The Poetry Foundation podcast, Poetry Off the Shelf, has recently re-broadcast a piece about Rae Armantrout, “More Than Meets the I,” whom Ange Milenko calls “the scariest poet since Emily Dickinson.”
Readers who are drawn in by Dickinson’s gnomic, witty, sharp verse would be well-advised to try Armantrout. Like Dickinson, she takes on big topics–the nature of the self, the meaning of love and pity, the way language works or doesn’t–in brief, clever poems that pack much into a short space. Her poems are short, but by no means easy; they’re puzzling, sometimes inscrutable, and haunting.
The thrust of Milenko’s piece is that Armantrout stands apart from most contemporary American poets by her use (or, more often than not, non-use) of “I.” She’s not a confessional poet; we don’t learn anything significant about her private life from her poems, much the way Dickinson’s private life is veiled (and made that much more open to overwrought speculation for its invisibility). Instead, she offers a cool and detached “I,” an observer and commentator but not a participant.
It’s this detachment that makes her scary, in the way Dickinson can be scary. Armantrout doesn’t offer just pithy observations; she offers riddles about important things told in a seemingly off-handed manner. But she doesn’t offer answers to those riddles.
You can read more Armantrout at the Poetry Foundation site, or dip into some of her books: