Poetry Wednesday – Rae Armantrout wins the Pulitzer

The Pultizer Prize winners were announced on Monday and I have to be the first to admit I had heard of exactly zero of the winners and only one or two of the nominees.  Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, I certainly wasn’t alone.  I think you can look at prizes like this from two perspectives.  There is the idea that the award is out of touch with what people are actually reading and that it would serve the awards committees to perhaps pay a little bit more attention to what is, if not popular, then actually on people’s radar.  But then there is the flip-side of that coin.  No one said that the Nobel or the Pulitzer or the National Book Award were for books that people are reading, just books that are excellent.  I think it would have been boring if they had chosen a book that everyone had read and was familiar with.  In this way, they opened up an entire new group of readers to Tinkers by Paul Harding, and as I want to show you today, the poetry of Rae Armantrout.

I’ve never read Rae Armantrout, so I immediately set out to read some of her poems at Poets.org, which is an amazing website and resource that allows you to not only read some of the poems of the best poets out there, but also has a wealth of recorded versions of the poems so you can listen to them.  Most of these are read by the author, so you can hear the poems as they were meant to be heard.

Rae Armantrout was a founding member of the Language school of poets.  A particularly avant-garde group of writers that, according to Wikipedia, focuses on disjunction and often employs prose poetry instead of traditional verse.  After reading that, I was expecting Armantrout’s poetry to be very inaccessible, but what I have read so far is extremely accessible and wonderful to read.  The subject matter is sometimes elusive, but the language is gorgeous and you can just reach at what she is trying to reach.  I think I have found a new favorite poet.

This is the first poem I read of Rae Armantrout, and it is the one I keep going back to.  It was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Poetry.


Haunted, they say, believing
the soft, shifty
dunes are made up
of false promises.

Many believe
whatever happens
is the other half
of a conversation.

Many shipser
white lies
to the dead.

“The boys are doing really well.”

Some think
nothing is so
until it has been witnessed.

They believe
The bits are iffy;

the forces that bind them,


Honestly, I’m not sure that I could tell you right now what I think this poem is about.  Mostly it is the mystery that is really pulling me in right now and I love it.   I think I’m just going to reread it a couple or a hundred times and then maybe I’ll come back to you with an explanation.

What do you think of the Pulitzer nominees?  What do you think of the poem “Djinn” by Rae Armantrout?


9 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday – Rae Armantrout wins the Pulitzer

  1. I love “Djinn”! Thanks to you and the Pulitzer people for introducing me to it. 🙂

    Your description of Armantrout’s work is really similar to the experience I’m having with John Ashbery – I’m never sure exactly what’s going on in his poems, but their beauty and mystery keeps me entranced, and I definitely feel there’s been a movement of some kind from the beginning to the end.

  2. For me, poetry is always a puzzle — and one I often spend hours trying to parse together and “figure out,” though it sometimes feels impossible.

    What I love about “Djinn” is that I have no clue what Armantrout is talking about at first glance… and, after staring at it for a while and forming my mouth around the words, it comes into clearer shape.

    Sort of.

    I really like, “Many believe / whatever happens / is the other half / of a conversation.” I don’t know if I get it on a literal level, but I “get” it on… some level.

    Sort of.

    Ah, poetry — how you befuddle and entice me!

  3. I don’t do a very good job at keeping up with Pulitzers so I don’t even know right now if I’ve heard of any of them. My guess would be I have heard of very few as this always seems to be the case. I’ve never been especially eloquent talking about poetry so I’ll just be honest. I really like this:
    Many believe
    whatever happens
    is the other half
    of a conversation.

    And I probably like it because I can’t figure out what it means. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. I only heard of one of this year’s nominees, “Inseminating the Elephant”, only because it it is a Copper Canyon book (love their catalogs!).

    I think I will have to read more of Rae Armantrout. The part about the other half of a conversation is my favorite section, too.

  5. It means, as far as I can tell, that many believe that whatever happens is the other half of a conversation. Seems clear to me. And beautiful. I’ve been a fan of Rae’s work since I first started studying poetry in the early 90s. It’s great to see her recognized, and to see so many who seem to think they’d resist “so-called” language poetry actually like it just fine. Check out Charles Bernstein’s poetry, and, maybe first, Lyn Hejinian’s.


  6. Hi Lu — I just found your blog through a comment you left on the Clover, Bee, and Reverie blog, and I’m quite impressed, you’ve got some good stuff here! I saw that you’ve posted poems by Mary Oliver, one of my *favorites,* and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as lesser-known poets — looks like a good mix.

    Like you, I’d never heard of Rae Armantrout until she won the Pulitzer — though I recognized the cover and the title Versed, so must have seen the book online or in a magazine not long before the awards were announced. I was able to get the book from the library the day they named the winners, and my reaction was…mixed. I’m not technically a book blogger,I just read as much as my busy life allows, and blog when I have time, but I thought you might be interested in my mini-review of Versed, here:

    I’m glad I happened to come by, and look forward to following your posts!

  7. Just read your poems Rae and article in the May 17th, 2010 New Yorker. Your Great poems that stimulated me to think and write some stuff of my own. I have become your fan, Rae Armantrout.
    The poem Djinn resonates with me. The spirit of jinny is within me as I tell white lies at cocktail parties in repose or then face the real world as a doc in the county emergency room on a Saturday night for a 12 hour shift.

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