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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book isn't why she got the Pulitzer
There are a lot of negative reviews of Armantrout's work. I sympathize and understand. But what makes her work interesting is that the gist is quirky, fun, and yes, difficult to get. It is poetry of the feeling of language: language's quirks and idiosyncracies in popular lingo and advertisements. She elevates these idiomatic expressions to places of very profound...
Published on November 18, 2010 by Pietro

versus
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over my Head
National Book Award Finalist
2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry

Versed by Rae Armantrout made me feel pretty ignorant (more than usual anyway!). I know that her work has always been highly respected, but when I first picked it up, I just didn't get it. A few phrases, here and there, would resonate, but then the lines would go off the track I imagined...
Published on June 13, 2010 by Amy Henry


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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Over my Head, June 13, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
National Book Award Finalist
2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry

Versed by Rae Armantrout made me feel pretty ignorant (more than usual anyway!). I know that her work has always been highly respected, but when I first picked it up, I just didn't get it. A few phrases, here and there, would resonate, but then the lines would go off the track I imagined they were on. I'm fine with stream-of-consciousness writing, but that doesn't describe it either. Quite simply, I was lost. I put the collection down to return to another time.

In the meantime, The New Yorker had an article about Armantrout's winning the Pulitzer Prize for this collection, and explained in length not just her biography but her status as a Language poet. Language poets were once a cultural rebellion against Post- Modern poets, but have now become more mainstream, and of them, she's known as the best. The essay explained how her poems are often cryptic with double meanings and turns that are meant to wake up the reader, to shock them out of numb reality.

With this in mind, I went back and reread each piece. I confess that most are still over my head, I can't make the connections. But a few really did give me pause. And I think that is how she should be read: not in a hurry to finish but to slowly unravel.

From Outer:

"I'm the one who can't know if the scraggly old woman putting a gallon of vodka in her shopping cart feels guilty, defiant, or even glamorous as she does so. She may imagine herself as an actress playing an alcoholic in a film.

Removal activates glamour?

To see yourself as if from the outside - though not as others see you."

All in all, trying to figure out the meanings was fascinating, like the first few games of Sudoku. But after awhile, just as Sudoku gets more difficult, this felt like more work than I was willing to invest. I just don't have that in me, to understand what these mean. I am too simple for these complexities. However, someone with a stronger background in poetry, especially Language poetry, would likely enjoy this special collection.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not my cup of tea...., October 18, 2010
By 
Z. M. Ridgway (Waco, Texas United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
I bought this book because of its recent Pulitzer win. I had read negative reviews before purchasing it, but didn't trust them; I supposed that the commentators I had read were probably just not appreciators of contemporary verse. I can be a bit of a snob, you see; I have a strong appreciation for poetry of many sorts, and consider myself to have fairly well developed taste in modern music, art, and literature.

I must apologize to the reviewers that I took to be Philistines: having now read the book myself, like the previous reviewers of this volume I must confess myself baffled by Armantrout's "Versed."

There are moments of great poignancy here; there are a few passages of real beauty...but the majority of the volume reads like unconnected gibberish on a page. (This from an avid reader of T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Eco...) I'm told that Armantrout's work derives from Language Poetry; that the verse is often disjunct, with strange and thought-provoking transitions that require much of the reader. This I am fairly comfortable with: I have a good background in dialectics; I understand polarizations, juxtapositions, pastiche techniques, quotational devices, etc. in music....What I don't understand is this: why those words rather than others? Why are these two images juxtaposed, rather than two others? What criteria could possibly be articulated to differentiate "good" language poetry from "bad" language poetry?

It's a problem of craftsmanship: one thing that the Darmstadt festival discovered (to take a musical example) is that the more systematically and carefully a piece of serial music is generated, the more random it sounds. How could a listener tell by ear whether it's Stockhausen's latest masterpiece or some configuration of monkeys at a piano? Back to "Versed": how would I know whether what I am looking at is a masterpiece of language poetry or unrelated sentences spliced together on a page, between which I am supposed to invent connections and deep meanings?

