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This interview is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.A Conversation with Stephen Burt
RUTH HAWTHORN: What would you say are the links between your creative and critical work?
STEPHEN BURT: I hope that each stands on its own. I certainly hope that the critical work doesn’t depend on anyone liking the poetry that I write, or even knowing that I write poetry.
That said, I am one person and if I look back on what I have written, it does look like I’ve been addressing the same questions, the same problems in my own poems and the writing I’ve done on other people’s poems: questions about the reception of non-high culture kinds of art; questions about how to listen to music; questions about how people listen to one another and about how to represent speech in contemporary poems. I know I have written about those - I hope helpfully - in other people’s poetry and I’ve been addressing them in my own poems as well. Questions about how to represent youth, how to represent the life course - those are topics in the poems that I write and in Randall Jarrell’s poetry, certainly, and in other poets I’ve written about. I have found myself discovering a topic as it were in poems that I write and then discovering that I’d like to write an article or even a book on how that topic turns up in other poets.
Many, if not all, the people I admire who wrote both poetry and criticism, that I continue to enjoy reading and that others continue to enjoy reading, have generated criticism that works independently of their poetry, even though they take on similar topics. Donald Davie is one such person, Randall Jarrell for part of his career is one such person; Louis MacNeice, arguably, while he is writing his Yeats book, might be another.
Your new book, Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, has just come out in the United States - would you like to comment on the title?
The title is, like all of my favourite titles, not mine. I was asked by an American magazine called The Believer, a number of years ago, to write an introduction to contemporary American poetry for the relatively wide, not necessarily poetry-centred readership that magazine has. The essay came back with the title that the editors came up with: ‘Close Calls with Nonsense’. Fine with me.
When it became clear that Graywolf wanted to collect the essays and reviews I had written separately, over the past several years, into a book, Graywolf wanted to call the book Close Calls with Nonsense, and I said fine. It’s a title that is perhaps appropriate because so much of the American poetry that has been the strongest over the past fifteen years has been poetry that - if you’re not used to reading that kind of work - seems quite far from prose sense: it’s anti-discursive. It seems quite close to nonsense in a way that, for example, the British poetry from the 1950s or Victorian poetry does not.
You mention in the preface that you have not included reviews you regard as negative because ‘such pieces do their work upon their first appearances, losing, often enough, what value they have after the waves that they track have hit the shore’. What work is it you think negative reviews do?
Negative reviews can do a lot of useful things. Negative reviews of non-fiction books can refute false ideas. Negative reviews of works of literary art that are not works of discursive argument - which is what we are talking about here - are most useful when they help readers trust their own sense that something isn’t right: that a work is overrated, that the emperor has no clothes, that a widely celebrated, widely imitated poet or poem or style is not all it’s cracked up to be and might be something to avoid. When I write negative reviews, they are almost always reviews of works where I’ve been asked by an editor to review something - I don’t go out of my way to attempt to write negative reviews. When I say this book of poems is quite uneven, or not so great, I imagine readers who are relatively young, or relatively new to contemporary poetry, or otherwise self-distrustful who would be reinforced in their resistance to widely praised and over-praised work, if they see that they are not alone in disliking it.
Negative reviews of obscure works are not worth writing. Negative reviews of widely celebrated books often are worth writing because they help us move on, they help clear a space in which better work can be recognised and talked about and celebrated. One of the reasons why negative reviews of poetry are less common in the United States than they used to be, and probably less common in the UK as well, is that more poetry reviews in the United States are reviews of books the reviewer wished to review. When the reviewers are picking the books they want to review all the time, only a mean person or someone with a real drive to write negative reviews is going to pick books they wish to attack. This is why it can be good when editors select books and say, ‘Would you like to review this?’ Then the critic can say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have picked that, but if you would really like a dissent, or a mixed assessment, or an explanation of why this has perhaps been over-praised or overrated, I’d be happy to turn that in.’
