Stephen Burt On Enjoying New Poetry


Over the weekend, I finally got around to unboxing and shelving my archived litmags in the new apartment. As I placed my issues of the Believer back into magazine files in proper order, the top headline on the cover of the May 2004 issue (number 13) caught my attention: A Primer for All of Us: How to Read and Perhaps Enjoy New Poetry, by Stephen Burt.

I set aside my project in order to read this still-relevant essay, and it was an hour well-spent. Here is some of what I found, after the jump.

Burt begins the piece with a sketch of American poetry in the 20th century, focusing his attention on those decades that readers would know least well: the period since the 1960s, when the poetry world fragmented into multiple schools of composition, most notably (for Burt’s purposes) confessional poetry and language poetry. By the 1980s, he writes,

some students sought something new—something more open to personal emotion, to story and feeling, than [the aggressively difficult] language poetry, but more complicated intellectually than most of the creative-writing programs’ poets allowed.

He continues a bit later:

Most younger poets of promise now resist labels for schools and styles; most poets want us, instead, to read, enjoy and judge individual books and poems. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to discuss contemporary poetry without naming camps and schools: sometimes, people won’t let you. The first time an editor asked me to survey contemporary American poetry in general, I needed a hook for the piece: I took the advice of a friendly rock critic and invented the Elliptical School, an ex post facto name for some of the newish poets whose background I’ve just sketched.

Burt ends this first section:

I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or Brock-Broido, or Wright, it did what I meant it to do. At the same time 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 (let alone consciously) into any school. You are reading that introduction now.

From that point forward, Burt writes a straightforward primer, with well-chosen examples from C.D. Wright, Monica Youn, Harryette Mullen, and others, on how to enjoy contemporary poems that don’t seem to make sense upon first reading. He begins with the “simplest” precepts — for example, “look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot, ” and “enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them” — and after many examples, he concludes with a section entitled “What I Miss in What I Like,” which sketches what qualities he feels are missing in “the  current crop of American poets.” A very interesting read. Link.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →