The Thought-Farts in Rae Armantrout’s Versed and Elliptical Poetry’s Velvet Rope

A discussion began with a few of my friends on Facebook on Wednesday. It started because of these two PBS Newshour interviews: the interview with Rae Armantrout on the PBS Newshour and the interview with Benjamin Saenz. It’s the first interview I’m concerned with.

Rae Armantrout's VersedBut first an introduction. Here’s is the opening sentence I was going to use for an earlier version of a book review about Rae Armantrout’s Versed:

Each year there are five books every poet should read: The Pushcart Prize, The Best American Poetry, the winner of The National Book Award, the winner of The Pulitzer Prize, and your friends’ books if any of them release a book.

I ordered Rae Armantrout’s Versed about 15 minutes after it was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. Two months later the book arrived. That’s a good sign because it means the publisher sold out and had to print a whole bunch more. That means people are reading poetry, and that is always good. Always. However, books like Versed are a reason why people shy away from poetry.

Poetry as AlgebraYes, all of us Americans were all taught the wrong way to read a poem. It’s not an algebra equation – Symbol X plus symbol Y equals meaning Z. Nope. Poetry is an experience and the poem is a shared experience between writer and reader. This experience can be shared by way of a lyrical poem, a narrative poem, or a poem of dialogue or conversation. Conversation? Conversation with who?

Stephen Burt coined the term “Elliptical poems” in his review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes. You can read the review here: http://new.bostonreview.net/BR23.3/burt.html. Most of what he has to say about Ellipticism occurs in the first few paragraphs and the last paragraph.

When I define Elliptical poetry, I use the word “conversation.” An Elliptical poem is like a conversation the poet is having with her/himself or with a few other people, but you, the reader, are only allowed to hear a few random fragments from that conversation.

As mentioned in other posts, good poetry has leaps. A good conversation also has leaps. The difference is that a poem has a larger audience, so the leap must be understood, felt, or intuited by that larger audience.

Velvet Rope with BouncersWith Elliptical poetry, as mentioned, the conversation is with fewer people, and only those in the know can fill in the leaps. They are behind the poem’s velvet rope, but us readers on the other side of the rope feel left out. Some of us so desperately want to get in we’ll do anything to or for the bouncer guarding the rope. Others will realize, this is bullshit, and find a better bar and have conversations, play darts, or shoot pool – you know, do something real. Do something of experience.

Rae Armantrout also makes a definition for Elliptical poetry that I like:

Many of my poems – not all of them – but many of them are written in separate sections that are divided perhaps by numbers or perhaps by asterisks, and they are separate moments or separate thoughts that are juxtaposed, and I’m interested in the juxtapositions and the kind of friction that bringing in material from diverse situations or disparate realms can create.


This has the same problems, or can and does in Versed, as the Elliptical poets with their velvet rope.

In Joan Houlihan’s interview with Paul Lake, Only Connect: A Conversation With Paul Lake, Lake directly gets to the problem with Elliptical poetry:

Reading an Elliptical poem provides an experience similar to channel-surfing, where a scene from a classic movie is suddenly juxtaposed to a cartoon, then a crime drama, a deodorant commercial, a rap video, a sixties sitcom. “That’s exactly right,” the argument runs; “that’s simply postmodern reality, accurately rendered.” Well, in fact, it’s not: it’s only the reality of channel-surfing rendered. When we as living human animals make love, engage in conversation with friends, talk to our doctor, work at our job, watch our children compete in a race, we move to completely different rhythms, with real narrative flow and emotional peaks and valleys, beginnings and endings, with real consequences, as when your doctor tells you that you have a terrible disease or a lover tells you he or she still loves you at the end of a difficult period.


Rae Armantrout’s poems in Versed often do exactly what Lake says Elliptical poems do. The poems makes juxtapositions that can only be made sense of by a few people – those who watched the channel surfing. Or to the point,  those behind the rope.

