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.
But 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.
Yes, 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.
With 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:
As a word is
matter is mostly
(The same loneliness
that separates me
from what I call the
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
in this series pilot.
Votes are registered
at the server
and sent back
Click here to transform
From this point on,
it’s a lattice
of ends disguised as means:
the strangler fig,
I’ve developed the ability
what I’m waiting for
so that letter
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.
“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.
What 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
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!”
Versed – it’s just more thought-farts from another “clever” Elliptical poet with little imagination and much exclusiveness.//