Saturday, July 31, 2010

A review of 'Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry', by Stephen Burt

I reviewed Close Calls with Nonsense as part of the Spotlight Series Tour of the Graywolf Press that has been running from 18-31 July. Click here to find out more about the tour and discover more reviews of books from Graywolf.

Stephen Burt, Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2009)

Stephen Burt’s essay collection, Close Calls with Nonsense, collects thirty of Burt’s essays, covering roughly a decade’s worth of writing. The earliest piece is derived from a 1997 review of Paul Muldoon’s New Selected Poems, whilst the two most recent essays (originally published in 2009) deal with John Tranter and C.D. Wright.

The basis upon which Burt collects these writings is that each poet or group he explores write what might be termed ‘difficult’ poems, or in his terms ‘poetry […] in flat packs and in pieces, relying on us to put it together ourselves.’ (‘Preface: In Favor of One’s Time’, p.ix.) In this respect, Burt hopes that these essays ‘are like introductions’ not only to how to read the poems, but also ‘meant to bring poems and poets together with people who might become, as it were, their friends’. (p.xii) If this seems rather sentimental, it is because part of Burt’s project here is to make the impersonal seem more personal; to explain – without overexplaining or protesting too much – why poets like Rae Armantrout, C.D. Wright, and August Kleinzahler ought to be read, and why also we should go back to the work of Paul Muldoon or James Merrill, or with a turn towards a poet not normally seen as opaque, reassess Frank O’Hara. By and large, ‘introductions’ is not the best description of these essays, since for the most part a knowledge of these poets’ works is a prerequisite to a full appreciation of Burt’s criticisms.

According to Burt, ‘all the poets I praise here have added something to the resources of the language, have made forms in words for experiences and attitudes not given effective shape in English before.’ (p.xiv) And for the most part, Burt is overwhelmingly positive, sometimes frustratingly so in the case of Muldoon to whom he is very generous, and whose self-obsessed nature seems to strike against Burt’s own desire to emphasise links between people in the poetry about which he writes.

This emphasis upon the connection between reader and poet is clear throughout the volume. In his instructions as to ‘[h]ow to read very new poetry’ in the eponymous first essay in the book, he suggests that we should ‘look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or plot.’ (p.11) Burt is making an effort throughout to draw attention to show how poetry is concerned with people, that it is possible to relate what poets say – however elaborately they say it – to what we experience. This is essential, he argues, for ‘[i]n saying why this poem works and that poem doesn’t, we draw finally on our sense of what life is like, what versions of the world and the people in it we are willing to entertain – even if those versions contradict one other, or (as in Whitman) contradict themselves.’ (p.xiii) Perhaps as a result of this relational impulse, Burt creates communities in his critical writing. Thom Gunn’s work, he says, ‘rarely shows us a scene without people’ (p.201), and Burt reads Gunn to ‘thrill at his sense of touch and kinaesthesia, of skin and limbs and muscles, poised or excited, at rest or “on the move” (as one early title puts it).’ (p.200) James Merrill’s mature work is ‘resolutely sociable’ (p.269), whilst Burt warns that if you ‘[c]oncentrate on [Frank] O’Hara’s “I” for too long and it threatens to – no, it very much wants to – dissolve into a network of encounters with others.’ (p.310) Even John Ashbery, perhaps ‘the loneliest’ of poets, still writes, according to Burt, with a community in mind: ‘he needs us, and tells us he needs us, as few poets do.’ (p.244)

And it is not just these poets who were most prominent (bar Ashbery, who is still prominent) in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, whose work Burt explores in terms of their relationship with others. In his ‘Postscript (2004)’ to his well-known essay on ‘The Elliptical Poets’, a school he created in 1998 when reviewing the work of Susan Wheeler, he writes that his initial essay intended to ‘describe an emerging set of styles, a family-resemblance notion, a nebula of habits and preoccupations that seemed to me then (and still seems to me now) to enfold currently influential poets (and the poets influenced by them).’ (p.354) This essay, the penultimate one in the book, seems to sum up an important preoccupation for Burt: how to write about write about ‘very new’ poetry whilst maintaining a backward glance towards poets like O’Hara, Merrill, and even William Carlos Williams, who also appears here. How to construct a lineage – predominantly American – which explains, as he says in his ‘Preface’, why ‘poets and poetry [can] be (as my favorite living poets are) at once innovative and traditional, alert both to the troubles of modern language, and to the resources of centuries past’. (p.xiv)

Perhaps as a result of this ambitious need to connect past and present, the best essays in this book are the longest, where Burt has room to stretch his legs. Indeed one of the finest and most perceptive is his piece ‘My Name is Henri: Contemporary Poets Discover John Berryman’, in which he examines more or less obvious connections between the poet of 77 Dream Songs and writers like Mark Levine, Mary Jo Bang, and Frank Bidart. One of the particular fascinations of this essay – and elsewhere in the collection – is the way in which Burt can provide evidence of a trend within contemporary poetry that stems from one or more than one canonical writer; a strategy that fits exactly that purpose of explaining why poets are both ‘innovative and traditional’, as well as explaining why the canonical writers have been accepted into the canon. ‘Many poets’, says Burt, ‘now distrust a unified lyric “I,” and find in Berryman usable models for plural or unstable selves.’ (p.130) If Burt tends not to go outwith literature itself for answers (might this distrust of a unified self have socio-political origins too?), it is perhaps because of his prioritising of language as a self-sufficient store: ‘poetry lets us imagine that certain arrangements of words, and nothing else – no camera, no lights, not much action – can tell us what it’s like to be other people, and (in another sense) what it’s like to be ourselves.’ (p.19)

These longer essays also allow Burt to explore the different facets of a poet and how these facets complement each other over time, and the essays on James K. Baxter, John Tranter, Thom Gunn, and James Merrill are particularly useful in this respect, acting as useful introductions to each of these writers. The essays are, however, long enough to contain sufficient references to warrant both a bibliography and an index, but neither appear in this book. Perhaps this is because it is not, strictly speaking, an ‘academic’ book, but given how usefully intratextual and intertextual Burt’s commentaries can be, it would be a great help to be able to cross-reference from one chapter to another effectively.

This is a fine addition to the excellent Graywolf volumes of literary criticism. It is true that on occasion, Burt can exaggerate the worth of poems and poets: one of the first poems he cites as a good example of ‘very new’ poetry, Ange Mlinko’s (admittedly early) ‘Aqua Neon’ can only have been chosen because of the accessibility of its content rather than the quality of its expression. Additionally, Burt’s readings can sometimes prove reductive in their efforts to provide general commentary on a particular period in a poet’s work. When he writes about Rae Armantrout for instance, Burt comments that ‘[m]ost of her poems after 1989 include at least one of these key words: parent/mother/mommy, memory/remember/recall, repetition/repeat/recur, nostalgia, person, self.’ (p.36) And yet, Close Calls with Nonsense provides a substantial snapshot – more, perhaps, of a collage – of poetry that is worth attending to in contemporary times. In his essay on Gunn, Burt admits that ‘I trust Gunn as I trust few poets of his generation.’ (p.209) We should trust Burt in the same way.

Further reading


  1. Thanks so much for participating in the Spotlight Series! It sounds like you got a lot from your read, which is always nice :-)

  2. Many thanks for your comment Aarti - and thank you for arranging the series. I'll be trying to read a good deal more Graywolf from now on!