A Note on Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout discusses language poetry as a response to what she calls “the spin.” Poets in the Vietnam generation becoming aware of distortions of language in mass media countered with distortions of their own, demonstrating how far our words are from transparent, disputing the mimetic quality of our poems, and raising an abstract hand against the concrete imagism advocated by the modernists.

One thing that’s hitting me right now as I work with Armantrout and her postmodern cohorts in my Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry is how much of my language I had been holding back, barring, or otherwise choosing to exclude from my poems in the attempt to be as concrete as possible with the model of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” a poem whose full title I can never exactly remember it is so painfully precise.

I imagine there is a delineation between sacred and secular at stake here. Wright’s hammock circumscribes a contemplative space. Rae Armantrout dips a toe into the pool of descriptive natural imagery, too, but her poems never really settle in there. They’re far more expansive, or inclusive. The influence of television is often present, for example, carrying on modernism’s tradition of matching the high with the low. The exciting thing about following her lead and delving into language or postlanguage poetry is unfettered freedom to draw on each and every thing that constitutes daily experience. In the evenings now when I log on Netflix I have my notebook open and Facebook posts are as valuable a resource to me as the wicker chair on my back deck.

In some ways I had already been retreating from the pastoral mode ever since a close friend accused me of mining all my images from the back yard. The flight can be felt in Baldy and memory is a greater resource in Far Other, whose project parallels Saint Augustine’s Confessions with its backward gaze. Whatever the case might be, the literary world is still rife with James Wright’s and that stronghold is likely to hold onto some idea of poetry as a protected domain, a conventicle some way apart from the worlds of commerce and popular culture.

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