Posted on May 13, 2010


Dan Chiasson’s review of Rae Armantrout’s Versed in The New Yorker is a mixed bag. Any review, no matter how negative (which his review is not) and no matter how misguided (that issue is under debate), is good publicity. How many people knew of Armantrout’s work before this review, and before her Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle awards? Had Armantrout not won these awards, would The New Yorker have reviewed Versed? Of course not. But as a major cultural vehicle of our time, the magazine could ill afford not to take notice.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Chiasson’s conclusion, that “there remains the huge pleasure of supposing.” Conjecture and reverie are quite enjoyable routes for the mind to take. That Armantrout’s poems open life up to us is not something I’d contest. But let’s back up a bit in the review. Chiasson selects “Presto” as his favorite poem in the collection. He then proceeds to “decode” the poem, filling in the “blanks” with what he knows of Armantrout’s life. It’s the poem that he can best pull what he feels is the necessary backstory to “unlock” the poem — that this poem succeeds best because, to him, it behaves most like a confessional poem. He then goes on to hail that this “is the kind of crossover book that makes the border disappear.” Ah, the hybrid again. Versed then is only due its honors by creating this tenuous bridge.

Just before Chiasson sends us forth on our goosechase of supposition, he equates Armantrout and Ashbery — both “difficult” poets — and then posits that the role of these poets is to plant riddles in the heart of the culture. There’s some big secret these poets are keeping from us is his thesis. In fact, Chiasson quotes Frost (a good fallback poet when faced with the Ashbery-Armantrout dialectic): “We dance around in a ring and suppose,/But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” The reviewer basically gives up, says very elegantly “I don’t get it” and at least here does not directly warn the reader against spending their time with another “difficult” poet who does not render up “meaning” easily.

It’s as if you went to a baseball game expecting it to be an opera. Of course, the ball game will confound all of your expectations — after all, this is supposed to be an opera and you don’t know a thing about baseball: Where’s the fat lady singing? (Just wait for the 7th inning stretch.) If you know nothing about baseball (and only about opera), then what you are watching will only seem to be difficult, puzzling and, dammit, a secret.

If you expect a poem only to be one certain thing, and when it does not behave as it is supposed to do, all havoc breaks loose…

It’s heartening that Chiasson gave it a shot, but it’s unfortunate that his mind is still bent on opera no matter how hard he tries to convince us that he knows a few things about baseball…