Randall Jarrell is still famous for his exceptionally cutting reviews, but he seemed less interested in writing those kinds of articles during the later period of his career. He said in a letter to Lowell that bad poetry ‘can just die quietly, without any help from me’.
Jarrell, when he starts out, is writing for a community of readers where each poetry book has a much larger share of the total reading of any poetry that goes on in America. I don’t know if it has more readers in absolute terms, because there are fewer books being published and there might be fewer people buying poetry books than there are now, but certainly the share each poetry book has of the total readership for any current poetry is much, much larger than it would be for almost any American poetry book today. So, in the 1930s, one could figure almost as one figures with novels today, that a poetry book or from a trade press is going to get some attention and some praise so it’s worth attacking if one is asked to do it. As Jarrell moves on, has more demands on his time and gets tired, I think, of the attack as a form, he’s less likely to attack people who are going to sink anyway. By the late 1940s, he’s going to save his attack energies for things like Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, which is a bad book by a great poet - he thought so, I think so. That’s the kind of negative review that’s worth doing. Or Frost’s Steeple Bush, where it becomes a great service to near future readers to go through it and say, ‘Most of this is not very good, but look, “Directive!”’ Jarrell concludes that he no longer wants to write negative reviews of non-entities, but he does want to write negative or mixed reviews of not very good books by major writers. All of Jarrell’s decisions about how to exercise the craft of reviewing are made in a reception context for poetry that’s a bit different from what we have now. I would say that the reception contexts for Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish poetry are somewhere in between the reception context for American poetry in Jarrell’s lifetime and the reception context for poetry in the United States now.
You also mention in your introduction your ‘Elliptical’ coinage. It now boasts entries in Wikipedia and at least two recent literary handbooks - The Poetry Dictionary and A New Handbook of Literary Terms - and has poets expressing ambivalence about it being applied to their work. What do you feel are the values and limits of such labels?
It’s a label that was designed to draw attention to and help people read some of the Americans who seemed to be most original and most worth reading in the late 1990s, and I hope that it has served that purpose. I hoped that it would show what some of those poets had in common. I do think that people like Mark Levine, the Liam Rector of his first book (which someone ought to reissue by the way), Susan Wheeler, Lucie Brock-Broido, C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander and the Thylias Moss of the late 1990s had something in common. The interest in very busy textures, in sensory detail, in avoidance of doctrine, in avoidance of abstraction, in avoidance of narrative, in avoidance of autobiography, in being personal without being autobiographical, in poems made out of many fragments rather than out of one fragment as with someone like Creeley, or out of attempted wholes. I do think those were aesthetic goals that those writers had in common. Now, when you coin a term for a school, it gets people talking about the writers in that school, if it works properly, and about what those writers have in common. That’s why it’s worthwhile to try and coin these terms and I think that’s what M.L. Rosenthal, for example, was doing when he started talking about ‘confessionals’. The hazard, when terms for schools become popular, is that readers assume that the poets subsumed under that term had all their goals in common, which is not true of any group of poets you’d want to keep reading. The term can become a kind of straw man, but that’s OK. If people want to read the work C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido and Thylias Moss did in the
1990s and say, ‘You know, they actually weren’t that alike: they have many goals that they don’t share with one another’, then great, that’s true too.
So the important thing is to get people reading the poetry?
Yes. And a school, or a group, is never the most useful level of analysis for any poet or any poem that you’d want to keep re-reading. The poet’s own body of work, the individual poem, and the small group of related poems by one author or by many authors are always more useful, ultimately, than the school. But a so-called school can be a useful level of analysis if used rightly, whether it’s the 1930s school of Auden, or the capital-M Movement, or the capital-R Romantics.
There’s a very interesting essay in your new book tracing the legacy of Berryman. I was wondering how productive an influence you think someone like Berryman can be? You say elsewhere that Lowell’s Life Studies poems seemed easy to imitate but weren’t. Berryman’s work is perhaps easier to imitate in terms of extracting rhetorical formulas, and you mention how the fractured selves of The Dream Songs appeal to contemporary poets, but how can poets use this without moving into mannerism and repetition?
