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Posted June 13, 2010
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 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.
"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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