Burt, Stephen. the poem is you: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them. The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2016. 432 pages. ISBN 9780674737877. Buy here.
Over the course of any given year, I receive any number of books to review or, similarly, requests to review books. Sometimes the books are poetry collections, or essay collections about a poet or about poetry more generally; or sometimes they are monographs of (arguably) thematic or biographical importance. As I write this review of Steph Burt’s the poem is you, I have two other collections of essays on poetry on my desk awaiting review. Those books of essays I’ve started, or got halfway through, and I know that, when I finish reading them, I’ll return to them for a nugget of detail or for the clarification of a reference in future essays that I might find myself writing on the work of Poet A or Poet B. They will be valuable in their own way, adding to the stock of critical plurality that we all, academics and readers alike, appear to require in the pursuit of more informed knowing about writers, texts, and contexts.
I will not, though, return to them as I have returned to Burt’s the poem is you over the course of the last eight or nine months, and as I will return to it, often, in the coming years. Where other essay collections are valuable, Burt’s series of critical vignettes is immediately invaluable. Acknowledging from the outset the somewhat arbitrary and subjective nature of the endeavour–taking 60 poems by American poets beginning with John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons” from 1981 (from the closing line of which the anthology takes its title) and closing with Ross Gay’s “Weeping” from 2015–Burt’s writing does what all criticism must do if it is to be of any value: it gets readers thinking and, in so many cases here, wanting to go back to the original work to see it anew. We might all have offered a different selection of 60 poems, and for all sorts of differing aesthetic, critical, or personal reasons: but that is the point of this book, and of the choices Burt makes in it. Poetry is diverse and multiple and unpredictable – and our responses to it should be equally diverse and multiple and unpredictable.
The apparent bittiness of the project, its quick and agile moving from poem to poem, which some might read as a failing, is one of this book’s many strengths. You can spend five minutes or five hours delving in and out of the sixty poems and sixty essays and the multiple worlds and diverse Americas on display here. This book ranges across the last four decades of American poetry with adept assurance and a genuine enthusiasm for the possibilities that poetry produces. Freed from an overarching thesis or argument that continually needs to be defended, Burt is able to have fun, to admit blind spots, to confess a not-well-versedness when faced with particular lines and verses, to get in amongst the lines and rhymes and metres to show the works selected happening as poems. It’s not every critic who could achieve this either: Burt is able to move from poem to poem and poet to poet so fluidly because readers know that there is so much more that could be said, that has been or is being or will be said elsewhere, by Burt as likely as by any other critic, but that the enterprise here is different. This is a book about how to read sixty poems. This is a book for readers: its adventures, just like the poems, are ours too.
Any initial, early reservations I might have thought I would have had about the book’s raison d’être vanished before I’d even finished the introduction. I got to read poems I knew again and others I had not encountered, after each of which I also got to read Steph Burt enthuse and muse and associate and contextualise and theorise and, I imagine, do what she does as a teacher of poetry and a writer of poetry: show it to us from the outside in, and from the inside out; then show it to us again, and then again in a different poem. And then leave the poem with us to make of it what we will, to love it, or prefer its sister poem, or pile it on disregarded lists of poems we might like at a later time, in better weather.
Today, again, America most needs poets and will (hopefully) use them the greatest. With veins full of poetical stuff, Burt and this book make that argument again and again and again. “Each essay – like each poem – can stand on its own; together they tell not one story, but many overlapping, connected stories about the states of the art” (2) Burt argues in the introduction. Aware of all of the pitfalls of the anthologist’s lot, Burt makes a virtue of them, readily accepting that “Others will find this book marked too obviously, too deeply, by my own experience and temperament”; but that this is okay–no, more than okay, needed–this is needed too if we are to gain something by picking this volume up again and again to discover its many and varied highlights. “I’m a white Anglo fortysomething writer and teacher” Burt writes, “with two genders, two kids, an expensive education, and an adult life sponsored by college English departments in the Northeast and the Midwest, not to mention classical piano training, college radio experience, and a habit of buying comic books” (15): and these poems are the choices that individual has made. Some choices were agonised over–I’d pay good money to read the volume of the next sixty poems, and then the next sixty–but the essays that partner the chosen works are critically astute, informative, pluralist snapshots of Burt’s mind in process articulating, not just the past four decades of US poetry, but perceptive synopses of cultural or gender or feminist or poetic or race or sexual theory alongside illustrative moments from Dickinson, or Bishop, or Tennyson, or Shakespeare, or Frost, or Dante. As much as the blend itself works individually for each poem discussed, the overall achievement of the sixty readings is an education in itself.
As a teacher of American poetry to undergraduates and postgraduates, this book has introduced me to a number of new voices and new poems that I now want to teach. As a researcher, Burt has also accomplished something significant and needed: joining disparate dots into one place, assembled with an encyclopedic range of reference and refreshing insight, that encompasses so much of what has taken place in US poetry–and in US society more broadly–in the last forty years. No mean feat, by any measure. And, Burt acknowledges, not an exhaustive one: “Sixty poems cannot reflect the whole of America: its ethnicities, its personalities, its locales. But the critic who puts these poems together can try” (11). I for one am very glad Burt has made the attempt. I was energised by the readings offered, inspired to go back to the poems I knew and the ones new to me to become a new reader again. I loved the book’s range and its elasticity; and I loved its willingness to read form against and with content and against and with context; and I loved its choices–even though they surely would or could not have been mine or anyone else’s–maybe because they were so obviously not the choices I or you reading this would have made. I admit that I wondered whether, on first reading, I would dip in and out of the poems and essays but, like Bishop in her waiting room, I read it right straight through. I was too engrossed to stop.
I think you will be too.
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