Rae Armantrout, one of the founding members of the West Coast group of Language poets, stands apart from other Language poets in her lyrical voice and her commitment to the interior and the domestic. Her short-lined poems are often concerned with dismantling conventions of memory, pop culture, science, and mothering, and these unsparing interrogations are often streaked with wit. “You can hold the various elements of my poems in your mind at one time, but those elements may be hissing and spitting at one another,” notes Armantrout.
According to critic Stephen Burt, “William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson together taught Armantrout how to dismantle and reassemble the forms of stanzaic lyric – how to turn it inside out and backwards, how to embody large questions and apprehensions in the conjunctions of individual words, how to generate productive clashes from arrangements of small groups of phrases. From these techniques, Armantrout has become one of the most recognisable, and one of the best, poets of her generation.”
Writing on Rae Armantrout for the Boston Review, Ilya Kaminsky noted this of her latest book, Just Saying: “Longtime readers of Armantrout’s poetry could also point to Larry Eigner, Lorine Niedecker or William Carlos Williams as kindred spirits, and indeed they would be right. This is, perhaps, the moment when one realizes one is dealing with a complex, important poet - one who can be classical and innovative at the same time, often in the same line. Just Saying is filled with poems like this.”
Armantrout’s mix of “classical and innovative” is seen in poems like ‘Headlong’:
by the myriad
beside the freeway –
their articulation –
Armantrout describes a common scene, and a common feeling – the way nature can ease us. There’s a whole mode of poetry dedicated to just that, but Armantrout quickly turns (and ends) the poem in a much different manner:
by the rush
following their own
in these headlong
Relieved of what?
Relieved of what?
Readers are quickly pointed away from the relief the marigolds provide and inward toward the complication, the anxiety, or grief, or maybe something else entirely that we were momentarily relieved from. The repetition of the question pushes harder and further. It’s also a funny interruption, though a dark reminder of the human condition. Armantrout writes not to relieve us at all, but to poke at what’s under the surface.
Armantrout’s wry humor is apparent throughout her work, as in ‘Loop,’ a poem inflected by aging, which begins:
in the old way.
at a snail’s
The irony of what is written, that it has to be “deciphered” is combined with the irony of the opening image of an “old” person curled into fetal position. Kaminsky writes, “Armantrout’s irony is not the workaday kind you find in poems written by people who grew up watching Seinfeld. There is a cruel exactitude of observation in her work … that elevates her irony from mere formal device to a mode of brutal clarity.” It is in this way that Armantrout’s work retains its humility and openness – nothing is too precious.
“I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt,” Armantrout has written. “It’s a Cheshire poetics, one that points two ways then vanishes in the blur of what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know. That double-bind.”
Armantrout’s poems are often described as works of great restraint and care, their short lines packed with metaphors that carry multiple meanings. Diagnosed with adrenal cortical cancer in 2006, many of her most recent pieces are driven by the struggle to accept and fight her illness. A single stanza in ‘Procedures’ is: “To start over/ in the carved moment/ is to take cover,” which can be read many ways, despite the breaks. She seems to be alluding to an operation on her body, one that also resulted in the a permanently changed inner life.
“We send the body on a mission . . . The body is catching flak/ or flies” she observes in ‘Outage.’ We do not have much control over ourselves, over what happens to our bodies, in the end. Despite even the best that we can do, a good diet and regular exercise, disease can still come without warning. And death eventually comes for everyone, anyway. ‘Fact’ declares:
is a pose,
waiting to be chosen.
"Just so," it says.
The author of several collections of widely anthologised poetry, Armantrout has also published a short memoir, True (1998). Her Collected Prose was published in 2007. A California native, Armantrout earned her BA at UC Berkeley – where she studied with Denise Levertov – and she received her MA at San Francisco State. She is a professor and director of the New Writing Series at UCSD.
Extremities, The Figures, Great Barrington, 1978
The Invention of Hunger, Tuumba, Berkeley, 1979
Precedence, Burning Deck, Providence, 1985
Couverture, Les Cahiers de Royaumont, Royaumont, 1991
Necromance, Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1991
Made To Seem, Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1995
writing the plot about sets, Chax, Tucson, 1998
Veil: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, 2001
The Pretext, Green Integer, Los Angeles, 2001
Up to Speed, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, 2004
Next Life, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, 2007
Versed, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, 2010
Just Saying, Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan, 2013
Narrativ, luxbooks, Wiesbaden, 2009
True, Atelos, Berkeley, 1998
Collected Prose, Singing Horse Press, San Diego, 2007
The Grand Piano: An Experiment In Collective Autobiography, Mode A/This Press, Detroit, 2007
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Birth Order’ read by Rae Armantrout
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Guess’ read by Rae Armantrout
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Scumble’ read by Rae Armantrout
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem Talk: ‘Grease is the Word: A Discussion of Rae Armantrout’s The Way,’ hosted by Al Filreis and featuring poets Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Ron Silliman
PoetryFoundation.org, Poetry Off the Shelf: ‘More Than Meets the I: Rae Armantrout gets personal without the pronoun’
PoetryFoundation.org: ‘Just Saying: On Rae Armantrout’s Latest Book’ by Laura Sims
Boston Review: ‘A Note on Rae Armantrout’ by Ilya Kaminsky
Interview with Rae Armantrout from Jubilat, issue 18