Far be it from me to diss Marjorie Perloff, an often illuminating poetry critic. But when Jerome Rothenberg offered up this extract from her introduction to some German translations of Rae Armantrout‘s poems, a strange feeling crept over me: the sensation that she was slipping, I mean. Perloff, typically precise to a fault, here becomes a slightly vague promoter of a poet she’s a fan of. To wit:
[U]nlike Williams (or Levertov), Armantrout was never a poet of concrete particulars: from the first, her minimalist lyrics were breaking the Williams mold. Consider the early little poem “Dusk” (Dämmern):
spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
and so purely alone.
I’m not like that!
[Spinne auf kaltem Geviert aus Glas, oben im dritten Stock ruht so gebannt Und vollkommen bei sich. So bin ich nicht!]
Williams would have tracked the spider’s movement, keeping his eye on the object as he does in “As the cat. . .” (first the right forefoot / then the hind. . .”). But Armantrout begins with what is a rather surreal image (how does one notice a spider at such a distance?), only to turn inward, viewing the insect in human terms, “rest[ng] intently,” “so purely alone,” and then suddenly turning the whole situation inside out with the exclamation, “I’m not like that!” What can this explanation mean? Is the spider rebuking the poet for thinking it is “like that” (intent, alone)? Or, conversely, is the poet saying, “How dare you think of me in spider terms! I’m not like that!” Or again, “I’m not going to metaphorize about spiders as Robert Frost did in “Design” (“I caught a dimpled spider…”). Or does the exclamation refer to making poetry: I’m not going to get involved in a lot of Romantic Einfühlung about spiders! I’m not like that!”
However we construe these four little words, the line is genuinely startling–the declaration of a poet who refuses to go with the flow.
Note that she’s misquoted both Williams and Frost. Williams’s cat moves “first the right / forefoot // carefully / then the hind”, while Frost tells us, “I found a dimpled spider…” Ordinarily I don’t pick nits like this. But Perloff’s subsequent reading made me wonder what these slips might mean.
Note, first of all, that she assumes the speaker of Armantrout’s poem is spotting the spider from the sidewalk–not a “surreal image,” merely an absurd one. If this is a realistic spider at all, the speaker must be seeing it from the inside of the building, yes? The spider on the outside of the glass, hence “purely alone”–untouchable.
Why does this matter? Because “I’m not like that,” contra Perloff, must have its primary meaning in this situation: both speaker and spider are “three stories high,” but the speaker is inside where she can freely observe the spider’s isolation.
Next, Perloff posits the notion that the spider is saying “I’m not like that” to the speaker–“rebuking” her! This would be an puerile pathetic fallacy, a flat-footed move Armantrout never makes elsewhere in her work. Alternatively, Perloff suggests that the poet may be addressing the spider: “How dare you think of me in spider terms!” This is only marginally better on the absurdity scale, but fits in with Perloff’s willingness to think that Armantrout might indulge in such silliness.
There’s more, of course. Perloff suggests that Armantrout might specifically be refusing to “metaphorize” the spider as Frost does in “Design.” But a glance at “Design” shows that Frost doesn’t treat the spider as a metaphor at all, but merely as an instance, an example. A better reading would invoke Whitman’s spider, which the grey poet puts forward as a metaphor for his own soul; moreover, Whitman’s spider is presented as standing on a promontory, isolated. But at least here Perloff is on the right track: the poem’s speaker is refusing to see the spider as a metaphor.
Finally, Perloff suggests that Armantrout may be writing about writing by refusing to romanticize the spider. A trivial gesture, it seems to me, if true.
So we’re left wondering why Perloff finds this poem powerful enough to single out in her introduction for German readers. Or is its quality as a poem irrelevant to the fact that it shows the poet refusing “to go with the flow” by “breaking the Williams mode”? My suspicion is the latter–that it’s Armantrout’s avant-garde gestures Perloff finds of value, not this small poem itself. The tell, as a card-sharp would say, is in Perloff’s use of “minimalist.” This term is meant to remind the reader that if the poem seems slight, it’s the reader’s fault, because “minimalist” poems have the critical seal of approval–the assurance of people like Perloff that they really do matter.
I’m not so sure. I’ve tried many times to read Armantrout, because here and there I find flashes of brilliance. But seldom does light travel from beginning to end of any one of her poems. Perhaps unfairly I compare her with Lorine Niedecker, whose genius is evident (to me, at least) in every line; or maybe Armantout’s simply working a patch of ground I have no interest in. What I would like to see, what Armantrout fans like Perloff ought to provide, is an honest reading of her work that makes clear why readers ought to pay attention. “Honest” means simply that the critic should avoid inventing interpretations that are absurd, irrelevant, or dependent on external factors like membership in a particular aesthetic party.
Or maybe this has already been done and I’m just unaware of it. If so, I know I can count on Perpetual Birders to let me know!