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Getting the World into Poems

Versed

by Rae Armantrout
Wesleyan University Press, 121 pp., $22.95; $14.95 (paper)
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Joel Meyerowitz/Cincinnati Art Museum
Joel Meyerowitz: Dairy Land, Provincetown, 1976; chromogenic print from Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970–1980, with essays by Kevin Moore, James Crump, and Leo Rubinfien, just published by Hatje Cantz. The exhibition was organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum and will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, July 10–September 26, 2010.

1.

John Koethe was born in San Diego, California, in 1945. He is not only a fine poet, but also a professor of philosophy and the author of a book on Wittgenstein’s thought and another called Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning. The best introduction to his work is North Point North: New and Selected Poems, published in 2002. Reviewers inevitably compare him to Wallace Stevens because both are supposedly fond of philosophizing abstractly. There’s no question that he occasionally sounds like the older poet, as we can readily see in these lines from a poem called “Songs of the Valley”:

And the face of winter gazes on the August day
That spans the gap between the unseen and the seen.
The academies of delight seem colder now,
The chancellors of a single thought
Distracted by inchoate swarms of feelings
Streaming like collegians through the hollow colonnades.

The difference is that Koethe examines ideas in a far more autobiographical way. He tells us about his life and his feelings with a directness that Stevens would never have allowed himself. In a recent essay, “Poetry and Truth,” Koethe says that he considers poetry basically an elevated form of talking to oneself. “And now it seems like years and years ago,” he writes in a poem called “The Narrow Way,” “I started, out of a perverse curiosity/This imaginary conversation on the border between my self/And the unimaginable pith or emptiness within.” For him, what poems do is attempt to convey the experience of an individual consciousness as it tries to make sense of its own existence. Thinking is an important part of it, but the poems he writes are not dry and abstract. They are in the long tradition of the Romantic lyric in which typically some experience or mood summons back an older memory upon which the poem then quietly deliberates.

Something marvelous is gone,” he writes in a poem. Almost every one of his lengthy, elegiac, and introspective poems has an air of regret and disappointment as they search for a way to recover some moment of complete contentment, “uncontaminated by reflection,” as he says. Koethe compares what he does to poking through the trash for something you threw out by mistake. There are no secrets revealed in his poems. It’s the mystery of small, never-before-remembered events that he is after. Whatever drama or suspense is present in his work comes from the struggle of a mind trying to reach back to a moment lost in time out of which, so the speaker thinks, his true identity was formed:

FROM THE PORCH

…a life traced back to its imaginary source
In an adolescent reverie, a forgotten book—
As though one’s childhood were a small midwestern town
Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.
September was a modern classroom and the latest cars,
That made a sort of futuristic dream, circa 1955.
The earth was still uncircled. You could set your course
On the day after tomorrow. And children fell asleep
To the lullaby of people murmuring softly in the kitchen,
While a breeze rustled the pages of Life magazine,
And the wicker chairs stood empty on the screened-in porch.

An idealized picture of 1950s America? Of course it is, and yet isn’t this how memory usually works? Koethe is aware of his proclivity to lose himself in sentimental reveries. His poems, as he admits, are more or less convoluted variations on a single emotion and idea: true understanding lay in childhood. That makes them all sound as if they were parts of a long poem, a contemporary American version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, whose subject once again is the growth of the poet’s mind. Despite that overworked notion, there are a number of eloquent and moving poems in Koethe’s books. I would single out in North Point North “Gil’s Café,” “The Little Boy,” “Pictures of Little Letters,” “The Narrow Way,” “In the Park,” and “The Substitute for Time,” and in his new book “The Lath House,” “Belmont Park,” “Persistent Feelings,” “The Menomonee Valley,” “Creation Myths,” and this one:

CHESTER

Another day, which is usually how they come:
A cat at the foot of the bed, noncommittal
In its blankness of mind, with the morning light
Slowly filling the room, and fragmentary
Memories of last night’s video and phone calls.
It is a feeling of sufficiency, one menaced
By the fear of some vague lack, of a simplicity
Of self, a self without a soul, the nagging fear
Of being someone to whom nothing ever happens.
Thus the fantasy of the narrative behind the story,
Of the half-concealed life that lies beneath
The ordinary one, made up of ordinary mornings
More alike in how they feel than what they say.
They seem like luxuries of consciousness,
Like second thoughts that complicate the time
One simply wastes. And why not? Mere being
Is supposed to be enough, without the intricate
Evasions of a mystery or offstage tragedy.
Evenings follow on the afternoons, lingering in
The living room and listening to the stereo
While Peggy Lee sings “Is That All There is?”
Amid the morning papers and the usual
Ghosts keeping you company, but just for a while.
The true soul is the one that flickers in the eyes
Of an animal, like a cat that lifts its head and yawns
And looks at you, and then goes back to sleep.

