Rae Armantrout’s Just Saying

Last year, Cosmo Spinosa reviewed Rae Armantrout’s Just Saying for the Volta blog. Here’s another look for the 365 project:

It’s difficult to read Rae Armantrout’s most recent book of poems Just Saying without noticing the panoply of lineages, themes and dictions Armantrout utilizes in her poetry. This collection in particular illustrates the way in which Armantrout’s poetry juxtaposes two dominant strands in twentieth century American poetry in order to create her own unique poetic. As an emerging poet in the nineteen seventies, Armantrout was often associated with Language poetry and radical Modernism; her use of short lines, precise imagery and conversational diction clearly placed her in the lineage of Williams. And yet, over the course of the following decades, Armantrout has developed into a poet who deals with complex, contemplative themes; the poems in Just Saying, for example, are often reminiscent of Stevens’s more philosophical poems. In this sense, Armantrout’s poetry has bridged the gap between two supposedly distinct traditions in American poetry. Her attentiveness to the image and use of short lines continue to mark her as a descendent of Williams, but her contemplative themes mark her also as a descendent of Stevens. Armantrout’s most recent book illustrates this trend and speaks to the way in which the traditional binaries that defined twentieth century American poetry no longer hold true for twenty-first century American poetics.

This notion of Armantrout’s development into a poet who unifies Williams’s poetics and Stevens’s themes is not altogether novel. In their 2009 anthology of poetry American Hybrid, Cole Swensen and David St. John write that Armantrout’s work “has become denser and more contemplative” over the course of her career. “But,” they continue, “it hasn’t lost the razoring insight that trims her impressions and thoughts down to their essences” (15). That “razoring insight” is another way of saying Williams’s poetic legacy; and her attention to “denser, more contemplative” subject matter aligns Armantrout with Stevens. As Swensen writes in her introduction to the anthology, “This anthology springs from the conviction that the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one and that, while extremes remain, and everywhere we find complex aesthetic and ideological differences, the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways” (xvii). Swensen is arguing for a poetry criticism that does not look to bifurcate contemporary poetry into two mutually exclusive camps. She wants to honor the plurality of poetries within the contemporary American literary landscape rather than reduce those poetries to two irreconcilable camps.

In this review I would like to argue that Armantrout’s poetry brings together the supposedly distinct styles of Williams and Stevens and creates from this union a unique poety. In “Just Saying,” this synthesis especially creates an emphasis on spoken language; the unifying factor in these poems has to do with the speech act and honoring our everyday colloquial language. The prosody of Williams and the themes of Stevens are enacted to promote everyday speech in this book. As the title suggests, this is a book about “Just Saying.”

Let’s look at some of Armantrout’s poetry in order to get a sense of how she combines these lineages. Here’s the final section of a poem entitled “Coming Out,” which appears about two-thirds of the way through “Just Saying”:

            Let’s not rationalize taste!

A mound

of dark

loose dirt

with a small hole

on top:

a pucker

The first line of this section strikes me as a decidedly Stevensian line. The poet makes an odd, philosophical suggestion; I’m tempted to suggest that it is a recommendation not to divide and subdivide poetries into strict categories. Taste, the poet implies, is not subject to categorical knowledge. The following five lines, meanwhile, strike me as residing within the image-oriented aesthetic. The poet describes a simple mound of dirt with a hole at top. This is the prosaic imagery of Williams. Finally, in the last line she transcends both these traditions. The word “pucker” seems to me to describe the way the hole looks; it looks like the way a mouth looks when it puckers. The word makes the reader of the poem literally create the small hole that the poem describes. In other words, this last line exists within a poetic lineage that outdates both Williams and Stevens. It is the task of Language poetry: to enact the thing the poem describes. The italicization of the word furthers this emphasis on the materiality of the language as well as the enunciation of the word. Armantrout’s poetry, at least in “Just Saying,” often blends a contemplative tone with clear precise imagery, and these two components of her poetry create a kind of friction which eventually ignites in a poetics that exists as neither philosophical nor descriptive but performative.

Let’s look at one more piece that speaks to this poetic technique:

            Behind the only wall in sight,

the defamiliarized wall,

a sniper

tells a camera crew

his work is “invigorating”

because it’s “personal.”

This poem again strikes me as dealing with, first of all, a Stevensian aesthetic, then a Williams aesthetic, before emphasizing the performativity of language. The scene is a film set where the actor, playing a sniper, is set against a blank wall; he tells the camera (and of course the crew) that his work is “invigorating because it’s personal.” The first description of the wall seems to me circumspect. The writer here is not creating a crystal clear image but is comparing the wall to an abstraction. It is “defamiliarized;” this is no Williams line! It is reminiscent of the palm at the end of the mind perhaps, especially in its emphasis on stage layout. The second couplet meanwhile strikes me as a Williams line—it is a clear description of the situation, albeit unique; we typically don’t think of actors as speaking to camera crews. By calling the actor “a sniper,” Armantrout is accepting the reality of the show. The man is not an actor; he is a sniper. Meanwhile, by stating that he speaks to the camera crew, she is also affirming the reality of the film set. This complex yet distinctly prosaic description—not to mention its couplet structure and short lines—bears strong resemblance to Williams’s work. Finally, again, we are confronted with the spoken word at the end of the poem. Like the first poem with its italics, this poem emphasizes the spoken word with the quotation marks. The iambic rhythm that has been established in the first two couplets is broken with “invigorating” and “personal;” these words slow the reader down; they make us attend to the sound of the words.

At the risk of overplaying my hand, I would like to assert that Armantrout’s poems in “Just Saying” point to Language poetry’s antecedents. My assertion is that Language poetry can be thought of as the synthesis of Williams’s prosody and Stevens’s themes. In “Just Saying,” Armantrout continues to demonstrate her knack for such hybridization as well as her particular penchant for bringing the spoken word to the page. She wants to demonstrate the way that even in our modern twenty-first century world our everyday sayings and speech are necessarily poetic. She wants to illustrate, as Emerson once put it, the fossilized poetry within our everyday speech.

Buy it from Wesleyan: $22.95

Scott Riley is a MFA student in poetry at St. Mary’s College of California. He also holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. He lives in Menlo Park, CA.

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