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The Poetry World's Most Indiscriminate Fanboy

David Shankbone

Among those of us who read new poetry with passion and often frustration, I suspect that I am far from the only one in whom Stephen Burt’s essays and reviews prompt both emotions nearly every time I read them. My reactions frustrate me as well, for which I have come to blame Burt’s essays and reviews. Let me explain.

At just over forty, Burt has written well about more poets than more or less anyone who isn’t twice his age. He has also written an excellent study of Randall Jarrell and three books of poetry as well as three books that are essentially collections of essays, one on sonnets, one on adolescence in twentieth-century poetry, and one that collects a fraction of the roughly two hundred pieces of criticism that he has written for venues such as the Boston Review and the Times Literary Supplement over the last twenty years. He writes with consistent intelligence about poets whom you might not otherwise hear about, always with enough information for you to slide into their work—just enough biography and history, and an account of influences and trends as thorough as Burt is in his reading—and almost always with good humor and the benefit of the doubt about subjects it can be hard not to doubt categorically. Where poetry goes, there Burt shall be, and you can make use of this indispensable and overwhelmingly positive resource for introducing yourself to new poetry. What’s not to love? 

Burt is at his best with new poets who deserve praise; and less so with eminences who have had too much of it. His essay on William Carlos Williams, for example, shows much of what is maddening in his method. Williams, we learn, “invented an entirely new way of making and hearing verse lines ... without conventional meters, rhymes, and stanzas because he had made his own tools.” This “aural tool kit,” developed “between 1914 and 1923 ... made it possible for him to represent perception itself ... to show how we notice things.” To put it mildly, these are some of the dustier clichés in the parlor. They neglect how much Williams’s ear owed to poets such as the Pound of Imagism and Cathay (1915), whose abandonment of iambs led to unconventional “meters, rhymes, and stanzas” of his own; and they neglect to mention the ungainly way that Williams’s meters sometimes run through his lines (“the dancers go round, they go round and / around”), or how cheap is this formal cleverness (the rhythm is moving around like the dancers) compared with real lyrical achievement like the fluid sculpted lines of Cathay (“And I let down the crystal curtain / And watch the moon through the clear autumn”). I will leave it to the reader to judge whether Williams shows “how we notice things” when he writes, “two blue-grey birds chasing / a third struggle in circles, angles, / swift convergings to a point that bursts / instantly!” or just tells us how he noticed them, with an adverb to tell you once more and an exclamation point to poke you with.

Burt takes little issue with Williams because his concern is to show how the poems work, not to evaluate them—to point his readers to the effects in the poems and not to judge those effects. Burt treats Williams as though he and the readings of him were new, and does the same for poets such as John Ashbery. This can make for good reconsiderations of relatively underappreciated poets such as Randall Jarrell and Richard Wilbur, but for the most part Burt’s capacity to criticize is spoiled by his drive to introduce. The problem is not just that it is hard to show value without evaluating. It is also that Burt is so eager to get people to read that I wonder sometimes whether he really believes what he writes. Of a poem in which Williams says “the best part” of a grass-onion “is they grow everywhere”—city or country, rich or poor neighborhood—Burt writes that Williams “affirms the equal dignity of persons—and shares a cheap, useful recipe.” The potential parodies are too obvious. Burt clearly means to show how for Williams the tactile and the quotidian could embody the grand and the abstract, but how could Burt not even mention the anti-intellectualism, which implies that affirming human dignity is as easy as grilling onions? Williams wrote a long rejoinder to The Waste Land, called Spring and All, in which he attempted the American version of Eliot’s grand disjointed canvas of historical continuity and moral aporia. With hundreds of lines like “EVOLUTION HAS REPEATED ITSELF FROM THE BEGINNING. / Good God!”, Spring And All urges that the best lesson of Western civilization is to seek “immediate contact with the world.” This is why I worry that Burt, who has read everything under the sun, is being glib to the point of bad faith when he writes that Williams “knew his own limits” and “displayed all the intellect he needed.”

This indiscriminate positivity, the blurbing good cheer, helps to explain the guilt I sometimes feel while reading Burt—what’s wrong with me if I cannot feel as excited about a poet as he is?—and also to defuse this guilt, since one can expect Burt to miss even major criticisms. His comprehensive enthusiasm begins to look like just an enthusiasm for comprehensiveness, as he strains enough superlatives to make his praise seem cheap. Mary Leader’s poems “adumbrate an enticing and intensely personal way of looking.” “Few poets since William Carlos Williams have done more for the Garden State [than August Kleinzahler].” “No poet alive, perhaps, uses anaphora better [than Juan Felipe Herrera].” “I recommend the whole of [Liz] Waldner.” This praise has all the critical discernment of a recommendation letter, which is, I submit, not an accident. Nearly all Burt’s subjects are professors—he often mentions where they teach or studied; and in his unwillingness to offend anyone (lest you run into someone at a conference) and in his preoccupation with style abstracted from quality (to teach students how poetry works), Burt is a clear product of the university system in which he studied and which he now studies.

