Struggling with cancer, Rae Armantrout, 62, thought she would die sometime during the last half of her book of poems, Versed. It's a good thing she was wrong; otherwise, she would have missed the surprise of winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She heard this news Monday, and it may be sweeter for us that this announcement came during National Poetry Month.
Now she will be remembered, perhaps. Good poetry tends to outlast the poet. And so, I and others may give more time to Armantrout's work, like her poem "Scumble." I'm studying it and wondering what makes her poetry any better than some other poet's verses. Separating poetic chaff from poetic wheat is not as simple as you'd think.
First, in order to know why Armantrout is considered good enough to warrant a Pulitzer, you may need to know from what school of poetry she hails. I don't mean school like Princeton or Stanford but poetic school of thought. Poets have certain affinities and preferences, form vs. free verse, rhyming vs. blank verse, epic vs. concise. And then they fall into tighter cliques, poetry inside movements, such as Black Arts vs. the Beat Generation, and that has nothing to do with Harry Potter.
According to Poetry.org, Armantrout comes from the Language School of Poetry:
The Language school of poetry started in the 1970s as a response to traditional American poetry and forms. Coming on the heels of such movements as the Black Mountain and New York Schools, language poetry’s purpose was to place complete emphasis on the language of the poem and to create a new way for the reader to interact with the work. Language poetry is also associated with leftist politics and was also affiliated with several literary magazines published in the 70s, including This and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
Key aspects of language poetry include the idea that language dictates meaning rather than the other way around. (Poets.org)
Possibly it's this kind scholarship that makes some people hate poetry. Folks want to latch onto poems, to seize them and feel, not experience poetry in the context of schools of political thought or scansion and schema. Most people just want to read and weep or hear the poem, nod, and say, "That's hot."
But "good" poetry most likely lasts because it's more than "hot" or "sentimental." It's rich, textured, and layered with goodies we want to peel away so we can know intimately the heart of the poem.
Or if it's plain and clear like a Robert Frost verse, then there's still something in it we want to keep and let grow, a life force telling us something about the human condition. A good poem lives. It is an experience worth your time. A bad poem is stillborn, ready for the grave as it exits the womb.
While I have not yet studied her work in depth, I'll guess that Armantrout's won the Pulitzer because her work breathes. Her poetry moves readers and sticks in guts. At KBPS radio, you can listen to an interview with the poet. In it she talks about her work on Versed, reads her poems "Outer" and "Around," and discusses her fight with cancer. Much of her work examines finding your "authentic" voice. Like many poets, what she sees and hears prompts her to write, and that means she writes about all kinds of things.
If it were not National Poetry Month and Armantrout had not won, I wonder if I would have ever learned of her work. It's hard to find the better poets because a sea of breathing humans, many of them on the Internet, claim that label, and a sea of dead ones have it chiseled on their headstones.
Esteemed critics have told us these dead poets are gifted. Libraries have ordered their books full of sonnets or haiku. Yes, shelves sag with words from the gifted dead, and so you must really love poetry to seek a living poet and determine whether she writes poetry worth time from your life, one that makes you want to climb in between the lines and know the power of words.
You may read more about Armantrout and read some of her poetry at the Academy of American Poets or read her bio at the University of California, San Diego, where she is a professor. She also has poetry online at the University of Buffalo, NY.
In addition, Kelli Russell Agodon posted on Armantrout receiving the Pulitzer, and blogger Leigh Stein wrote about the poet before she won the Pulitzer. Armantrout won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Versed in March.