"...the harder it is to make sense of the poem initially, the more likely it is that some background will help."

More Perihelion:

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Issue 5: Phoenix

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

Book Reviews

Need to Know



A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Valarie Duff

Nick Flynn

Jim Behrle

Fred Marchant

Jacob Strautmann

Vera Kroms

Henry Israeli

Daniel Gutstein

Joyelle McSweeney

David Dodd Lee

Daniel Bosch

Michael Perrow

Luljeta Lleshanaku

Miklós Radnóti

Nikolai Baitov

Drago Stambuk

Zafer Senocak

Anatomy of a Text: A Conversation With Stephen Burt

Interview by
Joan Houlihan

Stephen Burt,who is quickly becoming a major poetry critic, is Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he teaches modern and contemporary American literature and the reading and writing of poetry. His first book of poetry, Popular Music, was published by the Center for Literary Publishing/ University Press of Colorado in 1999. Randall Jarrell and His Age is forthcoming from Columbia University Press, Fall 2002 (tentative). His essays have appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Boston Review, Popwatch, Thumbscrew, and the Yale Review, among other journals, and his poems in AGNI, Boston Review, Fence, Metre, Del Sol Review, and PN Review. He frequently reviews new poetry for a variety of journals.

Steve, which came first: writing poetry or writing poetry criticism?

I wrote poems for fun at age thirteen or fourteen, so in the most important sense that came first. I wrote about other people's verse for collegiate journals before those journals published my poems, and repeated that sequence with grownup or real-world journals, so in another sense, the essays came first.

Do you feel that being a poet yourself helps your work as a critic?

Sure. The kind of criticism I like to write, and most of the kinds I like to read, examine how and why poems come together, how an "emotional machine made of words" (in William Carlos Williams' phrase) operates; it helps to have built, or tried to build, a few machines oneself. The English critic and scholar F. W. Bateson opined that all poetry critics should, at some point, have tried to write poems, whether or not the poems were any good (and whether or not they continue to write verse). I think I'd subscribe to that.

I have a series of questions for you that revolve around your role as a poetry critic. In a paper you delivered at a Poetry Society of America conference titled 'Poetry Criticism, what is it for?' you sum up the role of poetry criticism in this way:

Poetry criticism might be defined as all the kinds of writing whose immediate effect is to help people read poems - poems that help us, as Samuel Johnson put it, "better to enjoy life or else better to endure it."

To help people read poems that will in turn help them in life—this is something of an altruistic view, the critic-as-teacher. There are other roles of a poetry critic--for example, advertiser (book blurbing and book reviewing), tastemaker (influence of opinion), and gatekeeper (what you review or ignore, and negative vs positive reviews). Do you think these roles are peripheral to the main business of critique? Are they something you care about? Or, to use a hyperbolic analogy, do you feel as Oppenheimer felt about his work on the A-bomb, that the work of the critic is 'pure' and that whatever good or evil people choose to do with your opinions is outside your ken?

All those roles are—or ought to be—part of helping people read poems. A book review tries to say (implicitly or explicitly) who will likely enjoy the book, and how, and why. Tastemakers by definition are people whose help in selecting, reading, enjoying art works—in this case, poetical works— many people solicit. (They may solicit those particular tastemakers' judgements for good reasons or for bad.) The 'gatekeeper' function—which, by the way, editors and publishers exercise more, and more often, than critics—involves deciding what's worth attention: what poems and poets matter, what's good, what's new, and, sometimes, what rubbish needs to be cleared out of the way to make space for the next, or newest, good stuff.

That said, most writers don't mind wide public notice: I certainly wouldn't. I think it's important that a wide range of smart readers and reading styles appear in public spaces (book reviewing, prize juries, etc.): I'd hate to see any one way of reading drive out all the others.

Regarding the gatekeeper role, it seems there is something of a chicken-egg situation here. To sell (or elevate in status) their magazines, editors often seek to publish “names”, names made by critical attention and previous publication. For example, the New Yorker’s poetry editor mainly functions as a poetry Hall of Fame curator. Does your definition of “help” include your influence as to who gets published/read/bought, and so on?

