Sunday Poetry: Thrown, by Rae Armantrout



She now carried out
both X,
which produced Y,
and Z,
which consumed it.

This seemed like completion.

So she broke herself
to bits,

but the sense
of having come full circle
could not be eliminated.


Medicine Shoppe,
Tear-Drop R.V.

Don’t get cute with me!

The mind wanders.

The material

The whole plain
with bunchgrasses

across which
some loose flocks
are thrown

– by Rae Armantrout

This is not a joke. This is an actual poem, truly published in the New Yorker a few months ago. Go back, read it three or four times, read it out loud, have someone you love read it to you, pay a 900 number phone worker to read it to you, it won’t matter. It’s awful, it’s insulting, it’s a thumb in the eye to people who love poetry.

I write about this poem today because it struck me that I’ve only written about great poems, and the overwhelming majority of poems published these days are terrible. This one is by no means the worst, but I came across it in the midst of reading an old New Yorker article, and it was such a typical example of meaningless dribble that I thought I owed it to good poets writing today to show what they are up against in doing good work in a hostile climate.

Rae Armantrout is insanely successful with her poetry. She gets paid money to teach writing at the University of California in San Diego, and she has published volume after volume of poetry like what appears above. She has the respect of her University-bound peers, and gets her poetry published in the New Yorker. Poetry wise, she’s big league.

But why? What is there about “Thrown” that makes it worthy of publication anywhere, much less in the largest poetry market in the world? Can you tell me what it means? Can you detect a rhythm? Do any of the phrases or words grab onto you and force their way into your mind days later, the way a line from Frost or Eliot does?

Such mundane functions as communication and inspiration, or even joy of language, are beneath a proper contemporary poet like Armantrout. She slaps such silly hopes out of you with the first few lines, a jumble of mundane words mixed with simple letters, too uncaring to form full words. There is nothing here to understand, nothing here to thrill, nothing here to bring joy. Simply stated, there is nothing here.

I wrote last week about the ambiguity created by layer upon layer of meaning, and I want to contrast that with today’s poem, which achieves ambiguity by stripping away meaning, until it resembles a random collection of words and phrases, drawn together through uncaring chance.

It is a violence against poetry that such work gets written by a writing professor and published in the New Yorker. In the face of such success for work so unremarkable, how does a writer like Sharon Olds proceed, and why would a reader care a bit about reading another poem? Poetry like Armantrout’s sneers at plebeian attempts to understand or relate in any way to it, but it succeeds in the academic and high-grade literary world.

If poetry dies off as a literary form, it will not be because of clumsy greeting-card rhymes or sentimental verse. It will certainly not be because of musty old sonnets and villanelles. If poetry dies, it will be buried in a University quadrangle, attended by a cluster of tweedy effete professors after a rousing bout of “experimental lyricism”.

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