This is a poem of disarming directness. It trusts the language we use daily to convey the complex state of mind of someone getting up in the morning, vaguely troubled by the events of the night before and by the feeling that something is missing in his life. “Is that all there is?” he asks himself. Mere being is supposed to be enough, or so the wise men of the East tell us. The answer lies—if there is an answer—in that flicker in the eyes of the cat. We are left hanging, unsure what the cat has conveyed to the speaker, but that’s precisely what makes the poem so rich and worth rereading.

Koethe is not always so subtle. His longer poems tend to overexplain and to go on too long. His almost exclusive reliance on first-person narrative and thus on the same point of view makes that problem even more acute. One tires after a while of a voice that varies too little and one longs for some shift in narrative strategy or for some unexpected image or metaphor to come along and turn the world of the speaker upside down. When he says in an older poem, “The Chinese Room,” “Night is waiting/Like a doctor’s office with its magazines of dreams,” it’s like a bolt from the blue. I wish there was more of that kind of imagination in his poems to complement his fine mind and to give them a bit more range.

2.

Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, in 1947, but grew up in San Diego and still continues to live there. She spent her twenties in the Bay Area, attending the University of California at Berkeley and befriending a group of poets—later known as “Language poets”—who rejected what they called mainstream poetry. For them, such poetry was dominated by a poetics of individuality and lyrical expressions of the individual self that, like many other forms of culture, were products of an ideological system rather than of the alleged author.

These sound like the kind of ideas influenced by the French cultural and literary theory one heard in American universities at the time. They were characteristic of the only avant-garde literary movement in history that relied on the academy to sanction its practice. The emphasis was to be placed on the language of the poem as a separate closed system, creating a new way for the reader to interact with the work. Believing that there is no such thing as an autonomous self or that the words we use are not actually capable of conveying reality, Language poets try to unmask the verbal fictions that surround such misconceptions. Of course, a theory of poetry that has no interest in the experience of individual human beings is bound to run into intellectual and practical difficulties in a world in which people still fret about the meaning of their lives. If you were stuck in prison, what would you rather have under your pillow: a volume by Emily Dickinson or one by Gertrude Stein?

Although Armantrout has been associated over the years with Ron Silliman, Lynn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and other prominent members of this group, her own views regarding language and what it can do are more conventional. The work she likes best, she tells us in an essay called “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?,” “sees itself and sees the world”:

To believe non-referentiality is possible is to believe language can be divorced from thought, words from their histories. If the idea of non-reference is discarded, what does language-oriented mean? Does it simply designate writing which is language-conscious (self-aware)? If so, the term could be applied to a very large number of writers….

I’m suspicious of it, finally, because it seems to imply division between language and experience, thought and feeling, inner and outer….

Nonetheless, she admits elsewhere in her Collected Prose that she often writes about writing and thinks about thinking. Writing a poem is for her like working on a problem. She is interested in the ways we are estranged from ourselves and the world, and in the ways in which we deceive ourselves as we try to make sense of what we see and think. The poems in her nine collections are usually short and further subdivided by sections. They tend to be roundabout rather than linear. That is to say, they lack an obvious beginning, middle, and end, but are composed of multiple perspectives coming from different voices, some overheard, some her own, and bits of language appropriated from such unlikely sources as commercials, store catalogs, TV cartoons, computer pop-ups, and other similar material. The first poem in her new book, Versed, begins:

Click here to vote
on who’s ripe
for a makeover

or takeover

in this series pilot.

Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back

as results.

The relation between sections in her poems and even between stanzas is usually unclear. The effect is of a collection of isolated remarks and notations that deliberately suppress the overall context, and in which the disjunction between individual parts seems to matter more to the poet than their relationship. Even her most admiring critic, Stephen Burt, admits in an essay on her work that her poetry is almost never unambiguous. “The sounds and tones of its stanzas are memorably crafted,” he writes, “but its large-scale arrangements can seem opaque: it can be hard to know why four segments, say, of a thirty-two-line poem require the order they have and not another.” As maddening as that can be for the reader, the parts are often interesting in themselves, so one is usually willing to put off for a while the question of how they link up. Here is an example of what I mean from her book Next Life (2007):

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