Last week came the wonderful news that Rae Armantrout won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, for Versed, her fourth volume with Wesleyan and her tenth overall. You can read the announcement on Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors (link), and see a video of Armantrout reading from the book on the website of the National Book Foundation, which administers the similar-sounding National Book Award (link). Armantrout was a finalist for the latter prize, along with Ann Lauterbach, who — like Armantrout — was a featured reader at our recent seventies conference (the winner, Keith Waldrop, was a featured reader at our earlier sixties conference).
Armantrout’s award sent me back to her 1992 essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” now part of her Collected Prose, first published in Sagetrieb. The essay was a sequel to her earlier “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” (published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978). The earlier essay was posed as an answer to the title question. The later one flipped the script by using the title to proliferate questions. That proliferation — and the questing intelligence behind it — is very much a part of Armantrout’s appeal. Even when the questions are leading, the invitation to think is welcome.
Here are some of the last sentences of the Sagetrieb essay — a statement of poetics in Socratic form:
What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you? Is readability equivalent to clarity? What is the relation of readability to convention? How might conventions of legibility enforce social codes? Does so-called experimental writing seek a new view of the self? Would such a view be liberating? Might experimental writing and feminism be natural allies? I think questions are most useful when left open. I will merely assert that there is more than one model of clarity.
It’s nice to see another model of clarity get official recognition!