Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Early this evening, I will wend my way over to The University of Pennsylvania to help record the eighth PoemTalk, a series of podcasts jointly sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, Kelly Writers House & PennSound. The show’s host is Al Filreis and I know that Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Charles Bernstein will be other discussants. I’m not sure exactly who else will be there or just how long we can go on. One of the advantages of the web as format is that it need not be always quite as rigid as broadcast radio in its time constraints, tho otherwise a lot of the same dynamics apply. The programs I’ve heard thus far easily would fit into a half-hour radio spot. And Al functions as a very active moderator, probing with question after question after question. It’s remarkable how much can be said in the time given once any dead air is edited away.

The premise of the show is simple. A group of readers, predominantly poets, close read a text. To date, there have been shows on poems by William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich & George Oppen. Allen Ginsberg singing William Blake went up on the PoemTalk site just yesterday. Others are “in the can,” I guess, and working their way to audiocast: Ted Berrigan, a Jaap Blonk sound poem & something by Jerry Rothenberg. An Ashbery text is also on the horizon, but has not yet been brought into the studio. An interesting mix albeit still completely white & very male.

Each poem is read by the poet in question as part of PennSound’s voluminous archives of modern and contemporary poets. Indeed, if you listen to the Oppen show, you will hear Oppen reading lines over & over as the poets hone in on the meaning of this word, that nuance. In another show, the respondents go so far as to criticize Williams’ own “easy” style of reading – they use two separate recordings of the same poem – which tended to remove moments of multiple meaning.

Our text for this evening – it’s no secret – is Rae Armantrout’s “The Way,” from Veil:

Card in pew pocket
”I am here.”

I made only one statement
because of a bad winter.

Grease is the word, grease
is the way

I am feeling.
Real life emergencies or

flubbing behind the scenes.

As a child,
I was abandoned

in a story
made of trees.

Here’s a small

of this clearing
come “upon” “again”

You can hear Rae read the poem here, and discuss it here. You should really hear Rae’s own take, which is both straightforward & remarkable for all that it doesn’t say. The text, as she describes it, proceeds by gathering together four seemingly arbitrary elements, which are then followed by two comments of her own.

But I don’t think that’s how we read it all. Armantrout is that most curious of language writers – the post-avant whose work has been accepted in such pre- or even anti-avant venues as The New Yorker without sacrificing its fundamentally radical nature.¹ This poem is a good example of how she manages this, and of how the parsimony principle functions in contemporary poetics in general. That principle, a term borrowed from cognitive linguistics, argues that readers will invariably seek out an interpretation that connects the dots, so to speak, in the simplest conceivable manner. I demonstrate how the effect works in The New Sentence, using as it happens a passage from an earlier poem by Armantrout, “Grace”:

a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on

The first section of a short, three-part poem, it’s always instructive to go about a class, asking people “what this means.” Almost always, readers respond with some narrative configuration that “explains” each of the parts. The most common, I’ve found, seem to entail theater and diving. In the former, the reader envisions an actor about to go onstage, taking a step into character. In the latter, the spring is literally that of a diving board. Neither construction is wrong (tho neither is the author’s own, either), but how one reads what then follows must flow from this first interpretation.

Armantrout wrote “Grace” over three decades ago. “The Way,” which was written around 2000, shows how she has grown more comfortable over time with indeterminacy & disjunction. In some ways, this new poem functions not unlike a David Salle painting with five or six major images set beside one another that may not seem “apparent” in their junctures. A lot of this, I think, will have to do with how the reader takes that most crucial of shifters, the word I. It occurs four times in the text, only once according to the author in anything akin to her own voice. Yet I think it is impossible not to hear it pulling the text’s elements together, even as we know – it is “obvious” – that in the first instance I literally figures the Lord, albeit one reduced to a pew card tag line. Armantrout goes so far as to revise her appropriation of Frankie Valli’s lyrics from the title song for Grease to bring in the first person singular.

