In the anthology, American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (the first volume of the series), editors Juliana Spahr and Claudia Rankine gather a selection of contemporary women poets whose poems, included within the volume, represent some of the most pressing and potent examples of the innovative and radical possibilities of the poetic lyric. One continually exercised possibility is the use of lyric as a means of questioning language and its relationship to meaning, as determined by the self or by a wider community.
Lyric poetry is often dismissed or comes under fire for the ill-informed and generally undeserved misconceptions of the genre, such as embodying “mere” escapism, romanticism, and confessionalism or post-confessionalism. These misconceptions attach a stigmatizing attitude to the lyric while narrowing ways of defining the lyric, which Spahr admits in her introduction as being extremely difficult to define in any totally cohesive or concise way. These misconceptions also ignore the possibilities lyric has to offer, possibilities each woman poet in this anthology investigates. Poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018), and Jorie Graham each push the boundaries of lyric through innovation, which Spahr defines as “the use of agrammatical modernist techniques such as fragmentation, parataxis, run-ons, interruption, and disjunction, and at the same time the avoidance of linear narrative development, of meditative confessionalism, and of singular voice” (American Women Poets 2).
Included in this anthology is another such lyric boundary-pushing woman poet, Rae Armantrout. Spahr and Rankine provide an albeit brief, yet tremendous exemplary selection of Armantrout’s innovative lyric. Armantrout, widely considered the foremost poet of the Language school of poetry (a staple counter-poetic/anti-institutional movement since the 1970s), frequently writes lyric poems that defy narrative expectations, in terms of their form, content, and readability. Dan Chiasson describes her reputation among poets and within poetry circles as “well known, even notorious”—an assertion challenged and affirmed by her winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for her collection Versed (“Entangled”). However, Armantrout’s poems do not deliberately obfuscate, nor are they haphazardly assembled; rather, her lyric poetry intentionally (and successfully) dismantles—through a delicious combination of lyric entanglement and swerving—our readerly habits of interrogation, the primal impulse for “pop” or workshopped interpretations, and the framing and compartmentalizing of the chaotic into an accessible, ordered rendering:
“What made this happen?”
you ask every time
were mandatory, (“Making” lines 1-5)
In her poetic statement, “Cheshire Poetics,” Armantrout identifies the innovative force of her poetry as radical:
But how do we define “radical”? Perhaps by how much is put at risk in the text, how far the arc of implication can reach and still seem apt. But so much rides, as always, on that word “seems.” Is a writing radical when it risks being wrong when it acknowledges our wrongness? I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt. 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. (American Women Poets 24)
Armantrout compares this (dis)juncture of assertion and doubt with the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Armantrout desires a doubleness, a resistance to narrative expectancy in her own poetry; it is how her poems provoke a sense of questioning, even when the questions aren’t directly expressed or addressed. Her question, “Is a writing radical when it risks being wrong, when it acknowledges our wrongness?” reiterates this doubleness in terms of wrongness, and then afterward, in terms of seeing and knowing—perceiving and understanding. But notice that she doesn’t mention rightness—to assert rightness without risk of wrongness is a cop-out: it’s too safe. Doubt keeps this in check.
What Armantrout calls “Cheshire poetics,” Hank Lazer calls “the swerve,” in his essay “Lyricism of the Swerve: The Poetry of Rae Armantrout”: “Is there a describable lyricism of swerving? For those poems for which the swerve, the turn, the sudden change in direction are integral, can we begin to articulate a precise appreciation? Is there a describable and individualistic lyricism of swerving?” (American Women Poets 27). By asking this question, Lazer indirectly defines “swerving.” The (dis)juncture between assertion and doubt is where the swerve happens.
Imagine walking a one-lane road that suddenly forks: one direction appears correct—but it’s covered in a dense fog; the other direction is shorter and clearer, but you do not know if it’s the route you should be taking (and there’s the fear of backtracking). From your vantage point, you can’t trust what it is you’re seeing, nor can you trust what you think you know. Either route offers a risk of being wrong. And perhaps, if you’re a humble traveler, you may acknowledge that wrongness when you’re faced with it. At this (dis)juncture, at this swerve, where the Cheshire Cat points both ways before vanishing, as Armantrout describes it, the reader is forced to make a decision. This may very well dwell in the heart of Language Poetry in one traditional definition of that school: the reader must supply the meaning based upon the words, the routes the poet offers.
An example of this forced decision-making may be observed in Armantrout’s early poetry, written in the neo-Imagist, minimalist vein, as she asserts in American Women Poets. One such poem, “View,” appears in the volume:
Not the city lights. We want
none of our own doing! (American Women Poets 20, lines 1-4)
The moon hangs, wedged in space between two emdashes; the unidentified speaker(s) sees the moon and claims it, “The Moon/none of our own doing!” (lines 3-4). The line, “none of our own doing!” recalls the beginning: “Not the city lights.” The speaker(s) rejects artificial lights in favor of the more real, an object not wrought by human hands. Armantrout acknowledges in her commentary regarding the poem that the speaker(s) expresses a cliché—wanting the moon—inferring a desire for the impossible. What isn’t acknowledged is that the object of the moon reflects the light of the sun. Does the poem suggest then that we, the readers, seek the impossible, the illusory, as we seek the real? Perhaps the poem is a tragicomic reflection of truth, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye or perceived only in a mirror.