To be fair, most of Burt’s writing is admirably clear and free of academic jargon, and admirably technical for a genre that often condescends to its readers with rhetorical yummy sounds. But the gnawing condescension at the heart of Burt’s essays and reviews is the premise that criticism is far less important than praise because not enough people read poetry, as though poetry were too delicate for yelling. “I have written reviews I regarded as negative,” Burt writes, but “such pieces do their work upon their first appearances, losing, often enough, what value they have after the waves that they track have hit the shore.” Burt has to know that the history of taste has worked otherwise, with negativity galvanizing preferences and poets from T. E. Hulme on Romanticism to Langston Hughes on “The Negro-Art Hokum” and Adrienne Rich on female poets’ entrapment in patriarchy, from high modernism to the Harlem Renaissance and second-wave feminist poetry. Taste has to exclude as well as include; and when it includes, it must be with reservations as well as unconditional love. It would go a long way toward Burt’s “helping you enjoy” new poetry if he were to help you to articulate why you do not enjoy some of it, rather than leaving you with the uncomfortable sense that there is something wrong with you if you do not. This kind of attitude suits pedantry more than pleasure, and better to be a human dissatisfied than a prig satisfied.

It is a relief when Burt mentions his criticisms, often as qualified asides but almost always as insightful ones, such as his note on the “corrosively unserious” influence of Dean Young or that on Williams’s “weakly sententious, or mushy” late poems (in the last paragraph of that essay). Yet his conflict-avoidance makes him blind to or unmoved by some of the stronger emotions in poems. Like many members of “the lemon-squeezer school of criticism,” as Eliot called Burt’s New Critical ancestors, Burt can explain a line or a word or an allusion but cannot trace the contours of the conflict that prompted the poem. Poems in his hands feel static, clever, neat, resolved; they make statements and subvert things, affirm dignity and share recipes; they do not show the beauty that follows from articulating the constant “quarrel with ourselves” that Yeats thought poetry was composed of. Burt is a great explicator, and he writes best about poets who largely write for explication, poets such as Paul Muldoon and D. A. Powell, whose work is a light show of pastiche and formal trickery. But Burt’s method magnifies the cogs in worse machines and the smaller cogs in better ones. It tends to scrape the radiance off masterpieces such as George Herbert’s “Prayer.” (“Surely the most accomplished sonnet in English to lack a main verb.” Ha ha.) The conflicts exist but always to the side, not inside you; and, as one could predict, this is also the problem with Belmont, Burt’s new book of poems.

Belmont is where the ostensibly blissful ending of The Merchant of Venice takes place, the happy made-up town where the protagonists, having paired off successfully, repair to warmth and wealth and ease. It is also a site of unseasonable ambivalence, since Jessica, to marry Lorenzo, has had to leave behind her ruined father, Shylock the Jew; and since Portia, who helped to ruin Shylock, has in marrying Bassanio separated him from Antonio, his beloved if unconsummated friend. This unease is the subject of Belmont (minus the anti-Semitism). The book takes up, roughly section by section, Burt’s ambivalence toward his settled domestic life, his longing for a kind of lapsed queerness—although his cross-dressing is man-to-woman, not the woman-to-man of Shakespeare’s play with the female actors of modern times—and his ambivalent sense of place. Like Lorenzo’s wife, Burt’s wife is named “Jessica,” and they live in a comfortable suburb of Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Belmont.

John Phelan
Leonard Street in Belmont, Massachusetts.

“Come,” begins the epigraph to Belmont from Merchant, “you and I will thither presently / And in the morning early we will both / Fly toward Belmont.” In turn, the speaker flies in the book’s opening poem, a poem that takes place early in the morning—“Poem of Nine A.M.” (a grown-up time: for work, not play). With epigraphs and titles established as reliable signposts, the first section begins with the epigraph that “children [can] tell the difference between the real world and the imaginary world ... [but] don’t see any particular reason for preferring to live in the real one.” So you know that Burt’s concern is the contrast between childlike imagination and adult practicality. How do you make exciting personal art when the latter occupies your life, especially if your life is tranquil and by all accounts happy? “Sing for us,” he asks the muse in “Poem of Nine A.M.,” “whose troubles / are troubles we’re lucky to have.” Burt moves between the artful treatment of artless things, such as Subarus and suburbia, and a persistent discomfort with his comforts. “We should never look down,” he writes, “on what gives strangers comfort, / on what we learn too late that we might need.”

