An Interview with Stephen Burt
bio, here, and his poetry,
As the title of his blog (http://www.accommodatingly.com) suggests, Stephen Burt's presence on the landscape of contemporary poetry is a generous one. Though rigorous and skillful as both poet and critic, he filters the work of his poetry, criticism and teaching through a conviction that, in his words, "[b]ehind all these tasks - justifying them - is an assumption that we finally do have, at least from moment to moment, something like a self, or a soul, or a consciousness that remembers and emotes: and that it wants to encounter other selves, which it can do in a special, aesthetically-rewarding way through poetry" (http://jacketmagazine.com/11/burt.html).
Burt studied literature at Harvard and Oxford and earned his Ph. D. from Yale in 2000, having worked with such luminaries as Helen Vendler and John Hollander. His first poetry collection, Popular Music, won the 1999 Colorado Literary Prize, selected by Jorie Graham. Burt publishes in both the most prestigious literary magazines (Agni, The Paris Review, and Jacket) and the most important critical venues (The New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement). He teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and his scholarly study on Randall Jarrell won the Robert Penn Warren-Cleanth Brooks Award in 2003.
However, Burt wears this academic training and success lightly, combining it with a love of rock and roll, comics, cats, and the WNBA. In other words, while he loves the particular work that a poem can do, Burt seems committed to the rest of life as well, which perhaps explains why both his poetry and criticism seem (dare we say it?) human.
The exchange below took place via email and offers another instance of, in Burt's words, the idea that any art form is a project "for readers and listeners, rather than for experts alone."
David Wright: You're well known as both a contemporary poet and as a critic of contemporary poetry. Do you see these two locations in the current poetry scene as near to one another or at a distance? In your experience, how do these two endeavors feed one another/conflict with one another? Do you bring a poet's eye to criticism or a critic's eye to writing?
Stephen Burt: I hope that people can like and learn from my criticism without having to know, much less like, my poetry. In that sense, I don't want to "bring a poet's eye to criticism." As for a critic's eye to writing, I suppose that I'd like to be, in Schiller's sense, a "sentimental" poet, and I could never be a "naive" one. (See Schiller's "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.") I don't know if that gives me a "critic's eye" but it's not for me to judge.
The mentality I bring to my work as a practical critic and reviewer probably has something in common with the evaluative mentality I bring to late (but unfinished) drafts of my own poems: it doesn't and can't have much to do, consciously, with the mentality from which poems, and the verbal fragments which turn into poems, first bloom.
Writing criticism and writing poetry compete with each other for time and attention, but no more so than either or both compete, for example, with grading students' papers, or with taking our cats to the vet.
The ratio of supply and demand seems to be very different for book reviews than for contemporary poems: very rarely does anyone offer me money if I write, let's say, a sestina within three weeks! I write poems when I feel like it, and when I have time; I write long pieces of criticism when I have the time and the evidence to develop an idea, and I write short book reviews, mostly, when editors ask me to write them. I don't think I'm unusual in that division of labor.
Criticism is an applied art, or perhaps a craft; it does not require that its practitioners create something out of nothing. In fact, responsible practical criticism requires that its practitioners not do that.
DW: In Popular Music, your poems bring together mythical concerns with a lyrical voice that seems very grounded in the now. I'm thinking especially of the collection's first poem, "Persephone (Unplugged)" where a face is both a "stunned / Cathode-ray tube, a pomegranate / Unharmed." Or maybe "Connecticut Tocatta" with an icon of American history: "irredeem- / ably square Minuteman, / eyes level with the light at York and Main." How did this style develop? Do you see it more as cohesion or juxtaposition (I'm thinking here of Eliot's uses of the popular in "The Waste Land" and how they can be read as, perhaps, more cohesive than as jarring)? How do you read popular culture in ways that draw from your literary training? How do you read the literary world in light of the pleasures you take in a wide variety of contemporary music?
SB: You're a very attentive reader! Honestly, to me, they're all art forms. The pop song is an art form, the modernist long poem is an art form, public sculpture is an art form, mock epic is an art form. I suppose my literary training helps me take popular (non-high-culture art forms) seriously, and encourages me to talk about them seriously (maybe too seriously), and my involvement with non-high-culture art forms, like pop songs and comic books, encourages me to see all art forms as projects designed for fans, for readers and listeners, rather than for experts alone.
DW: Also in Popular Music, I'm intrigued by the ekphrastic poems in section three. How do you see the poet's relation to other arts, especially the visual? Is it as observer? Conversant? What attracted you to ekphrasis?
SB: At Yale in the 1990s, it seemed that everyone got attracted to ekphrasis—John Hollander had just written a book on the subject and taught classes on it. When I was writing some of those poems I was surrounded by poets and critics who took a strong interest in how poets could represent paintings (and sculpture and architecture and other visual arts).