Armantrout’s “View” presses the reader to ask these questions. Although the poem is short and sweet and a little more simplistic than some of her later verse, it does what it sets out to do, and offers a fine example of swerving in that the speakers’ assertions are met with the reader’s (encompassed by that “we”) doubts.
Another poem, written nearly 40 years after “View,” that exemplifies swerving is “A Resemblance,” appearing in Versed. The poem includes common themes of likeness, illusion, and resemblance, while closely aligning itself with Spahr’s notion of lyric innovation, when it avoids linear narrative development, appearing fragmented and containing sudden breaks and interruptions. If anything, the poem presents a stubborn framework, all the more demanding of its reader to forge meaning:
As a word is
matter is mostly
(The same loneliness
that separates me
from what I call
“the world.”) (lines 1-9)
Here, Armantrout’s speaker asserts that meaning is the chief component of a word; this seems to deviate from what we understand of Language poetry, in that words are of themselves words, and that connotation resides with the reader. The speaker then presses a question “matter is mostly / aura? // Halo?” (lines 3-5). The speaker perceives a disconnect—the object is made up not of substance but something immaterial. Say that a word is an object; the connotation is its aura, an invisible force emanating from it. Perhaps what we perceive is not the object itself but its aura: we don’t see the word past its connotation. But what connotation does the word “word” exude for us? The word “Halo” forces the reader to assert connotation—divinity, sainthood, what have you. We don’t see the halo except in terms of our own preconceived image of it. Below the halo, encircled by parentheses, the speaker acknowledges a “loneliness” disconnecting them from “the world”—also encircled by quotations. The connotation is this loneliness—the speaker implicitly acknowledges the connotation surrounding their / self that furthers this separation. No one sees me for who I am, and I likewise can’t see anyone for who they are. But what does the speaker mean by “world”? What world? Which of the many worlds in existence is the speaker likely talking about?
The speaker continues, or do they? There is nothing to suggest that we hear the voice of one constant speaker (or collective) from line to line, stanza to stanza. The first nine lines quoted above end with a section break, and the poem proceeds:
skirt of dust
encircling a ceramic
The hard image of the gourd is in immediate conflict with the soft, raw image of dust. The first section preps the reader for this second section, and each word carries its own connotation. We don’t first see the gourd, but the halo of dust surrounding it, as if our gaze rises from the ground-up. In the third section, the speaker states definitively and almost sarcastically, “Look-alikes. // ‘Are you happy now?’” (14-15). Whom does the speaker—it’s impossible to know if they’re the same speaker(s) from section one—address? Lookalikes? The reader? Are we to assume that connotations are halos are auras are skirts of dirt? What connotation do we attach to the word “gourd”? Perhaps none of the images are meant to necessarily align; perhaps they resemble one another only in the abstract and only within the brief space of this poem. Armantrout repeatedly swerves—and she enables this swerving from the beginning with her initial assertion; from that point onward, everything we read is in doubt, and we’re forced to check ourselves.
The poem concludes in a final fourth section:
Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
Though I suspect
yours of being defective,
forced (lines 16-21)
The speaker of this section recalls the question, “Are you happy now?” from the previous section: “a vicarious happiness?” (lines 15, 16). For once, we’re supplied an answer: “Yes!” This sudden, affirming, almost desperate exclamation loses steam with the inclusion of doubt in the following lines—but that doubt/suspicion is thrown on the you. Our happiness is defective because it’s forced—it’s illusory. And the illusion is laid bare for what it is. Here, the speaker doesn’t see the happiness, only the illusion or the halo of it, and recognizes it as being false, a mere resemblance to the thing. Or, can we even trust the speaker’s enthusiastic “Yes!”?
Armantrout keeps on swerving, deliberately allowing these fragmented lines—with only partial, loose connections (made by the reader) keeping them together—to invite doubt and uncertainty. We see one thing, but we’re not sure we know what we see; then we see other things but must force a connection between them. Armantrout pokes fun at our obsession with narrative patterns. And this fleeting Cheshire points in every which way, not to merely confuse us, but to force us to question our own habits and compulsions. Thus, we readers are more fully engaged, not just with the poem, but with our own processes.
What speaks directly to the structure and composition of Armantrout’s verse id the quote from “Cheshire Poetics”:
[The poems] are composed of conflicting voices. Formally, too, they are often disjunctive. The relation between stanza and stanza or section and section is often oblique, multiple, or partial. This isn’t an accident. It’s a way to explore the relation of part to the whole. This relation is a vexed one. Does the part represent the whole? Is metaphor fair to the matter it represents? Does representative democracy work? (American Women Poets 26)
The final sentence which Armantrout plies the reader with, “Does representative democracy work?” expands the possibility of Armantrout’s lyric poems as resonating with (apparently) bigger questions outside the context of the poem. More than just a personal critiquing, these questions are a social critiquing: Does representation work? Can metaphor do the thing justice? Is the skirt of dust enough? Or perhaps the sudden moon? Why reject the city lights? Why does a halo have to be lonely or alone? Do our deeds speak at all? How can we know someone past the persona they project? And does it even matter?
Armantrout, Rae. “A Resemblance.” Versed, Wesleyan UP, 2009, p. 10.
—. “Making,” Wobble. Wesleyan UP, 2018, pp. 1-2.
Chiasson, Dan, “Entangled.” The New Yorker, 17 May 2010, p. 110.
Rankine, Claudia and Juliana Spahr, editors. American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, Wesleyan UP, 2002.