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14 April 2008 @ 10:31 am
Presenting Rae Armantrout  
Rae Armantrout


Born in 1947 in Vallejo, California and then a resident of San Diego for the majority of her childhood and adult life, Rae Armantrout has been one of the major contemporary artists associated with the Language Poets. Armantrout attended the University of California, Berkeley and graduated in 1970. She received her MFA at San Francisco State University in 1975, and went on to become one of the founding members of the West Coast Language group. These poets, hailing back to the foundations of Gerturde Stein, were an influential group of poets that identified their work not so much in the lyrical trend, but in the context of the language used, the sounds it carried, and its "nonreferentiality." However, Armantrout's work could never and can not be grouped so simply: although operating within the mediums of language poetry with her sparse, concise, brief, and seemingly "disjunctive" style from stanza to stanza and line to line, Armantrout's work does indeed touch on the lyric form. She is very fascinated in the political and domestic world in which we live as well as her own experiences as a writer and individual. She is highly self-conscious, highly observant, and highly aware in her work. Some of her poetry is also down-right narrative in its form while it plays and meddles with language and language's many forms. Thus, Armantrout has been considered "the most lyrical of the Language Poets."

One major theme that is found in Armantrout's work is the theme of deception and doubt--both on the level of content and language. Armantrout's style is very conversational--stark, quiet and minimal. Yet her words speak volumes off the page--resonating meaning, emotion, and reflection while using very basic elements of syntax and craft. Thus, one could say Armantrout "deceives" her audience with seemingly simplistic poems that actually carry depths within their tightly-bound structure. As Ron Stillman states in the preface to Veil , Armantrout writes "poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical...possibilities."

Armantrout has been compared to the likes of Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams (two influences she has noted) Jack Spicer and Arthur Rimbaud. Her poems range from very terse and short (like Williams and Dickinson), with three to four monostich stanzas carrying the poem to fruition; to longer, prosaic poems that can stretch two to three pages. (However, her most insightful and powerful poems, in my opinion, are her shorter pieces.) Armantrout often writes about pop-culture, current philosophies, the media, politics and domesticity. Armantrout's work is both light-hearted and bleak, but all the while, her concision with the colloquial language at hand is what lets her poems breathe and live off the page long after the book has been closed. They contain layers of meaning in just a few simple words and can never be tailored to one direct explanation. Thus, Armantrout's work is always shifting to fit one imagination to the next, depending upon reader, context and circumstance.

But, this sparse poetic voice does not come so easily. Stillman also notes of Armantrout that she is "perhaps the most rigorous and obsessive reviser--revision in some vital inner-driven sense is her process of writing." Each line, each word to Armantrout is as vital gem in her overall work. Thus, her concision is not without precision.


From Veil

Extremities </i>

Going to the Desert
is the old term

“landscape of zeros”

the glitter of edges
again catches the eye

to approach these swords!

lines across which
beings vanish/flare

the charmed verges of presence

Generation </i>

We know the story.

She turns
back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the

Natural History</i>


Discomfort marks the boundary.

One early symptom was the boundary.

The invention of hunger.
I could use energy.

To serve.

Elaborate systems in the service of
Far-fetched demands.

The great termite mounds serve
As air-conditioners.

Temperature within must never vary
More than 2 degrees.


Which came first
The need or the system?

System player.
Scheme of Things.

The body considered as a functional unit.
“My system craves calcium.”

An organized set of doctrine.

A network formed for the purpose of…

“All I want is you.”


was narrowing their options to one,
the next development.

Soldiers have elongate heads and massive mandibles.
Squirtgun heads are found among fiercer species.
Since soldiers cannot feed themselves, each requires
A troupe of attendants.

Her demands had become more elaborate.

He must be blindfolded,
(Must break off his own wings)
wear this corset laced tight
(seal up the nuptial cell)
to attain this heart’s desire.

Move only as she permits
(Mate the bloated queen each season)
or be hung from the rafters.
How did he get here?


Poor baby,
I heard your hammer.

The invention of pounding.

“As soon as it became important
that free energy be channeled.”

Once you cared to be
set off
from the surrounding medium.

This order has been preferred
since improvement was discovered.

The moment one intends to grow
at the expense.

When teeth emerge

Demand for special treatment
was an early symptom


With whom
do you leave yourself
during reveries?

The one making coffee
or doing the driving—

That is the real
person in your life.


The doll told me
to exist.

It said, "Hypnotize yourself."

It said time would be


Now the optimist

sees an oak

and a girl whiz by
on a bicycle

with a sense of pleasurable

She budgets herself
with leafy


I too
am a segmentalist.


But I've dropped
more than an armful

of groceries or books

into a train station.

An acquaintance says
she colors her hair

so people will help her
when this happens.

To refute her argument
I must wake up

and remember my hair's
already dyed.


As a mentalist
I must suffer


then repeat myself
in a blind trial.

I must write
punchlines only I
can hear

and only after
I've passed on

From Up to Speed

Currency </i>

I stare at the edge

until the word

comes up
where I thought it might.

But the lag-time
is a problem.

The swollen, yellow
head of Tweety-Bird

now offered
at the border

as balloon
or ceramic,

as baby
plus crucifixion,

as distended

held toward the cars,
as silence

Sake </i>

In order to be found—
or recognized--

one must repeat
a passage at some length.