The problem is that Burt offers no evidence that he actually regrets anything. No poems in the section even pretend to consider things that he should have done differently. “Once we feel safe, it’s our nature / to say we’re unsatisfied, and pretend to seek more,” he writes with unfortunate accuracy. “I have no right to complain,” he writes in “Poem of Six A.M.” Good for him, but the lack of conflicted emotion makes the overtones of regret or at least self-doubt look like mannered satisfaction, a polite way to avoid the guilt of gloating and privilege. With his mannered doubt a stand-in for actual doubt, he never confronts in himself what would make his suburbs uninteresting for art. He just worries that they are—“Yes, another / poem about flowers and kids,” he writes in the book’s seventh poem—as he fills out the section with risk-free emotion.

Some poems are pure preciosity. “Owl Music” actually begins “Who who,” and “Poem of Seven A.M.” includes lines such as “The tireless & endless rubbish on & against the curb / looks to have been the product of a bilious regime.” That is not wit, or a believable reaction. This has to be the worst hourly poem ever written. Some of the poems read as though spoken to genius-level six-year-olds, such as “First Astronomy Globe,” spoken from the perspective of a child’s first astronomy globe: “He finds in that firmament / no sign of human intent.” Do six-year-olds like doggerel more than verse? (“There are socks in this world that have tried too hard to fit in. / No sock, however, believes in original sin.”) The poems often use formal tricks only to clothe their sentimentality, as in “Nathan,” a poem about the birth of Burt’s son, one section of which has superscript words to mimic contractions (“We take contractions as they come”). Another section consists of a nineteen-line sentence whose syntax is tortuous like the road home from the hospital; another is disoriented like parents after birth. This is all clever enough, but the end results are lines such as “The size of a loaf of bread and about as warm, / you take a serious interest in the breast.” The problem is not the subjects that Burt chose to write about—you could fill a good anthology with poems about infants alone, from swaths of Plath’s Ariel to Joyce’s “Ecce Puer”—but that Burt writes about them with sentimentality, cleverness, and preciousness, which are the sanitized versions of drama, wit,  and beauty, respectively.

If Burt does not engage with his regrets, he can at times describe in striking terms the felt sense of unease tinged with regret. “When the Sweet Wind Did Gently Kiss the Trees”—Lorenzo’s second line in Belmont—is one of the few poems in the first section that do not promise you the sacrament and serve grape juice:

You don’t just decide

            to become a different person,

but realize that you have become the person you are—

            not who you were, not who you want to be,

but something close to them, in exactly the way

            the new low-intensity streetlights come close to the moon.

The soft light of streetlamps, and moonlight: similar, at times indistinguishable, but utterly separate and different in kind, like your self and your senses of self. This is lovely enough, but wouldn’t it read as well in prose? Burt’s poetry is capable largely insofar as it resembles his essays: explanatory, abstract, and impersonal. Some of these passages are less aphoristic than others. “We ... encourage our friends and partners, as adults, to become or remain more childlike than we believe ourselves to be ... because we feel guilty about our own desires as we do not feel guilty about theirs.” This is insightful—although I wonder whom the plural really includes—and it is no anomaly that he has insight both into the felt sense of regretful aging and into imagining yourself as someone different. The two are the subject of Belmont’s second, better section, combined in the figure of his cross-dressing.

“An orange nylon collar, a scallop-shell A-cup, worn tortoiseshell buttons that pop off a dress”: this is how Stephen Burt pictures “Stephanie.” Dressing as her is a way for him to try on a different life without regretting his own—to imagine a world “in which [he] could get, and reject, another chance.” That world of “Paraphilia,” of atypical sexual desires, occasions the most fun in the book (“O my companions in microfiber & leather / O my companions in spangle & tulle”) as well as the most psychological exactness, but the meaningful conflicts span only a handful of poems. He acts like a spectator in most of the identity poems, from “Draft Camp,” his poem about the WNBA (“We are specialists of sorts, or out of sorts”) to “For Avril Lavigne” (“Dad, I want to say thanks / for forcing me to practice”) and “The Soul” (“Respectable people have found it in a guitar”). The third section of the book comprises mostly minor wit (“There are two Is in disguise”—do you get it?) and observation (“The triumph hidden in each wheelchair ramp: / such heavy inconvenience overcome / after so many patient years,” which, while politically laudable, sounds like a congressman’s stump speech). Save a handful of poems, his other collections are not much better. All of them are much worse than his criticism.

This is easy enough to explain in most critics who write poems—there are different skills and talents involved in different kinds of writing; but for Burt this is beside the main point. His problems are the same in each genre. Not only do his prose and his poetry both avoid conflict: as if to shield him, they both lack concern with the psychological nuances of his readers’ probable responses to poems—that is, with readers’ tastes. This can make for good, smart, often unsatisfying criticism, but it makes also for some fairly weak poetry. “And yet we live now,” he writes, “surrounded not by the people we hoped to meet some years ago, but by their well-meant and importunate demands.” “Go away!” he continues—but admitting the problem is just the beginning.

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.