Misunderstanding Rae Armantrout and Duran Duran

Rae Armantrout and Duran DuranI moderate a poetry group that meets once a month in a quiet part of an Irish pub that’s hospitable enough to us writers that the manager will turn down the music and keep other patrons out of our way. At our meetings, after we eat and chat about whatever we’ve been reading that month, we pass around our poems for the rest of the group to critique, question, praise … whatever.

One of the things that always happens at these gatherings, and any workshop I’ve ever been in, is that someone, often many people, will pick at the things they don’t “get,” phrases that don’t seem to have another internal anchor, things that are too obscure or just weird for the reader to process and move confidently to the next line. It happened to my most recent poem, and I expected and welcomed it. I had a sense that the poem wandered from allusion to allusion without enough helpful breadcrumbs, but I needed some other eyeballs to help point that out.

Sometimes in situations when the poem is presented sans breadcrumbs, a reader may say “I don’t get that, but I like it anyway.” Usually that’s either because the selection held some other quality that overrode the need for explication—maybe an image was stirring or the cadence satisfying enough that the reader could forgive the fact that it actually made no external sense. I’m OK with that sometimes and probably guilty of it too. But in most cases I really do believe a poem that defies clarity is a failure. The poem has to talk to me, so if its point of reference is buried in the author’s back pocket rather than on the page, I lose interest fairly quickly.

By clarity, I’m not talking hallmark clarity or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver (said with affection, BTW). The poem doesn’t have to live on the surface to be a success, but there has to be a level of connection between the reader and author. If you loan me your shoes, and they’re close enough to my size, I can walk in them. If they’re 5 sizes off, we’re not going to get anywhere together.

Which brings me to Rae Armantrout and Duran Duran.

Laura Hinton blogged an interview with Armantrout on Chant de la Sirene. The first half of the interview concerns a poem of Armantrout’s called “Soft Money,” which Hinton referred to praisingly as illusive. I think of voles as illusive or riches and fame (for me, definitely illusive), but I’m not sure I want someone to complement my work by calling it hard to grasp and misleading.

  • Read Soft Money here.

So what happens in the blog, I think, is a little funny. Hinton described how she discussed the poem in her class and asked the poet to explain how the work came about. The answer surprised Hinton. Apparently the poem is a response to, and even references, the ‘80s Duran Duran song “Rio” and its objectification of women.

Hinton didn’t get that at all—completely missed the point:

“Wow. I don’t think we got all that in our classroom attempts at interpretation. But we knew “Soft Money” was a good poem. And that’s something that’s so interesting about your work to me. Your poems – most of them – hit me as so viscerally real, so witty about the “reality” we live with. I experience them as profound, and yet I often don’t know why. Sometimes I study the poem for awhile, and I find these puns on words that make the lines so rich. They may, in fact, be puns punning on the concept of “meaning” itself. We are forced to ask: Meaning… does it “mean,” what is it to mean, or is “it” (the “meaning” of the poem) just content to be?”

The fact that Hinton didn’t “get” the poem is no surprise. Much of Armantrout’s verse is written in a similar mode as if most of the poem exists in a slightly separate dimension, and we, the reader, just have to make our best guesses. Armantrout apparently doesn’t object to that, as she says in another interview (also about Soft Money) that the poem could be about a whole lot of things. Maybe she’s offering us one-size-fits-all shoes, like flip flops.

What bothers me about that is that the poet seems to be taking no responsibility for what she’s done—or what’s she’s trying to communicate. In the original interview, Hinton backtracks to Archibald MacLeish’s “a poem should not mean, but be.”

Well, I want the poem to more than be, I want it to be something. And, indeed, after the Her Name is Rio revelation, it is something. I see it clearly now, as I’m sure did Hinton, but not until then. Until then it was just a word game, a guess-me-if-you-can game.

OK, now, I’m getting into clarity then. In her essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity”  Armantrout writes  “Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you?” The particular poem that got me here, to me, is neither clear, nor does it loom and startle. But that’s just me. I won’t argue with Armantrout’s honest success—she’s a poet who’s books sell, a lot, and she’s won the biggest awards in the business. But this issue about clarity comes up a lot, sometimes veiled by other things, in the writers’ group I participate in and I’m sure in similar workshop’s across the country.

What do you do when you the poem in front of you fails to communicate? Does the poem fail or does the reader fail? I suppose that often will depend as much on the poet at the reader. In Armantrout’s case (as with many other L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets), clarity just isn’t on her list of important things. What that poet wants is a reader able to respond to, something else. I’m not sure what, but won’t say it’s wrong.

I’m not suggesting that a poem has to mean something—a successful poem already is its own best way for expressing whatever it is that it’s expressing. Often they reject explicit interpretation, and should, in the same way you can’t interpret a photograph of a Chinese lantern. It’s a lantern, not something else. The photo may create feelings in me, may trigger an emotional response, memory or awareness, but it doesn’t mean anything more than lantern. And I’m also not trying to jump all over Armantrout. Most of her poems do not require a deep reading of Duran Duran in order to know that they’re lanterns.

So is the responsible thing, then, as a reader and workshop participant, to respect the lanternness in each poem and resist the temptation to point out a work’s lack of Rio or do we fall back on the old, “I don’t get it” response when the poem has not turned on the light for us?

  • For more of Armantrout’s commentary on Soft Money go here.

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