To see how the I in the poem (pun intended) functions, it’s useful to look at the two places where it does not appear. The first two sentences are coterminous with their stanzas, setting up a stanza = sentence expectation that is then broken with the way Armantrout then continues onward with couplets – with one notable exception – so that the third sentence continues on past “its” stanza, a third line setting up what I think of as the poem’s “hinge.” In both of the first two stanzas, the word I appears at formally critical moments – first word of the last line, first word of the first line. But it doesn’t appear at all in the third stanza tho it does in third sentence. Thus the third I simultaneously functions as the first word of the sentence’s last line & the first word of the new stanza’s first line. Double whammy.

Then, in the fourth sentence – again bridging stanzas – the word suddenly is entirely absent as is any main verb. What we get are two parallel noun phrases – Real life emergencies, flubbing behind the scenes. The two items are hardly equivalent. The first sounds urgent, even threatening, the latter comic – I don’t see how it can’t possibly call up the I of the first sentence & equate it with the character of the wizard from Oz, but that’s my own interpretive supplement here, how I personally hear it. But without an I & lacking a main verb, this sentence, which begins in the middle of a couplet & ends with its last line dangling on its own, feels profoundly static. That stasis is at least partly due to the absence of a primary verb, but I think we are set up by Armantrout to hear it principally as the absence of the I.

And that solo line, all by its lonesome? It functions, I think, as a clearing – the only moment in the poem in which any phrase is given its own stanza. Thus it foretells what happens narratively two sentences later. One might make the argument that the key word in this text is not I but flubbing. A very Armantrout term.

The second half of the poem proceeds very differently. Each sentence is two couplets long, each feels personal, each narratively feels as tho it follows. The flow is completely different. The connections between sentences, which seemed angular or disjunct before, feel much smoother. In the first sentence, the I occurs as the first word of the last line of the first stanza. The second stanza is again devoid of an I, but it doesn’t feel like an absence. It is, in fact, only the second couplet in which this happens in the text. The first time reading this poem, we might not even be aware yet that we have already passed the first person singular for the last time here.

The last sentence is thus the second one without an I. It is also the most depictive sentence in the text, carrying forward the image of trees from the prior couplet (where it is clear that the trees are figurative rather than figured). The key term here, tho, is the least literal – gasp – a unit of breath – gasp / of this clearing. No matter how many times I read this stanza, this sentence, this poem, that word always feels to me like a version of I, tho in reality what is being described would seem to be the clearing itself. This equation of subvocalic breath with I is, to my ear, the ultimate “move” being made here. It returns us to the god in the pamphlet of the first stanza, but this time inside out. I also think that the subvocalic is what is being signaled by those very Alice Notley-esque quotation marks in the final line, a double consciousness inhabiting each word precisely because it is double.

There is a lot more to be said about this poem, some of which I may or may not get to say “on air” later today. One of the poem’s mysteries for me is the word trees. It signals not only fairy tales – Rae Armantrout as Gretel or some such – but the idea of wood pulp & books. To my ear, it also invokes the word threes. I don’t see any good “justification” for this, but I’ve never been able to shake that reading, perhaps because it points back to my sense of the poem’s first half as fitting together more in the manner of a collage (tho in actuality it is four elements, albeit with three of the first person singular). That slippage, from trees to threes is, again to my own ear, yet another dimension of the word gasps in the next stanza.

Yet another aspect to this poem as pure craft is how long ē sounds – Grease, feeling, emergencies, scenes, trees – all bind the middle of this text. The sound is not present at all in the first two stanzas, nor the last two, but clearly dominates those three interior sentences. It’s a small detail, but one of those elements that shows the degree to which Armantrout controls what on other levels could look (or sound) to be a very disjunct text.

Having said all this, what I don’t know – have no clue about – is what I’ll say tonight. It will be fun to find out. To hear what others have to say. And to see if I still think & feel this same way about this poem tomorrow.


¹ Thus see Stephen Burt’s discussion of Armantrout in The Boston Review about which he notes, of “The Way,” that “Armantrout can sound less like other ‘Language writers’ than like an improbably terse stand-up comic.”