Tag Archives: stephen burt

Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.


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Stephen Burt interviewed in Publishers Weekly

Steve Burt interviewed in the PW series, “The Art of the Review:”

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

For more, buy Steve’s book, Close Calls With Nonsense.

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In which I like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

Elizabeth Alexander’s decision to deliver the inaugural poem in “poetry reading voice,” with careful little pauses to indicate line breaks, was a bad mistake — after Obama’s smooth, long lines, she sounded like Rain Man, or a William Shatner impersonator, or Rain Man impersonating William Shatner. But I thought the poem itself, “Praise Song For The Day,” was great.

I’m not sure anyone else thought so. Monica praised the poem very faintly. Adam Kirsch called it “bureaucratic,” which he meant as an insult. But is it? Some things are made to happen by heroic leaders. But others, equally important, get done by thousands of people in separate rooms, none with a global view, each one carrying out a small task thoughtfully and by the book. Poetry isn’t a thing of the latter kind, but poetry has to recognize that there are such things, and that they matter. As must the President. Steve Burt made this point in verse.

Back to Kirsch,who labels the opening

Each day we go about our business

as cliche, fairly — but seems to miss that the following lines

walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din

stroll around the different aspects of the word “about,” poking at it, so that the words of the first line, or at least the word “about,” retroactively re-activate inside their dead phrase.

Alexander’s not afraid to tweak Obama a bit:

A farmer considers the changing sky.

reminding us (and him!) that “change,” too, is a real word, not just a slogan, and it might mean you’re about to lose your crop. And then this, my favorite part:

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

“Picked the cotton and the lettuce” is a graceful way of getting both 19th century African slaves and contemporary migrant farmers from Latin America into a single, eight-syllable frame. You can’t help comparing it with Maya Angelou’s dreary ethnocatalogue: “THE BLACK, THE JEW, THE HINDOO, THE CROAT….” I won’t defend “brick by brick” — glittering edifices are steel and glass office towers, not brick buildings. But the permeation of the workers through the building walls (with an implicit generation shift — the fathers are construction workers, the children disperse through the class structure, some becoming janitors and others deskworkers) is deft as hell — and she caps it off with the weird scrambly rhyme of “edifices” and “inside of,” and a cheeky sentence-ending preposition which seems to talk back — but respectfully! — to the schoolteacher five stanzas previous. Just as she talked back to the new President when she brought up the changing sky.

A lot is getting done in the rooms of this poem, piece by piece and without flourishes. It’s bureaucratic in the best way.

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After Virgil

is the title of Steve’s new poem, which is dedicated (blush) to me, but really should be dedicated to my parents, my son, or my next President. It starts like this:

At last, today, we can talk about something else–
about rock and roll again, for example, or
about the relative merits of green and black tea,
about anything that we know will have nothing to do
with the national perils and chances that kept us fixed,
like greyhounds in harness, despite ourselves, on the tracks
of the polls, of the ground game, of cellphones and robocalls,
of the neck and neck, the face to face, the fears
we harbored all year for the winner in that great race
where two hundred million people could join, or jeer.

Read the whole poem at InDigest.

(It shouldn’t be double-spaced, by the way; WordPress cognoscenti are welcome to explain how to fix this.)
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New Steve book, new Steve blog

You can’t buy Steve Burt’s new book of essays on poetry, Close Calls With Nonsense, until March 31. But you can read his new blog, Close Calls With Nonsense, right now!

The title essay, “Close calls with nonsense: how to read, and perhaps enjoy, very new poetry,” is online at the Believer. Steve writes:

In pursuing certain virtues—colorful local effects, persona and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language—the current crop of American poets necessarily sacrifices others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and in W. H. Auden, and in Marianne Moore). I’ve started to think that I’m not the only one.

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