Forever is nothing
On Montgomery and Armantrout
Short Form American Poetry: The Modernist Tradition
Will Montgomery’s succinct study Short Form American Poetry: The Modernist Tradition is one of those texts that, in a quiet way, shake up a whole topic. Among its main gifts are repeated reminders — subliminal rather than overt — of just what an unlikely and unprecedented development the “short-form” poem really was and how odd it is that it should have become a particularly American phenomenon. That a small group of (mostly) expatriate Americans in the early twentieth century saw the fusing of free-verse possibilities with the brevity of Chinese and Japanese models as a viable and necessary aesthetic direction (as under-informed, appropriative, and frequently Orientalizing as this process often was). That, in doing so, they echoed — yet transcended — the epigrammatical function the short poem had typically served previously in English verse. That this methodology caught on so widely, adopted and adapted in ways that those first poets could hardly have anticipated, leading — as Montgomery outlines — to a still ongoing, sustained tradition of innovation: all this can be seen anew, not as some foregone inevitability, but as the slightly happenstance and outlandish thing it actually is.
Not that the book is a historical study. Montgomery is very careful to “bracket off” several angles his book won’t be pursuing early on: it won’t be comprehensive (the nine figures it addresses suggest a trajectory rather than filling out a portrait); it won’t be investigating the more philosophical implications and sources of each poet’s worldview, focusing far more on close readings of the particular poetic techniques they bring to bear; it isn’t even especially interested in analyzing the short-form poem as a variety of “lyric” expression, more intent on what sets this mode apart than how it fits into a broader tradition. While this focus may limit the book’s range somewhat (more on this later), it does enable both the individual poets (and poems) and the book’s central thesis to stand forth appropriately clearly in a pithy, direct manner.
And what is this central thesis? Essentially, that the typical shorthand take on Imagism and post-Imagistic poetry — that it deals primarily in clarity, specificity, precision, and the mimetic reproduction of perceptual experience — is fundamentally misleading: Montgomery follows Charles Alteri in labelling it a “myth of lucidity.” Instead, the short-form poem shows itself, on closer inspection, to be far more frequently a work of “hesitancy, impasse, micro-collage, elision,” i.e., communicating the fraught effort to comprehend experience rather than the direct transmission of it (8). Pound’s famous dictum that the Imagist poem should contain “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” is thus complicated (Montgomery follows Peter Nichols here): the “thing” involved was always more a conceptual or emotional complex than a simple perceptual object or scene. The close readings that drive the book are thus about teasing out exactly how such “hesitations” work on a line-by-line — sometimes word-by-word, syllable-by-syllable — basis, highlighting rather than papering over the prosodic and structural cracks that appear.
In a key example, Montgomery follows Hugh Kenner in showing how much William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” — surely the iconic American short-form poem (the book’s cover in fact shows a rather fetching photo of just such an implement, appropriately abstracted against a white background) — loses once it is rendered as a straightforward prose sentence. Everything that makes it poetry is in its formal organization and patterning: the line and stanza and word breaks that give us semiregular stanzas (three “words,” one word; three or four syllables, two syllables); the canceling out of punctuation and capitalization; the way each truncated stanza (sort of) resembles a wheelbarrow; the ghost of meter (I’ve always read it as having three stresses per stanza, two in the first line, one in the second); the offsetting — and thus emphasizing — of the teasing, unfathomable phrase “so much depends / upon” at the start of the poem. The “matter of the poem is its artifice” (51). (Unfortunate typos in the book actually make Montgomery’s point powerfully for him here: the inclusion of a capital S at the beginning and a period at the end of the poem as it appears on the page really does render it a substantially different text.) Montgomery points out that it is precisely the “perceptual units” — surely (in theory) the representational crux for any post-Imagistic poem — that are most affected by the poem’s forceful enjambment (“wheel / barrow,” “rain / water,” “white / chickens”). To the extent the poem retains prose syntax, it actively drives the reader into these disruptions:
The preposition “upon,” at the head of the poem, exerts a downward pressure on the words that follow. Yet they cannot flow evenly because of the repeated intervention of the linebreak. […] The poem thus moves, on one hand, towards a two-dimensional pictorialism, while on the other its halting temporal passage persists. It cannot simply be an image, because language happens in time and has its own distinct pictorial physicality in the mise-en-page. (51)
Montgomery compares this semisculptural reconfiguring of “ordinary language” to a Duchamp ready-made: not so much an act of mimesis as a more aggressive “recontextualization” of that impulse (51). (Reading the poem again in light of Montgomery’s reading, I noticed for the first time [for me, anyway] that each stanza starts with a different part of speech: conjunction, article, verb, preposition. No wonder it remains so slippery!) Montgomery’s analysis shows accurately why a poem as (deceptively) simple as this one rewards endless reflection: it is not a picture but a provocation — an invitation for the reader to trace not the perceptual experience that led to the poem’s creation but the sequence of the cognitive response that it captures.
