There's no denying Rae Armantrout has a way with words. For four decades, the celebrated poet has been featured in 10 collections of her verse and various major anthologies, and earned impressive accolades, including a 2008 Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Armantrout grew up in San Diego and earned a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley (where she studied with poet Denise Levertov), eventually earning an M.A. from San Francisco State University. Her first major was anthropology, but she acknowledges the resonant effect of certain works that surely helped redirect her compass.
"When I was in high school, I discovered an anthology which contained Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, ‘A narrow fellow in the grass,' and William Carlos Williams' ‘Young Sycamore.' Those got to me," says Armantrout from UC San Diego, where she's taught for two decades. Along with being intrigued by Robert Creeley's poems For Love and The Language, Armantrout acknowledges another work that created a nearly universal seismic shift in the realm of poetry. "In college, like so many others, I was blown away by Howl by Allen Ginsberg. I loved its rhythms, for one thing."
In the early '70s, the poet was a founding member of the Language Poets, a group of avant-garde poets who confronted the very ideas of postmodern expression and form, while challenging readers to find their place in the text.
"In Language poetry, language is self-conscious," she says. "That's one way to put it. The language writer doesn't see language as a neutral medium we use to depict the world, but as an integral part of the world we hope to depict." It was a de facto reaction to what she describes as the "post-confessional" style that dominated the poetry scene back then, with works being written as first-person narratives that usually ended with some form of realization. "That felt too predictable and closed to us — and to other groups of poets at the time. The world wasn't like that. It never is."
Armantrout's work leans toward short-form verse, not unlike Williams' and Dickinson's works, toggling with the familiar, issuing a fractalized view of the conceptual and commonplace.
"A poem usually begins, for me, when I'm puzzled by something I see or hear or read. Or maybe I'm puzzled by what I feel about what I've seen," she says. "I pursue the fleeting feeling by writing, trying to see it more clearly, if not understand it."
Much of her poetry seems to pivot on a sense of the interrogative, with questions tethered into the stanzas. "The poems really begin, often, with a kind of question, one I'm not even able to formulate," she says. "You might say that I write to clarify my question."
Her 2011 poem Accounts, which appears to explore light, lasers, atoms and a God who is "balancing his checkbook," opens with invitational action that accelerates into inquiry: "Light was on its way from nothing to nowhere. Light was all business/Light was full speed when it got interrupted. Interrupted by what?"
Another aspect of her work is the presence of what occurs between lines and stanzas, a sense of stillness embedded in the whiteness of the page. In her essay Poetic Silence, Armantrout explains how she is drawn to a sensibility of being mindful of these pauses and empty spaces, noting that silence can indicate everything from humility to "the presence of the ineffable." It is a device that also allows the reader to experience poetry in greater fullness, indicated by suddenly broken lines, stanzas and sections that Armantrout believes "leave the reader hanging for a second."
"I think silence, as part of an art work like a poem or a piece of music, creates a pause that gives you time to think. It almost demands that you think, and in that way, it makes you an active participant," she says. This silence can be viewed as a soft reprieve from the cacophony of everyday life.
Armantrout is considered among the most engaging contemporary poets, recognized for both the breadth of her work and the advancements she's made within the form. Yet poetry is still often viewed as a type of hermetically sealed realm, an intellectual ghetto guarded from the curious. Armantrout's life spent as a creator, devotee and observer of poetics gives her a direct understanding of some readers' possible apprehensions.
"I think people are afraid of ambiguity, and poetry is full of ambiguities," she says. "Too often, people expect to be told how to feel. I think interesting artworks allow you to figure that out for yourself. People are afraid they'll be asked to paraphrase a poem, as if for a test. They would do better to just encounter and experience it."
"The poems really begin with a kind of question, one I'm not even able to formulate."