They’re poems that bare the self and its shameful impulses without - at least in 77 Dream Songs - telling connected stories or seeming like a memoir. It is quite mannered, and if you believe it’s possible or desirable for you as a poet to have very clear surfaces, sufaces that feel like memoir, then you’re not going to imitate Berryman and you’re not going to want to imitate Berryman. But if you believe everything’s artificial anyway; if you believe that every surface of every poem is a construction, only some poets are more celebratory, more self-conscious about the constructedness of their surfaces than others, and you would like to celebrate artificiality, and busy surfaces, and flaunted technique; and you would also like to demonstrate strong emotion and make your poems unmistakably personal, then you might want to imitate the Berryman of 77 Dream Songs in a way that you might not want to imitate Lowell or Bishop. I think that happened in many American poets, and some very good ones, of the 1990s, including Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Jo Bang of the book Louise in Love - which I admire and recommend - and Liz Waldner, whom I also recommend.
You mention, in more than one article, the ‘I am X, I am Y’ formula being a popular device among contemporary poets. This is interesting as it comes via Berryman, but I think he got it from Whitman (Berryman mentions Song of Myself as a key influence for The Dream Songs in interviews) and it is now being used to convey very different notions of selfhood.
Whitman is such a capacious source that you can, if you start looking, find a trajectory from Whitman to almost any American poet of significance after Whitman, except Frost. I am not certain how direct or how significant the influence of Whitman on Berryman could be said to be. It is perhaps mediated by Lowell, who begins writing Life Studies before Berryman begins writing the Dream Songs; it is perhaps mediated by Williams; it is perhaps mediated by the Beats who are a presence in culture before Berryman begins writing the Dream Songs: even though Berryman would not admit to being influenced directly by Howl, he must have read it. It is certainly mediated by Freud. The idea that one can get literature out of a delving into the recesses of the self and out of accretive association; that if one puts together say 40 apparently unrelated things that seem highly emotionally resonant to the author, they will add up into a picture of the secret depth of the self - that is available in Freud. Everyone that writes about Berryman at length has said this - Helen Vendler has said this, Thomas Travisano has said this, it seems at this point uncontroversially true - Berryman’s Dream Songs are Freudian. Whitman, of course, can’t be Freudian, but one can have Freudian readings of Whitman.
The reception history of Whitman, from our twenty-first-century point of view, or a late-twentieth-century point of view, is very strange, partly due to homophobia, but partly because people didn’t know how to describe what he was doing. Whitman did not seem - to the people who were reading Lord Weary’s Castle, to Marianne Moore, to the people who were starting to figure out how to read Marianne Moore, the people who were learning to read modern poetry from Eliot and Pound - as central to them as he seems to us. Pound has that memorable epigram about Whitman: ‘We have one sap and one root - / Let there be commerce between us’, and we read Pound’s reconciliation with Whitman now and we say ‘of course’. But that wasn’t an ‘of course’ for Pound’s readers. We read D.H. Lawrence on Whitman now in Studies in Classic American Literature and we say, ‘Well, you’re not fair to Whitman,’ but for Lawrence, that was an act of generosity. We read Donald Davie on Whitman and we scratch our heads. We still don’t have a sufficient vocabulary for describing Whitman’s forms. Perhaps it’s up to our era to really create one. If you read the people who were trying to explain what he was doing in the 1930s and 1940s, you find that the people who were most at the centre of innovation in poetry were struggling to explain why he was so good at what he was doing. This is true of the Charles-Olson-and-Robert-Creeley world in one way, and true of the East Coast establishment in another; where F.O. Matthiessen writes a chapter on Whitman in American Renaissance, it’s quite surprising how defensive he feels he has to be.
Going back to the initial question, I’m not sure how direct the influence of Whitman’s innovations on Berryman actually was. Berryman’s great discovery was perhaps that Whitman and Freud, to some extent, point in the same direction. Poets before Berryman and before Life Studies would not have been able to see the synergetic potential of Whitman and Freud.