This sort of illumination, poem by poem, structures the book. One of its key successes is that the individual readings advance the central argument while remaining true to the specificity — i.e., the idiosyncrasies — of each writer in turn. It is a rewarding balance: the self-sustained subjective poise of H.D.’s Imagist poems is contrasted with the more dynamic compression of Pound’s, a “repleteness that verges on the explosive”; George Oppen’s risk-taking with the oblique and opaque is distinguished from Lorine Niedecker’s allegorical representations of economical parsimony; Larry Eigner’s observational poetics is shown to be remarkably abstract (a “bird” is rarely more specific for him); Robert Grenier’s Sentences is seen — accurately — as both an extension and a playful rebuttal of projective verse’s use of the page (prosaic index card replacing typewritten expanse) (119). Particularly effective is the chapter on Robert Creeley, which sees in Creeley’s tongue-tied restraint not a formalist quietism or some form of “New Englandly” reticence but a pressured vernacular critique of the corruption of “official” language at the height of the Vietnam era: a faltering-as-resistance. In each case, the picture that emerges of the poet in question is familiar — but fuller.
In light of such insightful overviews and such a clear line of argument, the reader might well regret that the book is as focused as it is: Montgomery’s cast of nine primary poets all more than earn their place, but one wonders where else a larger, more comprehensive and diverse selection of figures might have taken his argument. One wonders, for example, how Creeley’s politicized use of vernacular American in the short-form poem might compare to that of Langston Hughes or Lucille Clifton. Can Richard Wright’s adoption of the haiku or Harreyette Mullen’s adoption of the tanka be useful compared to the Imagist’s more freewheeling adaptions of these models? Similarly, the “The” in Montgomery’s subtitle may or may not have been meant as provocatively as it comes across — he may simply be indicating the specific focus of his work — but one strand of the book’s implied argumentation is that these short poems can be read as being as central, if not more central, to what we think of as “modernist tradition” in American literature as all the more epic-scaled poetry projects of the era (often undertaken by the very same poets): The Cantos, Paterson, Trilogy, The Maximus Poems, “A,” etc. Montgomery’s book, however, only touches on these larger works — and the cross-spectrum comparative appeal of the very large versus the very small — in passing.
It is also tempting, moving beyond specifically American contexts, to see broader theoretical possibilities in Montgomery’s thinking. One suspects that he regards the sort of “conceptual aporia” and “cognitive glitches” he discovers in these texts as an essential part of how all poetry works; it is perhaps merely that the short-form poem, in its brevity, demonstrates it in a particularly striking way (7; 128). Adamant in shifting discussion of the short-form poem away from the empirical, even to the point of reading “some of the poets in this book against the grain of their own statements on both clarity and the object,” Montgomery instead comes down hard on the poem as conceptual record (6). A point he makes about Oppen’s work has larger resonances in this light: “The poems’ truthfulness lies not in direct representation but in their faithfulness as a record of thought” (77). That a poem offers the reader to encounter — to reenact almost — a process of thought seems a powerful way to express the “rhetorical” impact of poetry and how it differs from other modes of discourse: we talk of the “voice” of a poet (or poem), of the “argument” of a poem, but it is a mode that can actually entertain hesitations, reformulations, self-contradictions in a way that the direct prose of an essay or treatise cannot — in fact, it may be precisely these features that we come to appreciate in a poem. To reconfigure Frost, “no thoughts in the poet, no thoughts in the reader.” To me, this focus on the readerly reception of interweaving fluctuations of sound and sense — a point repeatedly hit on by the close readings throughout the book — echoes Montgomery’s own interest (and practice) in sound art, particularly in material and thought based on site-specific field recordings. Both forms require — and reward — concentrated application of attention in both practitioner and auditor. Lots more could be said here, and one wishes (to some extent) that Montgomery had already said more of it!