The best word to describe my response to this volume is simply "baffled"; I would not have given the volume much consideration at all if it hadn't been given the stamp of approval by such distinguished prize-awarding committees. As it is, I have tried and tried to see this volume as the committees saw it, to find its unifying elements, its positive qualities...and I just can't get it. I am torn by contradictory feelings - that I am missing something extraordinary that would emerge from "Versed" if only I were more receptive, or applied myself better to the poems, or had more of a background in language poetry; and that it really is just "the Emperor's new verse."
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book isn't why she got the Pulitzer, November 18, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
There are a lot of negative reviews of Armantrout's work. I sympathize and understand. But what makes her work interesting is that the gist is quirky, fun, and yes, difficult to get. It is poetry of the feeling of language: language's quirks and idiosyncracies in popular lingo and advertisements. She elevates these idiomatic expressions to places of very profound sensibility. But it is difficult at times to connect these seemingly disparate lines, sure. One reviewer cited in full a poem about flies. Obviously the files were in love and flirting in the air which was a kind of a way of elevating the tiny to the universal, something very much aligned with eastern poetics or even Roethke and Dickinson, both who're very much Armantrout's poetic lineage. But Armantrout goes beyond the ordinary lyric, she is informed by her association with "language poetry" yet not limited to its dogmas. There is still a possibility of actual poetry and Armantrout, unlike Bernstein or Silliman, for instance, achieves actual poetry and emerges out of the language school as a reconciliatory "voice."

But the point is that it is unfortunate that Armantrout won the pulitzer for this book. Versed is not her best book by any means. I would suggest "Next Life." Next Life is the book she shoudl have won the Pulitzer for. The Pulitzer committee I think awarded her the prize as a courtesy for her lifelong work. Unfortunately, many readers not familiar with her work will pick this book up as an introduction to her work. This is a mistake. "Next Life" was written when Armantrout was, if I recall, either recovering from or struggling with a terminal illness. The result is that her poetry took a profound turn and she went beyond the usual quirky-ness of language and delved into "truly" "expressive" language. I recommend "Next Life" to readers. If you don't get it, read it again, be patient! It is poetry and usually takes time to get! And definitely her poetry isn't to be taken at face value.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Do even getters get it?, November 2, 2011
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This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
As I write this thirteenth review, the star-ratings are stretched out like I've never seen them anywhere else: every rating from one to five coming from two or three readers apiece. A spread as hard to understand as Armantrout's most confusing poetry. Let's look at some specifics.

Language poetry is poetry that allows itself to include nonsense, passages that don't mean anything coherent or paraphrasable. This goes back to "hey nonny" in the old Elizabethan songs, and comes right up to rock band names like Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead. It happens, by accident or on purpose, in very beloved modern poets like Dylan Thomas. Still, some people are against it on principle. Those people can't be talked to, but they're politically active, hence some of the one- and two-star reviews. Let them go.

Opening at random to page 30, where poets tend to put their not quite top stuff, I find the poem "Bonded." The poem is divided into six short sections. The sixth is:

Pathos
of strangers' headlights
tracing the curve at dusk

is inexplicable.

That makes perfect sense, I've experienced the pathos myself, I agree it's inexplicable, and I'm glad someone else saw it and wrote a poem about it. I also think that in a nonsense context, sections that (so to speak) leap into meaning like this feel especially good and interesting. I like the way she doesn't say "The pathos," but just "Pathos," making the pathos stand out especially sharply because losing "the" makes the sentence a tiny bit ungrammatical, and because it gives "Pathos" a line of its own. This is not a new technique (she's known to have learned from Williams and Creeley, and I've listened to amateur poets who drive me crazy leaving out "the" all over the place) but it works well here.

A previous section of "Bonded" reads:

A want,
conceived as illusory

(rhetorical)
is said

to underlie the real,
underwrite matter.

To me, this is idealistic nonsense, but I like the feel of it. It suggests that human need creates the universe, an idea I especially hate, because I'm a skeptic. But I like how it's expressed here. I like the way some universal need can also be said to be an illusion (universal need certainly IS an illusion) AND a piece of rhetoric, and I like the idea that this illusion "underlies," doesn't show itself, like the elephant the earth rests on, another idea I don't believe in and still like, still find charming. I like the phrase "underwrite matter," the idea that material things need to be underwritten like a loan -- as if the world itself were just loaned to us, another idea I don't agree with, but hey, there is death.

You can find ideas like these in various idealistic philosophers, but not in so short a space, and not put forward so gently. Because language poetry is constantly interrupted by nonsense, you don't have to believe anything in it, and so you're in a special place, where the theories you feel don't make sense can still show whatever magic they may have in them -- and all without hurting anybody. Idealistic ideas like these dominated the nineteenth century, and did a lot of harm. In this section, the same ideas seem dreamy and almost helpful -- and they do bring us up against death, one of humanity's few certain truths.

The following section reads:

A man tells a camera
he prefers "lady-boys"
because they can't fake orgasm.

That's as easy to understand as a punch in the face. Where does it fit in with how you feel about sex and love? Isn't that an interesting question?

