Poetry @ Bennington: Rae Armantrout and Monica Youn

Image sourced via bennington.edu

Image sourced via bennington.edu

Rachel Arone '20

Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Tishman, 6:57 PM -- Only minutes before the start of the night’s poetry readings. It is nearly silent. Students and faculty alike find friends in the still sparse crowd -- checking in with them, asking if they are okay, even giving hugs. All around there is a solemn climate, like what follows a national disaster -- which, in a sense, had just occurred. The morning has brought the announcement of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s election to office, a cause for fear across campus and across the country. But even a national disaster did not stop Poetry @ Bennington. In turbulent times like these, we need such events to remind us that we have community, we have art -- we have the means to combat hate and enact change.

Rae Armantrout and Monica Youn read at this installment. Michael Dumanis introduced them as “two of the most important and talented poets” around. Dumanis gave a brief overview of each poet’s bio, shortening his introductions in order to allow students and community members the chance to attend the election discussion at the Student Center, which was running at the same time. He announced that Armantrout has published 13 books of poetry so far, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Monica Youn won the National Book Award for Blackacre, her most recent volume of poetry.  She is also a lawyer and a former delegate under the Obama administration.

Rae Armantrout, the first reader of the evening, took the stage looking as shocked and worried as the audience felt.  She commenced by thanking the audience for attending, especially in light of the day’s events. She then explained that she would be reading from her new book, Partly, which included both new and old poems.

I am grateful to have heard Armantrout that evening -- her poetry’s imagery was distinctly calming for me, and her manner of reading was quite calming as well. At that point in the day, I needed that, as I know we all did. One poem in particular comes to mind.  In “Song,” Armantrout describes a sunrise scene: shadows “climbing down the cliff face,” softening its color; the sun rising over a wall; the “background still, foreground in motion.” Such details really did create a landscape in the audience’s mind, a place of escape. However, perhaps this was a result of the day’s events with the election, but under these calming words I sensed some lingering unease. The poem ends with the image of all things remaining still, “waiting,” which I found eerie, adding a mysterious undertone to the poem’s calm atmosphere. These feelings found explanation in a later poem, “The Craft Talk,” a poem, Armantrout explained, which is newer than her newest volume, Partly.  According to “The Craft Talk,” a poet should not be afraid of “standing inside language” and producing “uncertainty as to where [the poem’s] voice is coming from,” in order to “frighten” the poem’s audience. So maybe she was doing a little bit of that -- playing with us and our feelings.

After Rae Armantrout’s reading, Monica Youn began her performance by stating she wished it were any other night that her reading followed Armantrout’s, citing her as a major influence upon her own poetry. She then explained the background behind her most recent volume of poetry, Blackacre.  In the legal world, “Blackacre” is a term for a hypothetical piece of property, much like “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” refers to a hypothetical person. She varies prefixes for some poems -- titles include “Whiteacre,” “Goldacre,” and “Redacre.”

Themes Youn explores through her poetry include family, infertility, and the cultural controls and stigmas surrounding these concepts. She explores these with innovation and imagination. In “Redacre,” Youn uses a story from Peter Pan, centered around the Lost Boys building a house for Wendy and asking her to be their mother, as a metaphor for society’s insistence that a woman must remain young, fragile, and faithful to her husband.  “Blackacre,” one of the two poems sharing the volume’s title, is Youn’s exploration of Milton’s sonnet on blindness in relation to her experiences with infertility. She dedicates each section of the poem to a word of the sonnet that resonated with her, describing her associations with these words.  It is a long poem -- Youn only had time to read excerpts from it -- but it is perhaps the most powerful one she read. One section that stood out to me was her musing on the word “wait” -- much like in Armantrout’s “Song,” this waiting brings about suspended anticipation for what the audience does not know -- and never will know -- is to come. Youn associates “wait” with inertness, a sense of suspension and inaction. That night and still today, with the uncertain future of this country, Youn’s reflection is infinitely relevant.

The Poetry @ Bennington series this term has been a gift to me. The talent from all the visiting poets, some of whom were Bennington alumni, never failed to blow me away. I know I will always remember this final installment of the series in particular.  First, because it was on such a tragic day for this country, and second, for the ways that it helped us all cope.  As I watched the audience members filter out, everyone was as silent as before, but something was different. There was a sense of warmth among the crowd as a whole rather than just between individuals. With such a gathering came the reminder that, in the fight against ignorance and hate in this country, we are not alone. We will always have each other. We will always have poetry. Our art and our community steels us to face our challenges, both on the national and personal level. Support each other and support each other’s work. Know that I, and the entire BFP team, are here for you, whether you need a place to display your work or an ear to hear your thoughts. Together, we will make it through.