However, it is churlish to critique a work for what it does not do when what it does do is so incisive: it seems in part a tribute to the poets discussed that Montgomery gets in, makes his point, then gets out of the way. It is a book designed — destined? — to be an intervention, to spark further debate. Freshly out in paperback, I hope it reaches as many readers as possible because it deserves to have that impact.
However short a short poem by Rae Armantrout becomes, no reader would mistake what goes on in it for “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’” whether that “thing” be considered primarily perceptual or conceptual. She is one of the heroes of Montgomery’s book, not just because of the chronological “accident” that puts the chapter on her work as the last before its final “Coda.” The sort of formal and observational self-consciousness Montgomery foregrounds in each of the poets studied — “the mutual embeddedness of world and thought” — is precisely characteristic of Armantrout’s work, as well as (in a different way) that of Robert Grenier and other poets associated with the Language school of writers. Indeed, it is tempting — if limiting — to characterize Montgomery’s whole project as a post-Language retrospect on the short-form phenomenon in American poetry: he has read the parataxis back in. But it is one of the triumphs of Montgomery’s approach to show convincingly how such self-reflection has always been hardwired into the phenomenon, going all the way back to its inception.
So, what has happened to the “short poem” subgenre by the time it reaches Rae Armantrout? Her most recent collection, Finalists, offers a plethora of examples. Take “Catch”:
Over eons, consciousness
developed as a ride-along.
has been thoroughly discredited
Black fir branches feathery
on dusk’s blanched
sky — a drawn
And the acrobatic bats
The second part of this poem, taken in isolation, might conceivably be read as pictorial Imagistic reverie, but of course the reader has had to work through the first four lines in order to get to that point, by which time things are already “thoroughly” complicated. Stanza 1 demonstrates a common Armantrout tactic: the sometimes playful, sometimes violent juxtaposing of seemingly incompatible tones, dictions, and registers. Here, “Over eons, consciousness / developed” resembles a particular form of bombastic “scientific” voiceover, maybe from a TV documentary or a museum presentation: informative but a tad pompous, hyperbolic. “Ride-along” then invokes some kind of comedy cop show or a documentary about community oversight of the police force. The bathos is heavy: as the scale switches, “consciousness” goes quickly from a titanic force of nature to a passenger, a witness, a second-tier spectator. Stanza 2 also sounds “sampled,” this time maybe from an academic paper on neuroscience or psychology or a TV exposé on the limits of memory in solving cold cases. Taken together, the message of the poem’s first section is pretty dismissive: a subjective point of view is definitely a latecomer and not to be trusted.
Which, of course, puts the poem’s descriptive second section in a different light. Considered on its own, it demonstrates a whole range of precisely the type of intricate formal techniques Montgomery explores in his close readings: interwoven alliteration (“Black,” “branches,” “blanched,” “breath” interspersed with “fir” and “feathery”), chiming echoes (“dusk’s,” “sky”), swift elision of object and figuration (the way the scene described seems to both elicit then become the “drawn / breath”), and meaningful line breaks (the enjambment “drawn / breath” mimicking the physical pause, the held “breath” isolated on a line of its own). The poem’s concluding line then delights in apparent self-awareness of its “add-on” status: it occupies a line of its own, starts with “And,” remains a fragment, and lacks any concluding punctuation (another recurring Armantrout tic used to leave a poem open-ended or to at least signal a general ambivalence about closure). The proleptic “bat” buried in “acrobatic” even suggests (a little) their flittering dance; the overall effect is of a second, surprise natural wonder — bats! — piled on top of an already breathtaking view: a bonus.
And yet. The poem’s opening section has already triggered us to be skeptical about just this sort of privileged personal epiphany: “Eyewitness testimony / has been thoroughly discredited.” Read from Montgomery’s perspective, this would be seen as inevitable: the poem was never about replicating the experience of someone else’s reverie; instead, it is a record of the limits of the thought process and verbal devices that might be deployed to generate that effect. The difference with Armantrout’s poem is that while Montgomery often has to read “against the grain” of the explicit intentions of both poet and (apparently) poem to reach that conclusion in his analyses, here the poem itself primes us as readers for a more deconstructive approach. Armantrout deliberately sets the poem up to be a mental short-circuit: the scene is (apparently) “caught” in language; the “catch” is that there is a fixed limit to what such a mimetic attempt can actually communicate.
What is remarkable is how much poetic mileage Armantrout can get from such states of aporia. Here is “Circles”:
First they told me
the future would solve
Then they told me
would solve the future.
The present is the world
I’m not allowed there.
They know this.
