Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Poetry: Thrown, by Rae Armantrout



She now carried out
both X,
which produced Y,
and Z,
which consumed it.

This seemed like completion.

So she broke herself
to bits,

but the sense
of having come full circle
could not be eliminated.


Medicine Shoppe,
Tear-Drop R.V.

Don’t get cute with me!

The mind wanders.

The material

The whole plain
with bunchgrasses

across which
some loose flocks
are thrown

- by Rae Armantrout

This is not a joke. This is an actual poem, truly published in the New Yorker a few months ago. Go back, read it three or four times, read it out loud, have someone you love read it to you, pay a 900 number phone worker to read it to you, it won't matter. It's awful, it's insulting, it's a thumb in the eye to people who love poetry.

I write about this poem today because it struck me that I've only written about great poems, and the overwhelming majority of poems published these days are terrible. This one is by no means the worst, but I came across it in the midst of reading an old New Yorker article, and it was such a typical example of meaningless dribble that I thought I owed it to good poets writing today to show what they are up against in doing good work in a hostile climate.

Rae Armantrout is insanely successful with her poetry. She gets paid money to teach writing at the University of California in San Diego, and she has published volume after volume of poetry like what appears above. She has the respect of her University-bound peers, and gets her poetry published in the New Yorker. Poetry wise, she's big league.

But why? What is there about "Thrown" that makes it worthy of publication anywhere, much less in the largest poetry market in the world? Can you tell me what it means? Can you detect a rhythm? Do any of the phrases or words grab onto you and force their way into your mind days later, the way a line from Frost or Eliot does?

Such mundane functions as communication and inspiration, or even joy of language, are beneath a proper contemporary poet like Armantrout. She slaps such silly hopes out of you with the first few lines, a jumble of mundane words mixed with simple letters, too uncaring to form full words. There is nothing here to understand, nothing here to thrill, nothing here to bring joy. Simply stated, there is nothing here.

I wrote last week about the ambiguity created by layer upon layer of meaning, and I want to contrast that with today's poem, which achieves ambiguity by stripping away meaning, until it resembles a random collection of words and phrases, drawn together through uncaring chance.

It is a violence against poetry that such work gets written by a writing professor and published in the New Yorker. In the face of such success for work so unremarkable, how does a writer like Sharon Olds proceed, and why would a reader care a bit about reading another poem? Poetry like Armantrout's sneers at plebeian attempts to understand or relate in any way to it, but it succeeds in the academic and high-grade literary world.

If poetry dies off as a literary form, it will not be because of clumsy greeting-card rhymes or sentimental verse. It will certainly not be because of musty old sonnets and villanelles. If poetry dies, it will be buried in a University quadrangle, attended by a cluster of tweedy effete professors after a rousing bout of "experimental lyricism".

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Blogger ctorre said...

My opinion here is long-winded. Sorry.

1. It's a poem. Don't look for meaning in a poem. It can mean all sorts of things.* The words are words, and they are intended to move us; if that fails there is not much we can do: the poet has given you some words and images and whether or not you are moved by them is a matter of luck or chance or temperament. If you as a reader do not or cannot find something valuable in that first read chances are you won't try again (or maybe not, maybe in two years you'll go back to this poem and realize that it's actually fucking dope. Who knows.) For my part I quite like the closing the image of the poem - the "loose flocks" scattered across a plain - although I don't really know why and I don't really care why I don't know (they suggest to me a lost sequence of thoughts being abandoned by a broken mind, or worse, a neglected poem... but that isn't it either, of course). And though I find the "Medicine Shoppe/Tear-Drop R.V." confusing and unnecessary, I as a reader ought at least give Armantrout the benefit of the doubt and assume that they mean something to her.

2. Reading isn't always a matter of pleasure. It can be, but not always. In my own experience I've found that some of the greatest, most dizzying moments have come when I exposed myself to something that I don't initially like (or understand) and thereby I've found crazy things, poems and novels and all sorts of things, that I didn't even realize writing could do.

3. You seem to suggest that there exists a world of "great" poetry in which the New Yorker is the gatekeeper and no one unworthy is deigned to get inside. But everything is an experimentation in degrees, and your familiarity (or comfort, or pleasure) with that experiment's template will basically fall somewhere within those degrees. Even Pound and Yeats and Frost were at one time thought to be incomprehensible, and now they are familiar and the world has since moved on. Personally I think it's encouraging when a magazine like the New Yorker (which sometimes comes across as formulaic in its poetry and fiction) includes something a bit outside its comfort zone.

4. You're a writer. Surely you're aware that not everything one writes is read the way one would like. Especially poetry. Especially a poem by Rae Armantrout. Should we blame the poet for writing it? Should we blame the publisher for publishing it? Do you think you ought to be blamed when you write something and someone disagrees with you? Writing, all writing, is just a method of idiotic human conveyance. It doesn't need to be attacked for the accident of its birth.

*"In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art."

11/25/2008 4:56 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Ctorre - Wow, no need to apologize. Anytime anyone wants to come here and disagree with me so intelligently and gracefully, please have at it.

That said, I disagree with your defense of the poem and the poet. I'm happy you found something in it of value, but you drank a gallon of broth to find the tiny morsel. I agree that loose flocks are a mildly pleasant image, but real poetry is chock-full of such stuff.

Also, I never claimed that the poem has to be pleasure, though that's often nice. A patient etherized upon a table is not a pleasant image, but it sure as hell is poetry. I just object to the lack of anything to justify this assault on poetry.

As for the New Yorker, I know they've published crap from time to time since they started. Armantrout joins a long line of really crappy poets who have published really crappy poems in the New Yorker. That said, I do respect the New Yorker as a great venue for poetry, and it bothers me to see junk like "thrown" taking up its valuable space.

Your final point is a fine one. Maybe someone somewhere was lit on fire by this poem. Perhaps I am unique in missing its brilliance. But, hey, if I ever publish something as stupid as that poem, I fully expect people to slam me for it. Believe it or not, people already dare to disagree with my brilliance!

11/25/2008 8:57 PM  
Blogger ctorre said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/25/2008 9:18 PM  

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