go in.’ We go in.” Who, then, is the addressee? It is, by all accounts, the reader, the reader who is to be edified and enlightened by the poet’s oblique and “profound” account of what sexual passion does to human beings. But the profundity is undermined by the reader’s recognition that in fact the poem exhibits no appreciable conflict. No worry about “luck, parts, and fit” here. The lovers, as this poem makes clear, aren’t about to give each other up; they aren’t conflicted about what they should do, or at least the speaker is not, since, in all fairness, her lover is not given much a chance. Indeed, it is the narrator who calls the shots. “I insist we ‘go in.’ We go in.”

But, then, what is the actual human situation that haunts this poem? We never know. In The Pretext, Armantrout presents us with her difficult, by no means “pretty” response to her dying mother in the nursing home; she is unsparing in showing her own failings as well as those of others. Every reader can identify with such a situation. But in “Evolution,” the world-weary narrator, curiously knowing about the relation of past and present, the journey into the future, and the fate of the self, seems unable to see herself as others see her. Difficulty, in such a poem, is less the inherent difficulty of not being able to tell it all straight than it is a calculated vagueness, designed to impress readers with the profundity and importance of the issues at stake.

At this point, we might ask our students why they suppose “Evolution” and related Graham poems have won such extravagant praise from reviewers and prize committees? The answer, I think, is that such poems are just familiar enough to hit a responsive chord without quite giving themselves away. “Evolution” is a neo-Romantic ode, a “poem of experience,” as Robert Langbaum dubbed the meditation in which a given speaker, located in a particular time, place, and situation, undergoes a particular experience that culminates in some kind of epiphany, in this case, the recognition that “Our future” would ideally be one where we could be ourselves, in all our nakedness. Given these parameters, the willed indeterminacies like “What is enough / of it? And keep?” are curiously contained within a formal fixity (the passage from “nakedness” to “show its face”) that belies these ostensibly open meanings.

Yet—and this is what makes the comparison of Armantrout to Graham valuable—“Evolution” testifies at every turn to its author’s awareness of the Language movement, even as it doesn’t want to take dislocation and discontinuity to the extremes of Armantrout or Bruce Andrews, of Charles Bernstein or Clark Coolidge. Consider the lines, “The way it goes where it goes, slight downslope, / like the word ‘suddenly,’ the incline it causes.” The reference is to the fact that “súddenly” is a dactyl and hence “inclines” downward (/ x x ), thus making it itself a verbal “downslope.” But unlike Armantrout’s recognition, in the poem “No,” that “The copula may take the form of a cable / or snake” (46), the reference to “suddenly” seems more clever than integral to the poem.

Comparison and contrast, in any case, can make the class learn to differentiate between enigmas that cannot be resolved because the poet has no answers and those that are, more properly, surface difficulties, easily penetrable on a second or third reading. Graham’s is usually considered a “philosophical” poetry, what with its frequent allusions to Heidegger and Agamben, Levinas and Lacan, and it is true that hers is highly unlike the casual, autobiographical stance of such of her contemporaries as Gerald Stern or Philip Levine. If we wanted to place Graham’s poetic, we might assign it to the “Romantic esoteric” slot—highly complicated and serious, but with none of the intransigence, the edge, that we find in the best Language poetries. Its audience may well be wider but its reach, much narrower.

The challenge of Armantrout’s quirky lyric, in short, strikes me as finally more satisfying than the stylishness we have come to associate with Jorie Graham. Seemingly slight as Armantrout’s poems may be, especially when one compares a book like The Pretext to a Graham volume like The Swarm (2000) or Materialism (1997), they exhibit everywhere a strenuous thinking that takes nothing for granted. I don’t claim for a moment that they surpass, in any way, their great Modernist forebears; to my mind—and this is too complicated a subject to develop here—the real “revolution of the word” came early in our century, even if its promise is only being realized now. And I also don’t want to argue that Armantrout is always successful: in “Direction,” for example, the reference to Mary as Jesus’s “Mom” strikes me as excessively cute. But what reading her work against Graham’s reveals is that we must, on the one hand, take the Other of experimental poetry quite seriously, noting that there are many overlaps between “Evolution” and “Birthmark: The Pretext,” even as we must also discriminate carefully between their respective poetic stances and their place in literary as well as cultural history.

I am by no means making the case for a false and easy ecumenicalism that takes its poetry wherever it happens to find it and treats it as so many discrete items, all of them interesting and somehow of value. But I do feel that before we decide what we like and go about teaching it, the more actual textual analysis—and not just of Our Gang–the better. In Armantrout’s words:

Just reproducing it


all the concentration

you are: this

taut prong

holding forth. (83)


Lyn Hejinian, “An Interview with Rae Armantrout,” A Wild Salience: The Writing of Rae Armantrout, ed. Tom Beckett (Cleveland: Burning Press, 1999), p.16. Subsequently cited in the text as WS.

Brian Reed, “Hart Crane’s Victrola,” Modernism/Modernity, 7, 1 (2000):

[3] I am counting the run on particles as part of the preceding lines; if these are counted as separate entities, the poem has 30 lines.

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