I begin a string
of letters, picketing
in the babies’ cups
are full of Roundup.
one girl chirps. (21)
The situation in part 1 is bleak enough: Armantrout’s “I” is in perpetual exile from knowledge and/or completion (here figured as a world somehow “minus intention” — the drive to know), apparently at the behest of a shadowy “They.” Instead, “a string / of letters, picketing / distance” is one of the myriad of pointed self-diagnoses-of-aesthetic-purpose that pepper the volume. However, it is in part 2 that the real horror lies. Everything overlaps: the babies are ingesting pesticide indirectly (the cutesy bounce of the twin brand names, “Cheerios,” “Roundup,” can’t disguise that fact), all the echoing c’s, o’s, and p’s should be pleasant but aren’t, as are all the proliferating circles (cheerios, cups, Roundup, “Circle,” the very o’s in all the words) — they clearly represent not a sequence of expansive Dickinsonian “Circumferences” but a set of restraining hoops. The “girl” is clearly already well on her way into the symbolic order, enunciating it as naturally as a bird would (“chirps”), however damaging it may be to her. Resistance to the intolerable is seemingly limited to a futile “string / of letters,” “They” staying forever at a safe “distance.”
Finalists is a twofer, consisting of what were originally two distinct manuscripts, Threat Landscapes and Finalists, giving us a chance to survey how Armantrout works at the macrocosmic scale of a complete collection as well as jumping between collections — useful, given that her individual poems often seem so discrete and self-contained (in a way that, yes, very much fits the pattern of the short-form tradition). The last time she yoked manuscripts together like this, in 2009’s Versed, the fault line between the two was more personal: a diagnosis of life-threatening cancer followed by treatment and (thankfully) recovery. Armantrout is not a confessional poet, but she also doesn’t shy from including details of her own life in her poems — a studiedly impersonal style perhaps seeming every bit as suspect as one merely foregrounding personal crisis and catharsis: as she writes in The Grand Piano, “Pronouns don’t go away.” Longtime readers will know that “Chuck” is her husband and “Aaron” her son; more recent additions are “Sasha” and “Renee,” twin granddaughters. (“Circles” carries an especial chill because it seems likely the “girl” “learning her place” in language is either one or the other of these two without it ever being explicitly confirmed.)
While each new Armantrout volume seems broadly chronological (i.e., collecting poems completed since the last collection), it often foregrounds one of the many themes that preoccupy her, typically prompted by events occurring while the poems were composed: 2011’s Money Shot, for example, foregrounds political and economic issues in light of the Great Recession. As their titles infer, environmental disaster and the very real possibility of human extinction loom over both parts of this book. There are divergencies, however. The poems in opener Threat Landscape are typically shorter, brusquer, maybe more pessimistic. The collection is broken up by a series of monostitches, rather as Armantrout poems are themselves segmented by asterisks and/or numbered section headings, as though frequent pauses are required to regain one’s breath. These tiny markers are pretty fatalistic in themselves (“matter / of indifference” ; “this page is not responding” ). The pair “which is fine” (25) and (later) “which is fire” (78) can’t help summoning (to my mind, anyway) the popular meme of the anthropomorphized dog enjoying coffee alone in his burning house, muttering “This is fine” to himself — the flames appearing less and less figurative as the years go by. Grimmer-stroke-funnier title aside, Finalists (not so much “contest winners” as “last folks standing”) is actually the more relaxed of the two volumes: the poems are often longer-lined and longer altogether, there are more prose poems and poems that use the space of the page more freely. Of course, to some extent this loosening-up represents just another mode of analysis, but its wider-ranging concerns do make the volume seem something of a release. Juxtaposed, the distinction is small but telling: while Armantrout’s methodology has remained remarkably consistent since her earliest volumes — at the level of the individual poem at least — she often plays off the overall themes of each successive volume as she moves on, “course-correcting” and shifting to a new focus.
