One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Dear Janice,

    Your comment that Armantrout’s poems are “detached to the point of sterility” and “don’t appeal . . . to the emotions” is at variance with my experience. Her poems deeply stir me.

    Armantrout’s poems mostly are the opposite of expansive and narrative. For some, the compression and segmented (collage-like) approach present a surface hardness, requiring repeated readings. I like that kind of poetry, even if it means that a pull on the heart doesn’t always come right away. I find that having to work at it means the pull can be a good deal stronger, and last longer, than when it comes quicker …

    A final thing, for now at least: there are poems, or parts of poems, in Versed that make me laugh. From memory I think of “Scumble” for instance, with its giddy joy in the erotic potential of words, or that dream-moment in “Around” in which the grim evaluation of the location where ashes (hers) will be scattered is interrupted by the notion that it’s for her husband a good place to scuba dive. The humor ties directly to emotion.

    Steve Fama

    Comment by yesisaidyesiwillyes — May 21, 2010 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

    • Just to clarify: My concern about these poems doesn’t involve the work that they require of readers, because I like many poets who require at least as much — Geoffrey Hill, for example. My problem is that don’t evoke the emotions for me that great poems should.

      But I’m glad your experience was different and appreciate your comment. Thanks.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 21, 2010 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

    • I had the same experience with “Scumble”–it is a fun, playful poem.

      Comment by bippityboppityboom — May 28, 2010 @ 11:13 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Janice —

    Did you somehow edit my comment? When it first appeared, it had an excerpt from one of Armantrout’s poem along with a comment on the excerpt from me. My comment was:

    “The isolation, the sensation of difference and apartness, arising from (within) that last image haunts me, moves me. When I first read it, I wanted to hug somebody, and still get those feelings today, even after reading this particular poem dozens of times.”


    Steve Fama

    Comment by yesisaidyesiwillyes — May 21, 2010 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

  3. Do you plan to read / review “Tinkers”, the perfect gem that took home the fiction prize this year?

    Comment by bippityboppityboom — May 28, 2010 @ 11:12 pm | Reply

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