Mar 11, 2012

Rae Armantrout, "Two, Three"

 Two, Three by Rae Armantrout : The Poetry Foundation

Rae Armantrout : The Poetry Foundation

Sometimes brainy poetry is just annoying—emotionally sterile, with a dominant aroma of snobbery and elliptical cynicism. “Figure me out,” it seems to say, adding “as if you could,” as it swaggers away. It speaks in code and seems not to care whether anyone outside its tiny, arcane fraternity gets it.

Most likely, this is what many think about poetry in general. 

I’m starting to think that one brainy, superb exception is Rae Armantrout, who is a “founding member of the West Coast group of language poets.” (   “Key aspects of language poetry include the idea that language dictates meaning rather than the other way around. Language poetry also seeks to involve the reader in the text, placing importance on reader participation in the construction of meaning.” (

I don’t get every ounce of Armantrout’s “Two, Three,” but I never feel that she’s trying to lord it over me. Instead I think she’s trying her best to get at the heart of a matter for which language is insufficient. But language and other, primarily mental connections are the only tools she has.

Maybe the poem’s central question is when and how two items become three.  Or, “Whenever there are two, there might also be an invisible third somewhere. What are the character and the role of the third? An echo? A witness?”

I like physicality in my pictures, so the boy in the pirate hat, the old Ford, the two plump men, and the bulldog hold my hand and my interest. There will always be flesh and metal to fall back on as I try to fly a little into Armantrout’s sphere of associations, including those well beyond meaty physicality, which comprise the majority of the poem.

From there to the Christian Trinity might be a short step or a long, twisting leap over a deep, twisting chasm. Maybe this sounds odd, but aren’t God and Jesus fairly concrete and comprehensible compared to the Holy Ghost? Isn’t The Holy Ghost the hardest thing to crystallize in our minds, to make tangible, or understandable in some way? So why not compare it to an echo, or an invisible third person witnessing or governing an ordinary street scene?

The closing question of the poem in the last five lines—isn’t that Armantrout’s somewhat unusual take on empathy and self-centeredness?  And isn’t that question about as fundamental to Christianity as any other concept in the whole religion? What is real love, and how do we come to know it while mired in all our self-love? And therefore self-pity.

How remarkable that all this nuanced questioning began with the first line’s “Sad, fat boy in pirate hat.” What better figure to start the dance of thought that will lead to the immensely human and humane final question? Also, note that what begins as a question about the “singular” (the boy and the old Ford), and then moves through “the bitter symbiosis of couples,” ends up in an attempt to touch on love between two humans. 

Human interaction with God or the gods or the universe or with other humans is a monumentally subtle, complex, and above all, mysterious business. It would be folly to try to capture all that in a language limited to objective and rational discourse.

But how is a poet supposed to convey her own experience with the inarticulate without becoming merely exotic, private and exclusive herself? Maybe Rae Armantrout has as good a response in “Two,Three” as most thinkers and writers have come up with anywhere else. 
Even if I’m right about some of that, it only scratches the surface. But this one poem, without deliberately tricking and abandoning me, might entertain, intrigue, and challenge me for weeks. What more can I ask? There will be the two of us, the poem and I, followed “by the eyes” of our “invisible” dialogue, with invisible witnesses, which will have the character of an echo and will not go away. 

My thanks again to The Poetry Foundation for making all this intriguing stuff available. 

 Two, Three by Rae Armantrout : The Poetry Foundation


Anonymous said...

I'm coming around to this, but slowly. With Narcissus, Echo, and exclusions...

Stickup Artist said...

By the end, I was almost cheering Rae on. Yes, of course! You're getting to the heart of the matter. Like she was speaking just to me and my answer was, I will gladly follow you to wherever you want to take me...

RuneE said...

Isaac Newton was an Arian. I have no problem seeing why.

And my compliments for the birds!

Brenda's Arizona said...

The description of the people - few words say a lot. The brevity in saying "a sad fat boy in a pirate hat" draws such a picture! She doesn't need adverbs (old School House Rocks told me adverbs were really really useful).

When you see yourself in someone, Banjo, do you pull away or are you drawn nearer? I wonder if that is why people enjoy 'people watching'? They are just looking for a hint of themselves?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I've always the best kind of love is based on lowered expectations.

There is so much in this post to mull over... the title itself "Two, Three" Then the notion of audience participation. Is it in this poem more then others? what part are we participating in (Interpretation based on x) that isn't applicable to other work. Then the language dictating meaning....that gets really hairy. Heading on the slow train of symbiotics with that one


Banjo52 said...

Thanks, all. I wasn’t sure anyone would give this a real try.

Brenda, I don’t know the answers, but I like the questions. Maybe I’ve already said this here: more and more I find myself asking about some other’s words or deed, “Can I see myself saying or doing that?” Usually, yes, of course, but sometimes, absolutely not, and the limitation might be mine or theirs.

PA, I share your question about reader participation. I’ve only started looking into language poetry, so I’m not sure how there might be differences between it and other poetry. Well, it might be more elliptical than most poetry, and those spaces might invite or compel more reader involvement.

And/or is it seeing just how much it can get out of its own language, boiled down to even barer essentials—like another version of minimalism? Is that another degree of tightness in the compression and compactness that define poetry—or once did?

Since “symbiotics” has additional meanings, I’ll go with “semiotics,” not that I’m sure what all is included there either. I’m getting the impression that a lot of folks, perhaps including the language poets, have found a challenging divide between meaning and the tools we use to deal with meaning (especially, language). All of that strikes me as a drift toward academic philosophy and linguistics, which I can follow and enjoy for only a short time. But it does seem potentially fascinating.

Those huge eruptions of rock from Canada down through Montana to New Mexico—what if American English called them doorknobs? Or mumps? Or zits? Maybe more importantly, do the wolves have a sound for referring to the Rockies? Maybe they call them “dammit”? Or, “cold”!! Do they capitalize the first letter?

I don’t know if I’m anywhere near the topic. I’ll get back to you when I have all the answers on this stuff. Give me a couple of decades.

Hannah Stephenson said...

This is a wonderful poem. One thing it does well--the diction is pretty simple, but the poem as a whole is a collection of surprising elements.

I love the idea of the explicit (or implicit) threes in lists. So true. My students always tell me they've been taught that a thesis statement should mention three points, and to leave the most interesting one for last. It's a strange formula...

Lovers' Lane