The language of the will to live
by Keith Taylor
For anyone who reads poetry, there are always poets who become important only after one learns how to read them. Rae Armantrout is one of those for me. When I started reading her almost thirty years ago, I associated her with a difficult group of poets who were challenging the conventions of narrative and image that then dominated American poetry. They called 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.
There are moments in Versed of surprising clarity. The poem "Around" begins, typically for Armantrout, with a larger philosophical moment--"Time is pleased/to draw itself/out . . ." But the second section of the poem is almost frighteningly direct:
Chuck and I are pleasedThe third section of the poem first quotes what might be the language of commerce or advertising, but then contrasts it with the perception of the desperately ill speaker:
to have found a spot
where my ashes can...continued below...
It looks like a construction site
but it's adjacent
to a breathtaking, rocky coast.
"The futureAs frank as that is, it is not the final tone of this collection. Armantrout survived her illness; her cancer is in remission. There are no platitudes here. This poet would never accept or believe them. Yet the book ends with a kind of direction--"The full force/of the will to live/is fixed/on the next/occasion://someone/coming with a tray,//someone/calling a number."
is all around us."
It's a place,
where we don't exist.
Armantrout reads her poetry at the Rackham Amphitheater on Monday, March 21.
[Originally published in March, 2011.]