Armantrout's Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity
Because it doesn't seem to exist in digital form AT ALL, here's my annotation for this totally foundation feminist poetics essay.
Rae Armantrout’s foundational essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” offers a way of understanding the social in experimental poetry that is critical of a particular type of lyric subjectivity, described as univocal, closed, Romantic, imperial, and appropriative.
For Armantrout, the stable poetic subject is inherently appropriative, serving epiphany demanded by mainstream form, constructed by metaphor’s appropriative nature. Armantrout specifically calls out the type of poems that most agree constitute conventional poetry of witness: “The conventional or mainstream poem today is univocal, more or less plainspoken, short narrative, often culminating in a sort of epiphany” (Armantrout 288). Elaborating, Armantrout argues that “such a form must convey an impression of closure, and wholeness, no matter what it says” (288). Closure and wholeness are bad things for Armantrout, as she suggests they don’t adequately represent the fragmented reality of a marginalized or oppressed subjectivity.
Armantrout points to the work of Lyn Hejinian as exemplary, a poet who she describes as creating “dynamic, contrapuntal systems in which conflicting forces and voices (inner and outer) are allowed to work” to create paradox and doubt (Armantrout 294). In the other poets discussed in the essay, doubt is stressed as well, using methods described as “counter point,” “epistemological double take” (294), “regression from solution to problem” (294), and finally “ambivalence and doubt” (294). Armantrout seems to reject a subjectivity’s ability to represent reality without doubt and tension.
Armantrout uses a poem by the confessional poet Sharon Olds to convey everything she thinks is wrong with mainstream poetry. In this critique of the use of an extended metaphor, or conceit, in the poem, Armantrout charges: “What the poem seems to imply is that people and things are serviceable, […] ready to be pressed into the service of metaphor” (Armantrout 290). In this way, metaphor, when applied to people, objectifies them. Armantrout continues, responding to a section of the poem where Olds narrates her daughter’s unspoken thoughts, “When Olds claims to know what is in her daughter’s mind […] I am repelled as by a presumptuous intrusion” (Armantrout 290).
For Armantrout, it is not only poems which present solutions instead of problems (epiphanies), or the failures of a univocal poem to present the fractured and doubly conscious reality of marginalized people that is a problem, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a lyric subjectivity which objectifies other people and claims to speak for them.
In her description of mainstream poetry, in which poems see the world only in order to organize it into neat systems of meaning, Armantrout convincingly damns them as appropriative. She suggests a language-based alternative, “another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself” (Armantrout 290). Armantrout’s critique shows us the ways in which including other’s voices can lead to appropriating them into one’s own meaning-making system. Instead, Armantrout offers a vision of polyvocality which is paying attention to the world that influences the poet’s speaker without subjecting that world, including Other’s voices within it, to appropriation. The key there seems to be that doubt and uncertainty, rather than personal epiphany, allow “conflicting voices” to exist.
Image by William James Topley.