Lyric Persuasions at Poets House

by Vasiliki Katsarou

This spring, just before she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, I went to hear Rae Armantrout read and discuss her work with Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer.  The program was organized by Poets House in New York, at its new, glistening home in Battery Park City.  The evening program was entitled “Lyric Persuasions”and its purpose was to discuss the contemporary lyric poem.

Armantrout is a West Coast poet who has been peripherally attached to the Language Poetry movement.  In recent years, there has been a development in her poetry towards an exquisite collage of “found language.”  From her latest book, VERSED:

The outer world means
State Farm Donuts Tae Kwando?

Thoughts as spent fuel rods.
—from “Outer”

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!”


Armantrout began her talk with a nod toward the lyric as generally understood:  a refraction of personal sensibility and emotion through the singular consciousness and language of a “privileged” speaker:  the poet.  Armantrout went on to say that since the confessional poetry of the 60s and early 70s, this personal emphasis in poetry has essentially gone out of style, to be replaced by other concerns: be they political or more narrowly “linguistic.”  The philosopher Theodor Adorno’s warning “how can there be poetry after Auschwitz?” was reflected in an audience member’s observation that “language is always suspect and meaning is almost exclusively associated with propaganda.”  In the second half of the 20th century, and certainly since the Language poetry movement, contemporary poetry has been more and more infused with a sense of itself as a construct—and not any sort of transparent conveyance of the voice of the poet into the mind of the reader.

Armantrout gave an example from the poetry of Michael Palmer (an influential Language poet).  These lines are from his poem “And Sighs Again (Autobiography 15)”:   Did I say father and son // when I meant / farther and farther from the sun // Did I say fold / when I meant fault

Any meaning suggested in the poem seems to be undercut by the words themselves.  Meaning proffered is simultaneously meaning withheld, compelling the reader to step into the breach and (re)construct the poem for him or herself.  Armantrout described Palmer’s poem as an example of “artful self-erasure,” and Fischer agreed that this was essentially what Armantrout herself accomplished in her own work.  Armantrout noted that poetry that “opens meaning up” is preferable to poetry that “closes meaning”—that narrows it down to the personal intentions of any individual author.  Understood in these terms, poetry is theoretically more “democratic” in that it is open to the approach of any reader.

In the revealing Foreword to Rae Armantrout’s collection, VEIL, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2001, poet, critic and sometime collaborator Ron Silliman noted that Armantrout works with her poems over years, gradually eliminating personal indicators, and especially pronouns like “I, you, he, she.”  He observes that the resulting experience of reading her poetry is more “interior” for the reader.  Whereas at Poets House, Armantrout and Fischer framed their work in the context of the lyric, Silliman calls her poetry in his Foreword, “the literature of the vertical anti-lyric”; a “machine made of words”; “meaning management”; and poetry that is “directly opposed to the vignette school of suburban verse.”  Given the untenable speaker in her poems, they “don’t ever propose resolution.”

During the Q & A, I asked Armantrout and Fischer about implications:  if meaning is not “fixed” in any definitive way, how to know whether the poem one is writing is “done,” and how much responsibility and work is expected on the part of reader to “complete” the poetic process?  In answering the question, both poets gave a nod to Octavio Paz’ belief in poetry as something that protects an aspect of language that would otherwise be consumed by the everyday uses of language in media, advertising, and propaganda.  Fischer went further, referring to a sacred element in poetry that is offered up as if toward a god, and that as such, he imagined a reader as “overhearing” this one-way dialogue.

The contemporary poetry world is a vast place indeed, filled with myriad poetry circles that collide, cause friction and delight, but are not absorbed by or readily reducible to each other.  For some poets, language is a time-tested tool whose soundness has been long-demonstrated.  Like a shovel or a pail whose contours are recognizable to all, language can be counted on to support and move meaning from one location (poet) to another (reader).

For other poets, there is some wariness toward the tools themselves, some awareness of the cracks, the patina, the weaknesses.  These poets set out to create something less recognizable than a wall or a tower, but a more singular, imperfect, vulnerable structure—something like an artifact of our time.

—Vasiliki Katsarou

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