I started writing poems about paintings before that, though—I wrote the Velazquez poem when I lived in Oxford. I like paintings. Paintings with character and narrative components—and you can find those components in apparently abstract artists, if you look; I often find them in Franz Kline—give poets a chance to sort-of make up, and sort-of discover, all sorts of stories and scenes. Ekphrases also let you flip back and forth between talking about a work of art as an object (and about the situation of its making), on the one hand, and talking about what the work depicts on the other—between, if I can use the terms here, diegetic and extradiegetic perspectives. I like poems (and critics) who can do those kinds of flips.
DW: In one of these ekphrastic poems, "St. Cecilia at a Reed Organ," you describe the subject, in part like this:
The unembarrassed rubrics of her blush
Defend her concentration like a wish,
Distract us, and protect
A tutor trying not to understand
That nothing can be taught her anymore.
How do these lines reflect your own experiences as a student? You've had a number of quite impressive/important teachers in your past (Graham, Vendler, etc). At what point do you feel their active pedagogical presence begins to fade in your life/poems/critical work?
SB: I never studied with Jorie Graham—she came to Harvard after I graduated. (I have met her twice, for about two minutes apiece.) I certainly did work with Helen Vendler. I don't think that her presence has faded from my critical work, and I don't especially want it to fade.
Again, criticism, as an applied art, makes fewer demands for large-scale Originality than does the writing of poetry: the kinds of breaks with teachers and influences which poetry requires don't necessarily occur in the careers of great critics (Jarrell and Ricks, to take two examples, never "break" with their initial model, William Empson, though their interests change, as Empson's own interests did too).
The poem you mention has to do with musicians and musicianship, and with a close friend who's a serious musician, and who was (at the time) making big decisions about her future and her interests, about where she wanted to look for authority and support. I think it has more to do with life lessons, and with musical composition and performance, than with the writing and reading of verse, but perhaps I'm kidding myself.
I would never say that nothing can be taught to me anymore! The particular phrase I use for Cecilia means she's been directly inspired by the Christian God: that's what the angel-tutor figures out. It's a sort of extreme of a teacher's realizing that his pupil has surpassed him, which surpassing happens all the time, whether or not the teacher or the student notices. Some students surpass their teachers' capacity to instruct and don't really know it, even if their teachers know. (The teacher then has the dicey task of deciding when and how to inform the student.)
Lucie Brock-Broido, a superb poet, also had a notable influence over almost everyone who took her classes at Harvard and went on to publish verse. Including me. But a poet's teachers aren't necessarily those from whom she took classes—they are the poets from whom she developed her style. For me, that's maybe Brock-Broido somewhat, and Graham (whom I read attentively in college), but much more so Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell. More recently, perhaps, C. D. Wright.
DW: Several of your more recent poems show a strong concern with place. "Berenice Abbott's New York," for example, seems almost wistful (yet warning) in its tone:
Here all things have their promise
steel and time
So turn the globe
to midtown now
Invite us up
Let every daughter in
You even raise a biblical allusion at the end, with the reference to the Israelites spying out the land of Canaan. Has your recent move from the East Coast to Minnesota been a part of this renewed attention to place? How do you see contemporary poets, uprooted as we necessarily are, attending to place?
SB: I think I've always written about place—the first book has poems about DC, New England, London, Oxford, New Zealand (never been to NZ—very much want to go). I wrote a lot of poems about New York City just before and just after we moved away from it—it's a peculiarly rich place for poets, because we can write about, let's say, Union Square with some confidence that some of our readers will know what it is, know its history, and that other readers will be able to look it up. Poets whose individual "spots of time" and place, whose personal talismanic locations, are all in Albuquerque and Dallas will have a harder time using those places in poems, because fewer people in the immediate audience for contemporary poetry will "get" what those locations mean without looking them up, or succeed in looking them up even if they try. That difference between New York and almost everywhere else in the country is one of the subjects of a few recent poems.
The Biblical allusion at the end of the poem you quote has to do with motorcars, which as you know have done horrifying things to the American built environment; the cars are the Israelites, the invaders, who have—for better or worse—destiny on their side.
DW: In both Popular Music and in more recent works you've written clever, sharp short poems (like "Aftermath" or "Franz Kline"). I'm always surprised by the power of such short poems, both to please in a sudden burst and yet to also require a great deal of work from me as a reader. What draws you to these short forms? What challenges do they give you as a writer? As a reader?
SB: I suppose that my generation has a short attention span!
I've actually written about the demands short poems impose—it's in an old-ish issue of Poetry Review (UK). Unfortunately that piece never got to the web.
Short poems have to feel complete despite their brevity, and they can't have superfluous parts. They must either change direction midway through, or surprise us relative to what we expect from the title or from the world-in-generally, even if the poem has no internal turnabouts. Charles Reznikoff's early poetry can give you plenty of not-much-noticed examples in English. As can Herrick.
