Voicing the Ineffable

Poems make you hear something that is inaudible in most prose: the white space of the page. This is the space you hear in a line break and between stanzas; it is the silence in which poems sign off and disappear. The sound of innuendo, not inflection; not the blackbird whistling, but “just after,” as Wallace Stevens put it.

Rae Armantrout’s poems accentuate this fundamental property of verse. Her lines tend to be very short, about half the length of the 10-syllable norm of English poetic tradition. Her enjambments create disjunctions from which multiple meanings radiate. There is in her poems a sense of language being inspected, proposed and tested, held up to scrutiny against that white space. Her loose ends reverberate in it.

In our age of shouting social media, Armantrout’s voice is boldly quiet, the opposite of clamor. Yet it is composed, in part, from the noise all around us. This is a meditative poetry. But Armantrout’s inwardness is full of earworms, media clichés, scientific terms, and tech slang.

Overheard fragments turn into epigrams and koans. Take the first line of “Personals”: “The symbols are inoperative.” The remark might refer to a keyboard malfunction. Or it might refer to how, in our alienated, automated economy, traditional symbols have lost their power to connect people. You can’t escape this situation. Even “The ‘done’ button / doesn’t work” on the credit card reader at the grocery store, while junk mail insists, “Your response needed.” That mechanical, virtually voiceless sentence makes Armantrout think of “A plaintive address / to a phantom / beloved.”

Can poetry do any better connecting us? Poems are supposed to be personal, right? Armantrout jokes about that commonplace by using the formulaic language of the Personals page. “I’m into”—she writes, declaring her preferences—“nuance, quaver, / half-notes. // I am half-hearted, / forked tongued.” Disguised by the joke is a clear, perfectly sincere statement: this is an art of doubt and doubleness, nuance and innuendo.

Armantrout, whose poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, is frequently praised for her skepticism and materialist worldview. But she is also a poet of the ineffable and apparitional. “Beyond” studies objects so intently, they seem to summon presences beyond them, while “Beyond 2” suggests there is nothing beyond the empirical, apart from shadows and reflections. The poem is itself a shadow or double of “Beyond.”

How often these days does a lecture or report conclude, “I want to end on something hopeful”? Taking up this cliché in “White Sky,” Armantrout allows us to hear it as the platitude it is, but also as a poignant, anxious optimism, what everyone feels in the face of our political and environmental crises. The idea that we might solve climate change by “reflecting back the sun” is desperate in its fancifulness—a sign of how far we are from a solution. But think of that sky as the white page, the silence necessary for fresh thought and feeling, and Armantrout’s poem gives us something like hope.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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