So now I have to throw out a disclaimer. I only read half of Versed. I gave up for three reasons. One, I felt left out. There was no experience there for me to be involved in. I wasn’t in the in. I wasn’t allowed behind the rope. For instance:

A Resemblance

As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call the
“the world.”)


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



“Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,


I’d like to rewrite some of those lines: The same exclusion / that separates me // from what Ellipticists call / “the poem.”

Two, some of the poems were just plain bad. They weren’t paying attention to language. The opening poem, which tends to be one of the strongest poems in a book, is just bad. Like open-mic bad. Like a sophomore in college writing the poem five minutes before he has to read at open-mic bad. Here’s the opening poem:


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.

Click here to transform

into digestion.

From this point on,
it’s a lattice
of ends disguised as means:

the strangler fig,

the anteater.

I’ve developed the ability
to revise
what I’m waiting for

so that letter
becomes dinner

while the contrapuntal
of the Chinese elm leaves


That poem is filled with ennui. It’s filled with ennui because she’s not paying attention to language. It’s like the writing of a sophomore college student trying to be clever, but the poem is not clever and it’s exclusive.

And then there is reason three – the reason the Pulitzer Prize committee gave for awarding Versed with the prize. They said:

[Versed is] a book striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading.

Velvet Rope“Thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading”?! That’s what every poem does. That’s what every comedy routine does. That’s what every piece of art does and every piece of music. How is that unique? What they meant to say was that it is clever and sometimes it takes a while to calculate and get at the poem’s meaning, which leads me back to an earlier point about poetry as algebra. Or, it means there are thought-bombs, because after you get behind the velvet rope at last call and are finally able to read the poems, you realize these poems are just thoughts that bombed.

George Carlin's Brain DroppingsWhat we need are poems that make sense to everybody on the surface-level first, the experiential level, and then the thought-bombs, the epiphanies, the shared experiences, and the common understandings will naturally come. The poems in Versed, however, are nothing more than “clever” thought-farts, and they are only clever to those behind the velvet rope. I like George Carlin’s Brain Droppings much more.

As Alissa Valles says in “Post-Homage”:

I admire the “startling new voice”
and the “linguistic tour-de-force”
but how about something to read before
an operation?
How about a few lines to engrave on a ring or a stone?


I can’t believe I just spent this much time writing about bad poetry. I think it’s wasteful time to spend so much time with bad poems. William Carlos Williams once said, “If you don’t like a poem, move on. There are plenty of other good poems to read.” But in writing about Versed and its collection of thought-farts, I realized Burt may not approve of Elliptical poetry.

In Burt’s book review of Smokes, he says Elliptical poets “are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television” and “Wheeler imagines readers who have to be won over, with games and codes, and hints and tricks, when they visit the private, satellite-dish-threatened, media-savvy house of her psyche. I wonder what it’s like after the guests have gone home?” (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR23.3/burt.html), I wonder if Burt actually believed in Elliptical poetry. I mean, does television thoroughly entertain? That’s a slight at Elliptical poetry. And so is “I wonder what it’s like after the guests have gone home?” I don’t know Burt’s whole history behind Ellipticism, but those two quotes make me think he wasn’t for it.

By the way, I wonder what will happen to Armantrout’s poems after the judges go home?

I wish instead the judges and Burt had pushed for “The New Thing” poems. Those look interesting. I’m going to have to investigate that and Burt’s newest book: Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2009).

In the two Burt essays I’ve read, I like the way he thinks. However, I don’t like the one decision he made for the Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Versed. It should be a verb. For example, after you have finished reading a bad collection of poems, Ashton Kutcher can come out and say, “You’ve been Versed!”