DW: We've talked about your work as a poet and critic, so let's turn to your work in the classroom. How do you teach your students to follow the advice you've offered to, in reading contemporary poetry, "look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don't feel you must choose between them"?
SB: We talk about individual poems in class, as often as practicable. I recommend Mark Levine's "Work Song," Ashbery's "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," Graham's "San Sepolcro," Wright's "Personals," or any recent Rae Armantrout, as attractive places to start (assuming you want to start with living Americans—not everyone does).
DW: To return for a bit to criticism, despite your comments about the uselessness these days of "schools," you are responsible for the term "elliptical poets" as a way of describing the work of those poets who borrow the Language Poets' desire to disrupt language but adapt these disruptions for more lyrical goals and, as a result, write some very challenging yet startlingly affirmative verse. You went on to say that while you weren't sorry you wrote about the Elliptical Poets: "I wondered whether anyone would notice a broader, more careful, introduction to the contemporary poets I liked—poets who share tactics, interests, and a generation, but who often have not met, and who would not fit comfortably . . . into any school." I like this idea very much, that tactics and interests develop in ways that, while noticeable, are not confident or concentrated enough to constitute a school. How do you think these tactics and interests make their way through the imaginations of poets? And why do so many readers still prefer to think of cohesive schools of poetry?
SB: Thanks for agreeing with that idea. The first of those two questions ("How do you think... of poets?") strikes me as equivalent to "How do you think the imagination works?" Or "how do poets learn their craft?" These are great questions but they would take more than an interview's length to answer in any useful way. E H Gombrich tries to answer in Art and Illusion, a book that has influenced my thinking probably more than it should, and more than it would if I had a more thorough background in art history. Other answers in Keats' letters, in Lyn Hejinian's My Life, in The Prelude, etc.
As for the second question ("And why... schools of poetry?"), it's just easier for most people to lump a lot of apparently similar objects together and try to explain what they share than it is to look at each one and decide what, if anything, makes it specially valuable or unique. Easier to start an argument about these great big lumps, too: if you want to start an argument about a particular piece of verse (or prose) you have to have the verse in front of you, or to memorize it.
DW: Some critics see their job as helping the rest of us avoid bad verse, yet you seem to be committed to helping readers learn what's necessary to read what a wide variety of contemporary poets are up to. How do you conceive your reviewer's/critic's role?
SB: Most bad verse is verse nobody needs help in avoiding, because most bad verse—and much good verse—passes through this world almost unnoticed.
Reviewing is a subclass of the wider activity called literary criticism. The role of a literary critic is to say interesting things about literary works, especially (but not only) to say things which make the works themselves more interesting, wiser, more informative, or more fun for their readers and re-readers.
The role of a poetry reviewer is to say things that help people (a) discover and (b) appreciate good poems. ("Good" of course is subjective—how subjective, and why, are matters for debates elsewhere.) That role leaves room for many different kinds of writing, many different attitudes individual reviewers can adopt. Some reviewers are like disc jockeys, playing representative work and juxtaposing it with other works that make it sound even better, then adding a comment once in a while. Other reviewers resemble archaeologists, painstakingly recreating the contexts you'd need to understand what an artifact meant to its first readers. Still other reviewers seem like entertainers, monologuists even, who want to "convince by their presence" (as Whitman says) rather than by dispassionate analyses.
There are many reasons to review sorta-OK, uneven, or disappointing work. If there are six poems I actually like in a big collected poems, I'd like be able to say which ones they are, and why. If poet X published a good book and then a bad book, I might review the bad book in order to call attention to the earlier good book.
There are other reasons to review prominent bad poets, though reviewers are under no obligation to do so. I think of the ideal-typical reader of a review in a "mainstream" mag (say, The New York Times Book Review, or The New Republic) as a bright college first-year who's still discovering contemporary poetry in general, and who has particular favorites already, but whose tastes are still in flux. She may have people around her who think that [name a famous poet whose work you dislike] is the best writer in America. She may not like that poet so much herself—but she may not trust her own tastes. A negative review in a mainstream mag validates skeptical readers' doubts, and shows that authority-figures can disagree: it frees readers up to decide what they like, if not on their own, than with more emotional liberty than they might otherwise enjoy.
Another reason to write negative reviews: some overrated poets are influential. Attacks on such poets might nudge younger or newer poets away from imitating an overrated, too-influential established poet‚s mannerisms, towards attempting to do something else. And negative reviews can also double as polemics in favor of, well, something else, something the poet you dislike has chosen not to do: you might review poet A in order to say that American poets should write more like poet B. Such a review could easily come off as self-righteous or narrow-minded, and I'm not sure I've ever written any review with that purpose in mind; but I'm not against such reviewing in principle.