How Poetry Feels About Itself

Rae Armantrout’s poem “Smidgins” fulfills an imperative of lyric, which is “Don’t be gassy.” Also another imperative, which is “Talk in riddles.”

My crumpled, wrinkled / blurt / of flesh. // “Let’s face it,” / it says. * …

Ravaged matter expressed as living tissue — flesh — incarnates an impromptu utterance triggered by strong affect expressed as sound — a blurt — in order to urge its startled reflection, glimpsed in a shiny surface, to put a brave face on decline.

Poetry hates itself / the way a child / pretends to fall / and looks around / to see who notices. // As much as any / single smidgin / wants to disappear. * …

The pratfalls a child stages in order to be fussed over and soothed constitute a form of “self-hatred” comparable to that of poetry’s, which confects naughty “accidents” such as talking tissue and bashful smidgins to seek attention and validation while fulfilling its writ to fabricate outré parallels.

Poetry loves itself / the way a baby / loves pleasure, / shadows tickling / its skin. / As a swallowtail, / like a folded note, / sways / on a long / blossom.

A crib-bound infant’s undifferentiated sensory delight in the play on skin of sunlight slicing through the blinds of a darkened room is a form of self-love comparable to how poetry swoons over its own rapture at comparing a splay-tailed kite with a swooshy name at rest on a sweet phrase to what could well be a billet-doux.

Poetry dines on tropes. Make something voiceless talk. Or take an abstraction, endow it with sentience, and declare it to have feelings about itself that are radically opposed. The only way to seek buy-in for such gambits is hair of the dog, i.e., more cowbell, more daring associative swoops.

If Armantrout’s lyric succeeds, its oblique shenanigans speak louder than my fussy extrapolations. I don’t say it’s true, but I’m finding that to engage with a poem entails taking possession of it; once handed off by the poet, the poem belongs to me and whoever else wants it. The reading of it is our affair, and includes license to talk back to the poem, to get in its face.

(Rae Armantrout, “Smidgins,” newyorker.com, 3-28-22. The entire poem is quoted.)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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4 Responses to How Poetry Feels About Itself

  1. Tell me about how your painted text works are developing alongside the poetry you are thinking about. I remember you being interested in line breaks and how poets decide when and how to use them. Are you thinking about that when painting your text?

    Liked by 1 person

    • JMN says:

      Thanks so much for noticing and inquiring. I’d like for these doodles to improve in design and technique and somehow buttress whatever I manage to say about the poem. I think they help me think about the poem and somehow “own” it with sufficient focus to venture an interpretation or other response. Moreover, much contemporary verse leans heavily on eccentric layout on the page, which triggered an impulse to “draw” it by hand rather than re-type it in order to quote from it. I admire your art — if you have any suggestions as to how to improve my doodles lemme know! 🙂 I’m thinking of stencils, for example, because I love how Jasper Johns uses them. Thanks again and best regards.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: ‘Smidgins’: Afterthought | EthicalDative

  3. Pingback: ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart Will Tell on You’ | EthicalDative

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