Versed, Rae Armantrout's Pulitzer-Winning Book of Poetry

Posted by: Bill Pearlman
Published on May 27th, 2010 @ 11:43:33 am , using 898 words
Category: Poetry, Reviews

Spending time on Versed, Rae Armantrout's Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection. My friend Geoff Young (The Figures Press) published her first book in 1978. Thought of her as part of the Language Poets, but never could quite dig what any of them were doing, though I knew them through Geoff and Steve Rodefer in the Bay area in late 70s.

This is from Wikipedia about Armantrout:

[Rae Armantrout] was a member of the original West Coast Language group. Although Language poetry can be seen as advocating a poetics of nonreferentiality, Armantrout’s work, focusing as it often does on the local and the domestic, resists such definitions[3]. However, unlike most of the group, her work is firmly grounded in experience of the local and domestic worlds and she is widely regarded as the most lyrical of the Language Poets. [4]

I think it’s interesting to note here that they are referring to RA as a lyrical Language Poet. Is this more evidence of the new hybridity?


HYBRIDITY.  Interesting term...I'm going to look at a couple pieces from Versed and see what I can find out. It is oddly strong work, but I'm not completely sure what it is doing.


From the first section of Versed (Versed):


The child fights cancer

with the help

of her celebrity fan club,



"Now I know how hard it is

to be a movie star"



my avatar's not working!"


The small hawk on a wire

above tangled flowers.


Speech, too, was thought

to be inhabited

by a god.


Then hunger

invented light.


Odd, quixotic, strangely lyrical, sad, stretching toward a comic despair. Witty, yet not at all consoling, though maybe it is. One gets the sense of a poetic of almost demanding despair/reward simultaneously. A story in disrepair, a hard line of living. But light at the end, invented by hunger.

Or this from the 2nd section, Dark Matter:




As if we know

what bliss is


this lozenge



purple and pink

a warm largesse,


into the cool sea.


I want to catch



if only

in the wrong


as if in the nude

in a recurring dream.


Contradictory, random, a slip of the tongue, dissolving in words caught in a downward movement to an 'as if'' that is modestly redemptive. She takes words we use so glibly, like bliss, and wonders where it can go, metaphorically, poetically, and finds 'largesse' and ending in 'cool sea' and then the finale, 'as if in the nude/in a recurring dream. One word, Slip, leading to other words and ending with something of a formidable (though wrong?), dream, bringing a 'slip' of a song to a concluding beat.



"Widely expected

if you will,



Things I'd say,

am saying,


to persons no longer



Yards away trim junipers

make their customary



"Oh, no thank you"

to any of it.


If you watch me

from increasing distance,


I am writing this



Irreverent, language from anywhere or nowere, 'cataclysm' omnipresent on the soundwaves. And yet the desire to say things to others, not present to the writer, gone or distant or...And then the curious rebuke or renunciation of  "Oh, no thank you" (to any of it). The cliche turned tormented afterword, but the concluding ascent of 'If you watch me/from increasing distance, I am writing this/always...Tough, anchored in a spread of words that come into meaning step by step. Something hard-edged, like a rock thrown onto shore by a vocal seafaring scout or a figure who listens and then talks, takes and gives back, invisible and yet seen here as the poem.


There is a troubling lyricism in RA's work, a fury or a caricature of a mind disrupted, and yet finding--what? a correlative to her living/dying that makes sense? The final poem in this section:



Operation Phantom Fury


The full force

of the will to live

is fixed

on the next




coming with a tray



calling a number


Each material


is a pose,


an answer

waiting to be chosen.


"Just so" it says.

"Ask again!"


Stay with it. The poem as a signal illuminating something/somewhere in the biosphere, the lunging particulars of our bodily existence. Of course, the full force/of the will to live/is fixed/on the next/occasion: All is hanging from the facticity, the objectivity of time that keeps us in the mix, the world, the call, the arrival of another element. Not sure I entirely like the reduction to 'a pose' but it leads to a concluding set of propositions that seem to me slightly (though maybe only slightly) hopeful, if determined also by action: "Ask again," as if in this unoracular circus of a life we need to keep trying it out, keep finding it out, discovering what we need to keep going.

But a strange, engaging, quick read to each poem, yet I have found myself re-reading some of it. There is something interesting here, and Armantrout may have found some form of hybrid poetry that moves the dynamic of verse forward, perhaps further into language and life itself, the quest for meaning, the Versed-up revival that reminds us of 'the holiness of the heart's affections', amid the sounds and gestures of our words, re-versed here in a new way.

Bill Pearlman


1 comment

Comment from: Halvard Johnson [Visitor] Email
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Looks like an interesting piece on R.A., Bill. I'll be coming back to it as soon as I can find my fine-tooth comb.

Btw, good to encounter your lunging particularities up at the market this morning.

Be well, and even weller than that.

06/08/10 @ 11:59