“Why do Princesses
Caroline and Stephanie

always marry
the wrong men?”


Repeated passages
are gathered

as if
for their own sakes.


A child’s cry breaks
into spires
and alcoves;

is stained.


From here on
it’s all metaphor

as repertoire)


Music extends “at once”

how far?

Middle Men </i>

The story is told from the view-point of two young technicians,
one fat and one thin, who must give their superior a moment by
moment account of their attempts to monitor the subject. Sus-
pense occurs, occasionally, when they must tell the superior that
they’re having trouble keeping the listening devices within range.
We sympathize with the hunter subject, but also with the clearly
competent, frequently exasperated technicians, whose situation
is, after all, more like our own.

The Fit </i>

In a fit of repugnance
each moment
rips itself in half,

producing a twin.


In a coming-of-age story
each dream
produces me:

an ignorance
on the point of revelation.


I’m at a side table

in a saloon
in Alaska,

my eye on the door
where a flood of strangers
pours in.


The door or the window?

It’s morning.

Form </i>

Dear April, I appreciated the way the paragraphs were all about the same
length. I especially liked how your sentences appeared
to relate to one another. It was getting late,
they said. Solemn,
blunt flash of sun
off the window
of a Coors Light

On a fence across the street, wings of a wooden chicken
spun backward. Everyone
had reason to be proud.
I could handle symbols
without being manipulated by them.
Like a stone butch, you might say, but that’s
only connotation.

Meanwhile, in the photographs,
my expression was fading,
as if my darling,
were just another word
for death

What is the nature of the resting state
but gaseous longing/
In the original/
final form—

without objects

From Next Life


We wake up to an empty room
addressing itself in scare quotes.

“Happen” and “now”
have been smuggled out,

to arrive safely in the past tense.

We come home to a cat
made entirely of fish.


For lack of which
we put ourselves
in a cop’s place

as he puts himself
inside the head
of a serial killer rapist

who appears to be
teasing the police.


Bare tree
is to human skeleton

as the holy spirit
likens objects


to make the world up
of provisional pairs.


It makes sense
to turn that corner
in a black sedan

and to write down
everything that passes.

To quick-step up the street
in a knit red cap
one time only.


Red cap it to
one time only

Close </i>

Slow, blue, stiff
are forms

of crowd behavior,

mass hysteria.

The crowd is made of
little gods

and there is still
no heaven.

Thing </i>

We love our cat
for her self
regard is assiduous
and bland,

for she sits in the small
patch of sun on our rug
and licks her claws
from all angles

and it is far
to "balanced reporting"

though, of course,
it is also
the very same thing.

Two, Three </i>

Sad, fat boy in pirate hat.

Long, old, dented,

copper-colored Ford.

How many traits

must a thing have

in order to be singular?

(Echo persuades us

everything we say

has been said at least once


Two plump, bald men

in gray tee-shirts

and tan shorts

are walking a small bulldog –

followed by the eyes

of an invisible third person.

The Trinity was born

from what we know

of the bitter

symbiosis of couples.

Can we reduce echo’s sadness

by synchronizing our speeches?

Is it the beginning or end

of real love

when we pity a person

because, in him,

we see ourselves?

Integer</i> published April 7, 2008 in The New Yorker "”



One what?

One grasp?

No hands.

No collection

of stars. Something dark

pervades it.



is ritual sacrifice.

It kills the look-alike.


metaphor is homeopathy.

A healthy cell

exhibits contact inhibition.


These temporary credits

will no longer be reflected

in your next billing period.


“Dark” meaning

not reflecting,

not amenable

to suggestion.

Other Points of Interest

This is Armantrout’s essay entitled Cheshire Poetics, (http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/armantrout/poetics.html)
in which she discusses her influences (mainly William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson) and her poetic background. She also makes note of her association with the “language poets” and how she considers her work as “cheshire poetry,” or poetry that “involves an equal counter-weight of assertion and doubt.” Armantrout’s focus here is that her poetry speaks on many levels and meanings, and sometimes, those levels and meanings can seem dissonant and disjunctive—but intentional all the while.

Here is a link to many audio clips featuring Armantrout, including a full reading at Kelly Writer’s House that took place in September of 2007. Armantrout reads some new and unreleased material at this reading. Be sure to look out for her next book!

Here is a YouTube video of an Armantrout reading that took place on September 27, 2007 at University of California-Berkeley. Watch this and it will be as if you're in the audience at her reading!

A young Armantrout

From a reading at UPenn, 2007


Poetry (Armantrout has published 9 books and 1 collection since her debut)

Extremities 1978
The Invention of Hunger 1979
Precedence 1985
Necromance 1991
Made to Seem 1995
writing the plot about sets 1998
Veil: New and Selected Poems 2001
The Pretext 2001
Up to Speed 2004
Next Life 2007

(N.B. Armantrout, although a major poetic voice since the late 1970s, has been known as a "poet's poet" and has not been very well received by the world of popular literature until more recently with the publication of Veil. Now, Armantrout's work is more widely read and continues to garner more and more popularity, and not just among the high literary circles.)


True 1998 (a prose memoir)
The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography 2007
Collected Prose 2007