You mention that many of the contemporary poets you admire have a ‘surface difficulty’ but also that ‘some of the most celebrated “difficult” poetry of the past ten years seems to [you] derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half’. How do you, personally, draw those distinctions?
Those are distinctions that critics have been drawing whenever they talk about a group of poets who have some features in common. Are you asking how I tell the difference between the writers who I think are the most passionate and interesting and endurable and the writers who appear in the same magazines and endorse the same theoretical goals whose poetry doesn’t appeal to me, doesn’t interest me?
Are you asking me to name difficult, celebrated senior Americans whose work I don’t like very much?!
No, I was wondering more what you look for in poetry which, as you say, is far from ‘prose sense’?
An ear, some sense of a musical line however dissonant, some sense of what Pound called melopoeia; a sense connects the words to one another in a way that takes account of, but is not restricted to, what the words mean; a sense of personality, a soul or a self, an inner-life, an emotional life; a person behind the poem that you would like to get to know through the poem; a sense of the integrity of a unique object, however fragmentary it appears to be; a sense that, as one rereads, one will learn more, one will discover more at once about how the aesthetic object is put together and about human life, to which the aesthetic object, whatever else it does, ultimately responds. Those are my criteria - as particular as I can make them - for the judgement of poems generally. I think they’re quite as valid for the judgement of works of art made recently as for works of art from the distant past.
Is that sense of self what you admire in Jarrell’s work?
Yes, sure. I think the sense that there is a person back there, there is someone in there, as it were, is in Jarrell. And that’s a person who is unusually interested in other people and how they speak, but there is a person in there. We find it in Keats, we find it in Wordsworth, I think we find it in C.D. Wright. I think we find it in Richard Wilbur, and he’s a person who’s unusually interested in smooth surfaces, in prettiness, in ways we can all get along. We find it in Bishop; we find it in Donne, and that’s a person who is unusually interested in inner-drama and violence; we find it in Rae Armantrout, in whose poems we discover a person who’s interested in how we don’t get along, how we grate on each other, how the world seems not to make sense. Often with the poets who some of my colleagues and friends praise, poets who are also difficult - as difficult in their surfaces as, say, Rae Armantrout - I don’t sense that there is an interesting person in the poems. There may be an interesting person in the poet; someone whose criticism is perhaps provocative or thoughtful, but the poems of the celebrated difficult poets whom I don’t like much don’t give me a sense that, as I re-read them, I’m going to see farther and farther into a person, nor the world that the language is ultimately about, the world where we find our happiness or not at all, as Wordsworth says. I should add that the ways we are given by the academy of talking about difficult poets, poets in modernist traditions, are often ways that emphasise disjunctions, confutations, breaks with the past. Those are useful ways, but the poets we’re going to continue reading, however modernist they remain, are also poets that have something in common with Wordsworth and George Herbert and with, ultimately, Catullus and Sappho, and - not to be Western-centric - with the Vedas, I suppose, or with Li Po. There does seem to be some component of what we call poetry that is shared across many human cultures, once those cultures develop writing and are able to write down words to what once were songs, even as there are many other components that are culturally specific. As critics taking long perspectives, I think we ought to keep in mind both the potential that whatever we’re writing about is specific to one culture and one moment and the potential that whatever we’re writing about in fact ties us to cultures distant in time and space.
You call your book an ‘American book’ as it omits, for the most part, essays on poets whose work is unavailable in the US - do you think there’s currently a break in Anglo-American poetic relations?
