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Sunday February 26, 2017
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Rae Armantrout

 

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themselves Language Poets, and focused their work on the most basic elements of poetry, wordplay and sound, often loudly eschewing anything that might be called "meaning" and defying anything that would value one individual's "story" over another's. It was difficult to read this work. I read it, but without much enjoyment.

Sometime around Armantrout's third book, Necromance, I started hearing something different in her work. Individual lines or groups of them began to sound like epigrams, bits of wisdom arising from a philosophical exploration of the world: "Beauty appeals/like a cry/for help . . ." I started hearing poems that might have been written by a latter-day Emily Dickinson, poems wherein the self was hidden, yet obviously there, trying in a rigorous way to understand its place in the world.

By the time she published Versed in 2009, I looked forward to it. Clearly I wasn't alone: this book went on to win both the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The poems in this book worked the way the earlier ones had, but the expectations of their readers had changed. These poems no longer felt difficult, but almost direct in their portrayal of an extraordinary mind moving through a particular experience. The experience that informed them was the poet's diagnosis of cancer.

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