First reading of Rae Armantrout's 'Spin' (4)
David Caplan’s first reading of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin” is the fourth of five we will publish in this new series. Others by Jennifer Ashton, Katie Price, and Dee Morris are available at the First Readings series page. The next set of first readings will describe encounters with NourbeSe Philips’s Zong #6. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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When first reading a poem, I focus on particularly evocative or puzzling moments — a phrase or two, some technical gestures, a flourish, a stylistic oddity, an apparent redundancy. I am searching for points of orientation and disorientation. I also often consider the poem’s structure; I want to know how it organizes language. My questions are rudimentary. Like Auden, I ask of the poem, “How does it work?” At this point I am not trying to sound smart. I am trying to clarify what the poem is doing and my reaction to it. Because my first readings are typically private, I suffer little embarrassment if my initial ideas prove to be simplistic or just plain wrong (as in fact they often do). (Of course, this method only applies to a poem that interests me; otherwise I quickly set it aside). My methods are hit or miss. For instance, I might look up an unusual word in the OED or search for it in Google Books. Google Books is particularly helpful to see if the word has a particular association or importance to the author.
Two aspects of “Spin” quickly catch my attention. First, the title. The title apparently performs a rather old-fashioned function; it introduces the poem’s subject. Anne Ferry has described how such titles “simplify the reader’s act of interpretation by telling ahead of time in summary form what would otherwise be found out from the poem.” “Spin” both simplifies and complicates; it encourages the reader to consider the word’s multiple meanings: a quick turning, a verbal manipulation especially for political purposes, and, as in a term from physics that the OED introduces me to, “[a]n intrinsic property of certain elementary particles which is a form of angular momentum.” In one sense, “Spin” is a very plain title: it consists of one short, familiar word. The apparently straightforward title, though, turns in several directions.
When asked to contribute to this forum, I am also rereading G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology. In the introduction, C. P. Snow notes:
[Hardy’s] friends had to pass some of his private tests: they needed to possess a quality which he called “spin” (this is a cricket term, and untranslatable: it implies a certain obliquity or irony of approach: of recent public figures, Macmillan and Kennedy would get high marks for spin, Churchill and Eisenhower not).
This coincidence does not directly inform the poem. Hardy and Armantrout use “spin” quite differently. A first reading gathers idiosyncratic associations; later readings evaluate their relevance. In this respect, the passage might usefully serve as a point of contrast.
I also consider the poem’s structure. The poem consists of three sections, each comprised of a single sentence. (The first section may be a sentence fragment punctuated as a sentence.) The first section consists of four stanzas. With the exception of the first stanza, all start with “which.” Each stanza pivots around the word, introducing four perspectives on who “we are.” The second section quotes four clichés of partisan analysis. Instead of “which,” the second section features three instances of the word “hit.” Like “which,” “hit” is placed at the start of the line. Two other formal devices emphasize “hit.” It forms a partial rhyme with “bitter.” More conspicuously, the short word claims an entire line. The last gesture strikes me as particularly important because it departs from the rest of the poem; “hit” is the only word set alone in a line. Such repetitions and emphases add a menacing tone, an air of violence to the candidate’s speech and the pundit’s praise of it.
The final section notably differs from the first two. It is briefer and lacks repeated words. The poem’s last line resembles its first; in both, “we” is the second word. However, the description is plainer and apparently less troubled.
My first reading poses a series of questions, which, to understand the poem, I would need to address. The last stanza differs from the first two. How does the brief moment it describes relate to the earlier stanzas? In other words, how do the three versions of “spin” relate? To better understand the first stanza, I would need to better grasp the scientific language it employs. At this point, my understanding is sketchy. Is the poem arguing that everything is “spin”? (It would seem so.) A Google Books search reveals that Armantrout favors the unusual word; it appears in several poems in different collections. “Arrivals” in Just Saying, for instance, describes the “Clear Channel // where even the spin / gets spun”; “Provenance” in Versed asserts, “What interests me now / are spin-offs / of spin-offs.” Other poems in Versed, Money Shot, and Just Saying also use “spin.” Why is Armantrout so drawn to this word? How does her use of “spin” in the poem under discussion compare to her use of the word elsewhere? Does the word reward the importance she places on it? To develop a first reading into something more informed and substantial, to turn speculation into grounded analysis, I would need to answer questions, not just raise them.
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David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Chair in English and the Benjamin T. Spencer Professor of Literature at Ohio Wesleyan University. His books include Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford University Press, 2004; paperback edition, 2006) and In the World He Created According to His Will (poems; University of Georgia Press, 2010). In February 2014, Oxford University Press will publish Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture. He received the 2012 Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry, given by the Virginia Quarterly Review, for his “Observances” sequence.