Versedit’s just more thought-farts from another “clever” Elliptical poet with little imagination and much exclusiveness.//

14 Responses to “The Thought-Farts in Rae Armantrout’s Versed and Elliptical Poetry’s Velvet Rope”

  1. July 11, 2010 at 1:41 am

    Thanks for visiting The Black Sheep Dances and making me feel less alone in my thoughts on this title. I appreciate your explanations of elliptical poetry. Come visit again and compare notes. I just finished The Dirt Riddles by Michael Walsh and Angina Days by Gunter Eich. Both were MUCH more enjoyable yet utterly different comparitively.

  2. July 21, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Ah, this is devilishly good. I mean…she sure looks like a nice lady and all…but a poem could be written about Talking With Rae, Sleeping With Rae, Peeling Parsnips With Rae….every page we turn it opens to a burst of Raeshine. I dare say, the market’s saturated and the product’s gone flat.

    You have hit this nail on the head.

  3. July 21, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you for exposing the Armatrout fraud. Ron the “Shill” Silliman has a lot to answer for but he’s too busy writing his own elliptical claptrap. He outta be slapped.

    It’s back to Derek Walcott and Frederick Seidel for me. By the way, Seidel’s magnificent “Downtown” was printed in a recent issue of the New Yorker which also happened to have one by Armatrout. God, does her vapidity suffer by comparison.

  4. 4 Steven Waling
    July 22, 2010 at 5:52 am

    Those two poems you put up of hers I rather like. Especially the second, which was a rather lovely dissection of media language. And it made me smile, which is more that anything by Freddy Seidel ever did.

    So I guess some of us just like different stuff to what you do.

  5. July 22, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    What is this, the Grumpy Corner? Having read this review (and the Burt and Lake pieces) I can only conclude that all three reviewers have absolutely no clue about the workings of “elliptical” poetry, Language-centered poetry, or any other non-traditional verse forms.

    It is probably a truism that postmodern poetry is necessarily urbane, that “the reality of channel-surfing” is in fact the reality of the urban experience, with all its media-saturated over-stimulation. Paul Lake is absolutely wrong in his assertion that this is merely “the reality of channel-surfing” and nothing more. Such a statement could have been written only by someone who is situated in a pleasant, bucolic environment, and has been able to successfully insulate himself from the degree of over-saturation that assaults us daily, those of us hunkered down in urban environments, or suburban ones. One is force-channel-surfaced, even when one puts down the remote. Welcome to 21st-century life. And those “leaps” that you mention, the parataxis, are not the province of a few; they belong to everyone, doubtless those who are well-read, but that is not a small group of people. So you desire a poetry that is accessible to everyone with a middle-school education, and you assume the only answer is Narrative? That is an extremely narrow perspective. Likewise, the complaints about the mixing of “high” and “low” language may be well taken if one is referring to bad New York School poetry, but don’t tar all poetry using this particular technique with that brush.

    Perhaps it is time to unplug and live the simple rural life, but a truly innovative postmodern poet would be able to write an entire book of nature poetry that reveals Nature’s own complexity and multivalence as experienced by the human mind; and I am certain you will find the time to complain about such a project as well. Nonetheless, to make such idiotic swipes at such a fine and seasoned poet as Armantrout, who writes so elegantly in her Form–seemingly alien to the author–is to expose your political agenda; a herald of the literary Tea Party, I would say.

    It is not a simple argument over whether to make the reader “work” or “not-work” in crafting a successful poem. All great poems require work if one wants to fully appreciate its references, sonic qualities, inner structure, etc. You complain about Elliptical poets’ disinterest in narrative, and that being the cause of the public’s shying away from poetry. Hardly. If this were the case, they would also shy away from spectacles like Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” which while of little interest to me (for very specific reasons) was packed for all 700 hours of Ms. Abramovic’s performance, in addition to the exhibition itself. To say that “avant-garde” or other term of “innovation” equals Bad is to betray your own narrow biases.

    • July 23, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      “Channel-surfing” may be the reality of the (pomo) urban experience, but that leaves out the rest of the population, who aren’t urban and don’t aspire to be. Most of these post-avant styles are urban, aren’t they, after all?