The next section reads:

In the updraft
the particulate
glitz
is beside itself.

That's nonsense pure and simple. Or ... is it saying we go into a noisy club, and they've got some sparkles blowing in an updraft, and that's exciting; the particles look so nervous and afraid? And nervous and afraid is part of the fun of going out to raves and things like that? Or is she pointing out that glitz, trendy decoration, is not just decoration, but also something crazy, scary and scared? Does she mean ordinary dust particles, caught in an updraft, catch the light and shine like glitzy ornaments, one identical seeming particle next to another? Or is the section nonsense pure and simple just as I said to begin with?

When you get thoughts or feelings like this from pure nonsense, then it's GOOD pure nonsense, fun pure nonsense, admirable pure nonsense. Of course you might be kidding yourself, like a child playing with blocks and pretending she's raising a tower to the sky -- but is that a terrible or unhappy child? Should we take her blocks away?

----- -----

I give the book four stars instead of five because I'm not willing to say that pieces of glitz like this are life-changing. But they're fun and interesting, and a lot of poets spend a lot of time reading and writing them. Most of them know they're experimenting with language itself, and language is at least a four-star thing.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pulitzer winner? Really?, September 21, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009)

I have no idea what's wrong with me these days. I seem to have strayed far, far from the path where poetry is concerned. A couple of weeks ago I picked up W. S. Merwin's most recent Pulitzer Prizewinner, and I found it, to be short, dull as dishwater and twice as murky. Now I find myself having recently finished Rae Armantrout's Versed, not only a Pulitzer winner but also a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, and once again I find myself wondering what, exactly, these people are thinking. There are a thousand great American poets out there working today and getting no recognition at all, and the awards folks are recognizing... this?

Not to say the collection is all bad. There are a few scattered poems, mostly having to do with Armantrout's battle with cancer, that are grounded, fully-fleshed, and quite good. The rest of the collection, though, makes me think back five or six years. I'd submitted a bunch of hardcore-imagist stuff to a particular magazine, and got back a response saying they'd accepted all but one, rejecting that one because it was "too personal". I had no idea what the guy meant (since that particular batch I'd attempted to keep as much of the personal out of as possible, just reporting on disconnected images), but now I find myself wondering if that's not what's going on here; there are definitely threads of stuff connecting these poems, but (a) it's not usually images and (b) I can't make heads or tails out of most of it. Here's an entire segment from "Presto":

"Presto!//Pairs of flies/re-tie//the old knot/mid-air.///Blonde wigs and/wizard-caps.//"I want to go back!"//Invisible knot.//I want to be that!"

Okay, two entire segments (of three). And I should mention that this poem stands out because it actually ends with a punctuation mark. But seriously, can you make heads or tails of that? Obviously, folks on the Pulitzer and NBCC boards could, enough at least to laud it with prizes. But it makes me wonder why so many poets who are demonstrably better keep getting passed over for the biggest awards; a quick trip through the Wikipedia article on 2009 books of poetry (which covers maybe 1% of what was actually published) show releases from Rita Dove, Emily Wilson, Clay Matthews, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Jim Harrison, and Frederick Seidel, among others, all of whom are fantastic (the Wilson book is in the running for my best-I-read list this year). This, on the other hand, is momentarily amusing at best. * ˝
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2.0 out of 5 stars Reflection on the State of Poetry, June 9, 2011
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This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
There are a few things to like in these poems and a few things that leave me puzzled and unable to get an accurate glimpse inside Rae's mind, or my own for that matter. In the abstract, sparse stanzas, I was challenged to form an image and take away my own experience. I may have been looking at a painting, but the light was wavering, the image cloudy. It is not obvious at first what direction a poem has taken or what the inspiration may have been.

Divided into two sections, titled "Versed" and "Dark Matter", this collection feels like a snapshot where random quips are thought and written down. Unlike John Haines, whose poems are nature based, with a simple form where each word has a purpose, Rae's are about the everyday life, headlines and news flashes across the Internet. The moments that occur and the feeling that follows, almost the knee-jerk reaction, are quick, raw, and unorganized.

A few poems are direct commentaries on pop culture (Anna Nicole Smith, Iron Man) and the way social media specifically, and technology in general are consuming and taking over our lives, trading the real for the digital.

Overlaying this collection is Rae's experience with cancer, and an attempt to seek out and bring to light the unknown and invisible, the dark matter.

Favorite stanza, from "Missing Persons", page 89:

"A thin old man in blue jeans,
back arched, grimaces
at the freezer compartment."