In his book on Wallace Stevens, Harold Bloom presents a grim formulation as a “motto” for “post-Emersonian American poetry”: “Everything that can be broken should be broken.” If we read “comforting illusions” for “everything,” it also works surprisingly well as a description of what Armantrout is up to: there is indeed something relentless — remorseless even — in the way she is constantly debunking and undermining easy assumptions. While there is nothing portentous about this formally — the poems themselves somehow retain a refreshing lightness — the humor with which she conducts the ransacking is often painfully sharp, teetering on the unbearable:
“I’m so done! LOL”
say the young,
We exposed the homeless
character of desire
to the weather (92)
In a sublimely wrong-headed review of her book Money Shot, William Logan complains that Armantrout poems are “teasing and bullying at once,” that “like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about.” The small grain of insight here is that, for all her humor, Armantrout is indeed something of a moralist, albeit one with no specific doctrine to impart other than the virtue of questioning all doctrine. This is not, pace Logan, because she revels in a role as abstruse “avant-garde” provocateur; she is not merely ambivalent or an equal-opportunity relativist. Instead, the more of her work one reads (and these conjoined collections give a new reader a good span of poems over which to do so), the more she comes across as someone who is ravenous for meaning, someone who would very much like tangible answers to the questions she can’t help asking, someone who desires knowledge that might actually cohere — even coalesce — into wisdom. She is just honest that the world presents her with little like that to believe in. It is a realization both epistemological and political.
One of the symptoms of this restlessness is that Armantrout poems have become increasingly self-referential over time. This can be the critic’s despair: Armantrout is often the first and best commentator on her own work. See “But”:
We’ll stare a long time at water.
It’s so much
Like the flowing grids
says the cuckoo bird
as if popping
bubble wrap. (135)
A vivid self-diagnosis. If being moved to write poetry is akin to popping bubble wrap — swift joy, immediate comedown — then at least there’s always another bubble to pop, right? It is precisely this self-consciousness as an inheritor of the American short-form tradition that enables her to push the genre forward, as in “Blues”:
Why is there careful language
instead of nothing
to be said?
By kicking the table
I make the light
in the dark
in the blue plastic bottle
and cause a white bolt
across the surface
of the coffee.
I tweak the illusion
There is a “sly vanity” (something else Logan accuses her of — show me an artist that doesn’t have at least a little!) in that final sentence, as well as something of sleight of hand (we never really come back to that opening question) but also of the sadness of isolation. Informed as the poem is by Armantrout’s interest in contemporary physics and the “virtual” nature of perception, I don’t read “Look!” as ironic or sarcastic: the wonder is genuine.
Bloom associates the expansion of his initial formulation — It must be broken; It must not bear having been broken; It must seem to have been mended — with the three sections of Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” and “It Must Give Pleasure.” It seems legitimate to ask, in light of the thoroughness of her philosophical unmaskings, precisely what it is in Armantrout’s work that gives pleasure. Beyond her technical skill and the quality of her jokes, I would argue that it is this sort of openness to surprise — very much the flipside to her skepticism. As with the playful overlap of light and color in “Blues,” the self-consciousness and “careful language” of the poems don’t detract from these mini-influxes of joy:
for the first time.
It begins, “When I
and goes on
“the wet eucalyptus
is tossing, twinkling
like the sea.”
It puts words in our mouths. (81)
Incongruity can be a trigger too, as well as beauty:
a cowboy hat
on a bobblehead
atop the dash
of an electric car
as depth. (31)
(This latter reads like nothing so much as a parody of Imagistic precision: just how might it deal honestly with the uncanniness of modern complexity?) Of course, such moments will be fleeting, but that doesn’t render them meaningless. An Armantrout reformulation of Bloom’s formula might run, Truth is inaccessible; Desire for truth remains; Intimations of truth can be discerned, but not held onto. She has often sounded a little wistful in interviews and essays that her poetics has not taken her to the larger forms and process-orientated projects of friends and peers like Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, but it seems finally that such expansiveness is alien to her outlook. The short-form poem, as Montgomery would doubtless argue, offers instead the opportunity for umpteen “fresh starts,” new thoughts. In a 1999 interview, Armantrout tells Hejinian, “It’s not really possible to say, ‘I’ll wake ‘em up with my startling ambiguities’ anymore.” But it is precisely this that her work does do and continues to do for the attentive reader: offers jolt after jolt of awakeness in a culture that very much wants us to go on sleeping.
There is a resilience in Armantrout’s willingness to keep starting over and over again like this. And she knows it:
on the plump, strong legs
you don’t hate yet. (112)
(This conclusion, note, gets terminal punctuation!) From the perspective of Montgomery’s argument, it is tempting to twist another Frost dictum: a poem that ends like this is not so much a “momentary stay against confusion” as a momentary stay of confusion. In early 1970, a troubled Paul Celan sent a friend a postcard with a single word — “Stehend” — written on it: a hard-won (if, sadly, inaccurate) reassurance. To stand, to keep standing, in times so seemingly hellbent on hurtling themselves to chaos is not (it seems) nothing.