      And the point that not all of life is spent channel-surfing is a valid one. There are other modes of poetry that are equally valid, therefore, as well.

      As for the hypothetical book of nature poetry by truly innovative poets revealing the complexity of nature through the poet’s mind, there already exist several examples of such a project. Gary Snyder and Jane Hirshfield come to mind, so does Jim Harrison, and so does Wendell Berry. For that matter, so do the classical Japanese haiku masters. And Peter Matthiesen, whose ostensible prose reads very poetically.

      Presenting the situation as though the non-urban poets hadn’t already addressed this, or even worse had nothing to say about it, as though only an urban post-avant poet could accomplish this project, which seems to be implied, is just another example of the pro-urban bias revealing itself.

  6. July 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    You’ve managed, despite any caveats about bias, to accurately describe why hardly anyone but the poetry insiders actually read or buy poetry, especially this kind of poetry. I completely agree with you on most of your points, and have gotten into argument with post-avant theorists about the hollowness of their project numerous times. Which is particularly funny considering my own poems often get accused of being experimental themselves.

    I like the definitions of elliptical poetry you’re working with here because they do clarify the whole project, whether or not one ends up agreeing with it. I have no problem with juxtaposition; in some ways elliptical poetry is simply taking it to an extreme. But combined with the puzzle-box insider aspect, your metaphor of the velvet rope, that’s the root of the problem.

    But then, this velvet rope insider attitude is typical of almost every flavor of the post-avant. (With only rare exceptions. Jerome Rothenberg comes to mind.) THe insider/outsider clique aspect of the contemporary scene is itself the toxic root with many branches.

    • July 24, 2010 at 5:36 am

      Surely the velvet rope thing is something everybody does? From your average emo kid sneering at mainstream pop to your opera snob to “authentic” folk fan – or, dare I say it, wine-snob, we all like to think of ourselves as different from the pack. I am a jazz fan – but only from be-bop on, and definitely not that abomination, “trad.” Etc etc etc…

      I don’t see how avant writing is any different in that sense than other forms of tribalism. Except personally, I prefer it. It “speaks to my condition” as we Quakers say: urban, channel-hopping, musical genre hopping, mixed-up me.

  7. 9 Al Abonado
    July 23, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    I guess I see the entire project of elliptical poetry very differently. I don’t see these poems by Rae as being exclusive but actually inclusive, democratic.

    I have always seen the poetics of poets like Rae as the kind that recognizes the instability of language, how language is subject to various cultural forces, and because of this the work is open-ended, allows the reader to have their own experience with the materials as opposed to having an epiphany forced upon them. The authority, then, doesn’t belong to the narrator but to the reader. After all, the reader is the one experiencing the text. The question when reading then isn’t “what is the author trying to say?” but “what am I, the reader, getting out of this text?” Doing this kind of work ain’t everyone’s bag, but I wouldn’t call it bad poetry either.

    I also want to say this is not a case of either/or in my mind, not one aesthetic vs. another. I don’t see Rae as being a superior poet to others, although I do feel she is an important one. The human experience is varied and accommodates a broad range of aesthetics and so-called ellipitical poets have a perfectly legitimate method of addressing their concerns.

    As a side note, why are people constantly bringing up the old “this is why nobody reads poetry anymore” chestnut when referencing “difficult” poetry? As if accessible poets are some kind of endangered species? Is Billy Collins, Dorianne Laux, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, Tony Hoagland, Lucille Clifton, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, and Denise Duhamel to name a few too abstract and obtuse for the general public to understand? If so, I think the problem has less to do with poetry and more to do with general public’s literacy. Seriously, there are plenty of very good “accessible” poets available to the public. While the diminishing audience for poetry is certainly a concern, I don’t believe this is something one can blame on the absence of accessible poetry.

  8. 10 j robotz
    July 24, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Congratulations, this is a very accessible review.

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