Yes there is. I wish there were not. American poetry would be better and more various as a body of work if American poets read more British poets. Although it would also be better and more various as a body of work, I’m sure, if more American poets read Korean poets and Hungarian poets, but with British poets at least it’s in English - you can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t read Hungarian.’ All you have to do is find the books, which is harder than it used to be and harder than it ought to be, and I’m working on it. I was asked by Graywolf, my American publisher, for very understandable reasons, to exclude almost all essays about British poets for British audiences where the poets were not known, not yet published or, in some cases, no longer published in the United States. I could have put in, and would have been delighted to put in, the writing I’ve done on Robert Minhinnick, Craig Raine, David Constantine, Lavinia Greenlaw. There are a number of other current poets writing in Britain who do not have American audiences yet, about whom I have written at length, for British audiences, or on whom I would like to write, might write soon. I hope that when the next such book is made, if we all live long enough and we’re not under three feet of water due to climate change, that book will collect the essays I’ve already written and the essays I have yet to write about more British poets who are not known at all in the US. And there are exceptions: Denise Riley does get discussed in Close Calls. It’s crazy that she doesn’t have more of an American audience, especially as the American audience she most ought to have is this avant-garde audience that wants to read poets who have been reading and writing theory. Her theory books are better than just about anybody else’s, partly because she is interested in the fact that we are people who speak to one another, rather than being merely cultural constructions. I am a creature of my economic circumstances and of my biology, and of my family background and so on, and yet I am a creature who experiences myself as having a choice about what to say. Riley gets both sides of that coin at once, rather than insisting it’s all heads or all tails: she’s better on that dilemma than just about any other writer I know who ‘does’ theory, in prose or in verse, and it’s just nuts that Americans haven’t noticed that. I wonder whether if more people were noticing how she’d done that in her poems, she’d be writing more poems. She appears only to be writing essays right now. Anyway, my generous American publishers were happy to let me raise my voice a bit about how we should all be reading Denise Riley.
What’s your next project?
For better or worse, there are several. I’m writing half a book about how to read 100 sonnets, from the sixteenth century of Wyatt and Surrey and Sidney to the twenty-first century, with (among other poets) D.A. Powell: the American scholar and critic David Mikics is now at work on the other half. We’ll be done soon. The book serves as both an anthology, and a kind of critical how-to guide: some of the sonnets are well-known (‘Surprised by joy’, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint’, ‘Leda and the Swan’) and some not famous at all, or at least never taught, though you can find them in one or two other anthologies (Joseph Blanco White, Leigh Hunt, F.G. Tuckerman, the present-day avant-garde sonnet-writer Tony Lopez, the New Zealand visionary writer Michele Leggott).
There should be a new collection of poems ready for editors to sort through, and ready for me to rearrange, this calendar year (2009). I didn’t think I had been writing poems very fast, nor very productively, since Parallel Play, but when I look now, I seem to have almost enough poems for a new book, even when I exclude the poems I’ve published somewhere but don’t much like anymore. It helps very much, for critics and for poets, to feel that when you’ve written something a journal you like will take an interest in it; PNR has been as helpful to me in that respect (and not only to me) as any magazine anywhere has ever been.
There’s also a longer, more academic, critical book about poets and regions and places: regionalism, locality, geography as it relates to modern poetry is perhaps an overfamiliar topic in Britain, but in American poetry less so: some of my favourite modern American poets have learned to write as they do by looking at a particular region or locality, by listening to how the people there speak, even by literally walking around it. There’s a chapter on Wallace Stevens and Connecticut; there’s a chapter on Donald Revell, who changed his style - changed his whole world-view, really - when he left the American Northeast, and again when he settled in the desert Southwest. There may be something about C.D. Wright, something about the African-American poets of Washington, D.C., who at this point form their own line of worthwhile work, overshadowed even in America by ideas about a national African-American tradition, by Chicago and by New York. I’ve also been thinking about geography and topography in the early Auden - how the shapes of those mountains and mines become the verbal shapes within the poems.
And then there are the usual commissioned essays, shorter topics to explore, new poets to introduce - something about younger American poets who want to make short, durable, neo-classical, object-like poems, which should be in Boston Review by the time this interview appears, an introduction to a new selection of poems from F.G. Tuckerman, some long essays about science fiction (on which I now teach a course), though probably not a whole book about it. We’ll see.
This interview is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.