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In April, California poet Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry, entitled “Versed”. What was most surprising about Armantrout’s win was that she was diagnosed with the very rare adrenal cortical cancer in 2006.The poet did not expect to live to finish her work.
“Versed” is Amantrout’s 10th book of poetry, which is divided in two parts. The first part renders the horrors of war in Iraq and the second part is the poet’s reflections on living with cancer. Of the book, the New York Times lauded it, “Poetry that conveys the invention, the wit and the force of a mind that contests all assumptions.”
Armantrout was herself stunned to receive the Pulitzer, the highest literary honor in the United States. Despite her surprise, she noted that what kept her writing, despite her personal struggle with disease, was the disease itself. “I felt as long as I kept writing, I wasn’t really dying,” SignOnSanDiego reported her saying. In 2009, Armantrout also received the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Versed”, and her work has now been nominated additionally for the National Book Award.
Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California. She attended the University of California at Berkeley and completed her Master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Armantrout is considered part of the school of poetics known as the Language Poets. Although it was a national movement that begun in the 1970s, it has a rich history particular to California. The Language Poets are seen as an extension of postmodernist thought, which grew out of the works of earlier writers such as Gertrude Stein and poet William Carlos Williams.
Armantrout has long been considered an innovator in American poetics. The critic Stephen Burt wrote in a 2002 Boston Review article of Armantrout’s poetry: “To enjoy Armantrout one has to like her choppy surfaces, accede to her demands that we read slowly, and appreciate her overarching worries about figuration, mediation, symbolism-in-general. At the same time, Armantrout’s poems offer psychological truths and sad ironies wholly separable from her commitment to difficulty and disjunction.”
Armantrout’s brand of poetry can be seen as part and parcel of California’s clear, established stake in American poetry in general. California’s Poet Laureate position is considered a more respected honor than in other states across the country. Armantrout’s recent literary and personal triumph is only yet another indication of California’s persistence of the human spirit, as seen through the telescope of poetry.