Issue 231, Winter 2019
Independent, skeptical, laconic, and always lyrical, Rae Armantrout is a poet of wit and precision. Her poems are typically built of brief sections and short lines in which every word and syllable has been carefully weighed and placed. She also values alacrity and surprise. Arcs of argument can end midflight or spring abruptly in unforeseen directions. The tone shifts, and shifts again. The rewards of her quicksilver verse are many: she helps, as William Blake once put it, to cleanse the doors of perception. You look anew at everyday things and delight in language’s myriad marvels and traps. You also laugh out loud.
Her poems often bring together contraries. She shuttles from topics as ambitious as cosmology and theology to things as ordinary as weeds glimpsed out a window or remarks overheard in a coffeehouse. She has written about intimately personal and private matters, such as motherhood and her treatment for a rare, painful cancer, and she has tackled urgent public matters such as immigration, climate change, and economic inequality.
Armantrout is a West Coaster through and through. She grew up in San Diego during the post–World War II boom years, attended Berkeley at the height of the Vietnam War, and for many years taught creative writing at the University of California, San Diego. She recently moved to Everett, Washington, a town north of Seattle, to be near her son’s family.
Critics often associate Armantrout with the avant-garde Language poetry movement. During the seventies, she helped found its San Francisco branch. Her first books, Extremities (1978) and The Invention of Hunger (1979), like the early works of her colleagues Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, and Ron Silliman, experiment with narrative discontinuity, syntactic disruption, and found text. She has never, though, been content to travel in a pack. From the beginning, her work has been more autobiographical and songlike than that of her Language poetry peers. While she has continued to correspond and collaborate with them, she has pursued her own singular path. She has written more than fifteen books, including Necromance (1991), Veil (2001), and Versed (2009), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent, Wobble (2018), was a finalist for the National Book Award. A new collection, Conjure, is forthcoming in 2020.