Rae Armantrout, "Influence"

I do not believe the classics will be lost, unread and thrown aside, because things I don't like are popular.

Rae Armantrout, "Influence"

Hi everyone--

Below I've offered a discussion of a poem by Rae Armantrout which opens a thorny set of issues. There are many things I've received in life from institutions which were horribly flawed. I don't want to be ungrateful, but I believe I have to do the work of sorting my personal development and what aided it from the blindness and cruelty of the places I've been. To say this isn't easy is an understatement. There are things I hold to be full of insight and value, things I believe can benefit me and many others, and they have been produced by people whose ethical outlook I find questionable.

There's lots of depressing news to share, but one thing I thought I should bring to your attention concerns how people talk within anti-vaccine groups. Ben Collins says it looks like "code" or "gibberish." What I see is a real desire to talk in that way, to want to have a story about sickness or medical advice to share with everyone else. It's the feeling of community in these groups that has me wondering where modern life has gone so terribly wrong.

No. I do not believe the classics will be lost, unread and thrown aside, because things I don't like are popular. YouTube and TikTok have not replaced television or film as media, and TV and movies did not destroy novels, plays, or poetry.

What's happening in our age is weirder than "things fall apart." People have been prone to go to war at the drop of a hat well before mass media was as extensive or invasive as it is now. There have always been elaborate disinformation and propaganda campaigns, used by demagogues, aided by society's flawed values. Still. It is important to communicate how we've collapsed. How a lot of neutral and innocuous sounds—"balance," "free speech," "influence," "social media," even "going viral" pre-pandemic—allowed dark forces to gain far more than a hearing or an audience.

Influence (from American Poetry Review)
Rae Armantrout

At the top of my game
I was paid modestly

to place riddles
about ruination

in the pages
of the glossies

read by thousands,
perhaps hundreds—

to be a twee ghost
some might say—

while suicidal influencers
"blew up"

in the neighborhoods.

It is possible and necessary to talk about how it is personal. You've put considerable effort into becoming a writer, achieving a type of fullness if not success. "At the top of my game / I was paid modestly." I think about when I piled words upon words, producing confusion in paragraph form. I didn't grow then—I wasn't at "the top of my game," not even close—but later editing and rewriting of the worst of my offerings gave far more than satisfaction. You don't just see your mistakes. You see insights and, more importantly, how you conceived of insight. You see how you've changed. When pen is put to paper again, all that is present, charging every phrase in the best prose. One can only be paid modestly for serious writing.

I believe Armantrout is making a point about her identity as a writer and legacy institutions, including media. She played a "game" that "paid." It placed "riddles," not unlike this poem, "in the pages / of the glossies." The glossies are high-quality paper productions, impeccably designed, at a time where the most pressing issues come from raw, uncensored footage shot by portable cameras everyone possesses. "The glossies" speak an ivory tower and places given legitimacy because of propriety. They also speak the unsung but vital associations within and around those institutions. Fellow writers, working with ideas about style, theme, and subject. Mentors. Academics who study issues which one needs specialized knowledge to even be aware of. The glossies are dying—they're "read by thousands / perhaps hundreds."

Photo by Charisse Kenion / Unsplash

They've been dying for a while now. What sense does it make that Ivy League schools build extensions to serve the children of autocrats? Is that really a legacy, a measure of influence? What about being a reputable newspaper, or a globally-read magazine on culture, and spending considerable effort creating and promoting a story about the latest trends in building mansions? Something is very wrong with "influence" when it only reinforces the big names being the big names (in this sense, Trump is absolutely the man of the age). It's hard to reconcile one's growth as a writer and a person with these structures, though they can be useful. Still, Armantrout says she has written much about "ruination." I don't know if that quite grasps the enormity of the failure we're seeing, where success feeds the general growth of pettiness and greed.

Again, this is tricky to talk about with regard to education, because we do learn and give through institutions which are far from perfect. What we do is real. And it isn't like the "big name" publications are entirely thoughtless. I certainly depend on them to know the world. How do we address the larger failure while keeping in mind what is good?

I've pointed at having a definition of "influence" other than "big name dominates headlines." I believe Armantrout herself wonders what influence means to her now. She calls herself a "twee ghost," reversing our expectations about maturity. Usually, I expect those who have established themselves to double-down in the face of criticism. Nothing is wrong with our institutions; I would not have been able to learn and prosper if it were not for them. Therefore, everyone complaining doesn't want to work, is jealous, and embodies ungratefulness. "Twee ghost," on the other hand, strikes me as powerful, humble and thoughtful in the face of crisis.

Armantrout speaks of today's influencers, the stars of social media. A number of the "suicidal influencers" who are blowing up need donations to pay medical bills. They're pressured directly and indirectly by the platforms they use to have each posting do well. Legacy institutions preside over a broken world, despite what goods they've given, despite the growth we've had because of them. Because we link our identity to them, we've "ghosted" the world, too, not remotely coming to grips with the enormity of what's out there. It takes exceptional maturity to be open to the possibility of learning everything, all over again, "at the top of one's game." "Twee" I take as childlike sentiment, learning what is good, one thing at a time.

The way forward is a notion of influence that strives to see more. It doesn't have to try to solve all the world's problems or hear every uninformed opinion. But it has to do more than brand itself and then expect everyone to worship the brand. As we're learning, it is a very dangerous state of affairs when this works.