The use of punctuation, in particular periods, is interesting. Most of the poems, especially in the first section "Versed" do not end with one, even when the proceeding stanzas do. The last stanza does not. I have not figured out why, or the purpose, or even a pattern. I thought maybe is it is a convention where the previous poem ends, but as an overall flow continues with the next poem's title or first stanza. Reading the poems consecutively with this in mind, it is not consistent enough to carry through the entire book.

Some notable poems: "Amplification", "Heaven", "Just", "Dark Matter", and "Missing Persons", "Birth Order".

Another interesting fragment of each piece is the title, which the majority of them a single word. Over the years I have also favored a shorter title. It gives little away to the reader and lessens the preconceived notion they may have about a poems topic or direction. In my recent poems, I have gone with numbers and/or colors, matching what Jackson Pollock decided to do in his later life and paintings.

Rae's poems are sparse in their words, creating images not obvious at first. Each word serves as a guide, a sign-post if you will. Where I was being led, I do not know. Overall, I felt the effort was lacking and the poems suffered from oversimplification at the hands of a decision to be abstract for its own sake, and a form and writing convention that made no sense.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elusive and beautiful, August 11, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
The meaning of many of these poems is elusive. Yes, this can make the reading a frustrating experience, but besides the display of wit there are frequent moments of great beauty and delicate but sharp insights about illness and impermanence.
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24 of 40 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Obscurity Without Purpose, June 19, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
There is a laziness to these poems, a fake rigor -- short sparse lines that imply lyric tension, but feel like no more than cocktail coaster jottings. Lots of vague pseudo-connections, hocus-pocus, imagistic smoke and mirrors -- and to what end? There is little here that speaks to an intelligent, receptive poetry audience. It is all word games, which we are told to believe contain some higher purpose and deeper meaning, indiscernible but ever-present. How the hocum that the academy has labeled "language poetry" has taken root would be hilarious if it were not such a destructive force in American literature. It undermines the appreciation of clear, powerful multi-textured poetry that is more depth than surface. Experimental, surreal, futurist poetry can be quite wonderful. The best of its practitioners, from Stevens to Eluard to Vallejo, spoke directly to their audience, however deflective or circular their language might initially appear. Its carefully wrought circularity leads the reader, or listener, into a labyrinth resonant with music of all sorts. Ms. Armantrout's verse, and its ilk, speaks to itself, unintelligibly and pretentiously. Read it aloud to another person and ask him or her where it has taken them, aesthetically, emotionally, and spiritually. Pairing odd combinations of images -- many of them not even fresh or original -- is not poetry, but gamesmanship, verbal solitaire. Poetry is not about scratching your head, but feeding it. Try reading some real lyric and narrative poetry: Merwin, Strand, Hecht, Simic, Rich, Justice, Ai, Christopher, Hirsch, Spires, Levine -- there's a world of fabulous American poetry out there, rich with texture, music, and yes, meaning.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best by One of Our Best, November 16, 2010
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
Rae Armantrout's Versed is a confident continuation of the singular, uniformly high-quality work Armantrout has been delivering for years. In these clipped but energetic poems, the poet explores her usual themes, ranging from phenomenology to pop culture, as well as new subject matters (most notably cancer) with her usual whip-smart wit and arresting musicality. I highly recommend this book to those who have enjoyed Armantrout's work in the past, and it's a great place to start for those who are unfamiliar. Rich with rewards for those who read and re-read it, this collection fully earns its high acclaim and multiple major prizes.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars look at this re armantrout- why write poetry like this? i meen really?, November 20, 2012
This review is from: Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) (Paperback)
this came frm wikipedia re this poet (poetess?)?

this seems like so much bool shit: ? am i wrong? read this crap- non referentiality- seems right wing- ayn rynd?

critics are to art as are pidgeons to statues- i finbd armantout's poetry- like ashbery's- counter productive?

Armantrout was a member of the original West Coast Language group. Although Language poetry can be seen as advocating a poetics of nonreferentiality, Armantrout's work, focusing as it often does on the local and the domestic, resists such definitions.[4] However, unlike most of the group, her work is firmly grounded in experience of the local and domestic worlds and she is widely regarded as the most lyrical of the Language Poets.[5]

Critic Stephen Burt at the Boston Review commented: "William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson together taught Armantrout how to dismantle and reassemble the forms of stanzaic lyric-- how to turn it inside out and backwards, how to embody large questions and apprehensions in the conjunctions of individual words, how to generate productive clashes from arrangements of small groups of phrases.
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Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Versed (Wesleyan Poetry Series) by Rae Armantrout (Paperback - August 1, 2010)
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