Card in the mail:

“Win a free
cremation.”

On the table top,
a scatter,

grains of salt
(sugar?)

aglow.

It works for me.

Gracious wood grain
supplying

what I like best:

an illusion
of passage.

One of Rae Armantrout’s strengths as a poet is her idiosyncrasy.  Because she is what Dan Chaisson has called ‘a sometime associate of the so-called Language school of poets,’ her works promise an element of surprise—surprise as to whether her ‘idiosyncratic’ will be worthwhile or a droll little play on words.

Her signature small, disjointed verses often begin with some trite nothing (think Moneyshot) and end with an unexpected lift of meaning. “Win,” first published in Boston Review, is a poem like this, and one I believe is ultimately valuable: opening with a literal piece of junk, this fragmental piece concludes by freshly and beautifully addressing the slow slide from the surrealism of life to the cold reality of ‘eschatologies.’ That said, a certain ambivalence is fed by my feeling that the slapstick sentiment at the beginning acts as a sort of journalistic hook—a joke headline to lure any tabloid reader into the plot. And then the old query: in matters of art, do the end justify the means?

I don’t posit that a successful poem must begin as it ends (or vice versa), but that a poem needn’t make use of shtick. A nod to the soothing yet ultimately hollow rituals we erect around dying is a good enough ‘point’ for Armantrout, but why must the journey be sparked by a funny piece of junk mail? A sentiment that makes us chuckle? Why is there such pressure to compose a poem with ‘non-essentials,’ turning artistry into another commercial posture?

Here’s the turn: real poetry doesn’t care about a sweepstakes, or the minor self-recognition in a moment of home life (‘Ha! Sometimes I mistake salt for sugar too!). “What fun absurdity!” one might hear from a Mayakovsky fan. Or, “What a cool idea, to use swearing and shock tactics in a poem,” says the Sharon Olds devotee.  And to that sentiment I say: Well fuck. If what’s desired is the fun of the absurd, or lots of glossy little truisms, then watch “The Golden Girls.” Poetry is a high art.

Unexpected language is not valuable because it’s weird or rebellious, but because the surprise of freshly artful phrasing might wake us to something dreadful and beautifully true that we couldn’t recognize or communicate effectively previous.  Subverting traditional language for its own sake, as the ‘language poets’ are wont to do, is thankfully not Armantrout’s only trick.