You're right about the chicken-and-egg situation. Of course, help in making new poets available includes, directly and indirectly, helping those poets get published. In poetry as in all the arts there exists a vicious (or virtuous) circle by which the more exposure you get, the easier it is to get exposure, and conversely the more obscure you are, the more obscure you're likely to remain. Critics should try to alleviate that viciousness by going out of their way to consider poets who haven't come up through the usual channels, or poets whose work isn't easy to find. They can't, however, destroy the circle completely, nor perhaps should they try. Do you want a poetry culture without any prizes or anonymous contests, or one in which no publishers and no editors cared what any critic said? Such a world might be worse than the one we know: for one thing, it would certainly be more sales-driven.

Since poetry criticism is not objective, how do you justify trying to persuade a reader to your point of view regarding a particular poet's work? What are the factors that drive you to persuade a reader?

I try to present one way of understanding some poem as attractively and as articulately as I can; a reader who has seen that poem in some other way can then choose between her previous view and mine, or try to integrate the two.

Do you think there is a climate of over-praising in contemporary poetry?

Yes, though it's hard to say how we could get rid of it. If you read poetry reviews from the early 20th century, you'll see just as many puff pieces as you will today, but you might also see more negative reviews—think of the way new novels get treated now.

Do you feel that the critic has a responsibility to guide public taste?

The critic, like the non-critic, has a responsibility to act honestly and justly to the best of her abilities: that includes taking out the trash, doing the dishes, and not saying things she doesn't believe. A literary critic who wants to do more specialized or scholarly work has no responsibility at all to guide or influence public taste: it may be a vocation, but it's not a duty.

The Disappearance of Self from Postmodern Poetry

Again from the PSA conference, you make the following observation about the role of the critic:

Behind all these tasks [of the poetry critic] - justifying them - is an assumption that we finally do have, at least from moment to moment, something like a self, or a soul, or a consciousness that remembers and emotes: and that it wants to encounter other selves, which it can do in a special, aesthetically rewarding way through poetry; and which it may have some difficulty in doing, so that more-or-less specialized interpretive work can help.

I agree with the desire of a reader to encounter other selves. But I see many contemporary poems with no 'self' as I'm sure you do. Do you think it's possible for 'self-less' poems to connect to the reader in any deep way?

Not to this reader. I do enjoy, as I'm sure you do too, many poems whose notion of person, speaker, self, seems very distant from my own. For me, a new or interesting or memorable expression of selfhood in language has value per se (in poetry or in any other art form). Not everyone shares that view: many poets and readers are unsatisfied unless they feel that there's moral or social improvement involved. We often hear, by the way, that the notion of poems as representations of speakers' inner psyches comes about only with Romanticism. As far as I can tell that's mostly wrong. There's a very attractive book of criticism, Anne Ferry's The 'Inward' Voice, which explains how Renaissance English lyric comes up with a self before it has the discursive terms to describe it. I should also say that plenty of poems don't foreground the self or the speaker, nor do their overall structures correspond to somebody's model of selfhood: these poems comprise all the genres (some obsolete or obsolescent) which are not lyric—in particular, narrative and discursive poetry, which a few contemporary poets continue to write well. One of my favorite book-length poems is Les Murray's Fredy Neptune, which is a very long narrative poem about sailors, wars, superheroes, the movies, genocide, Catholic belief, and all sorts of other ideas and events. Its structure doesn't (as the structures in, say, Hejinian's My Life or Merrill's Book of Ephraim do) say anything interesting about its author's psyche. And yet it sounds like Murray in every line.

The Ellipticals

In an essay in American Letters and Commentary (Issue #11), you coined the term “Elliptical Poets” and used it to describe such poets as Mark Levine, Karen Volkman, Forrest Gander, Lucie Brock-Broido, Liam Rector, Jorie Graham, among others. Some Ellipticals (Graham and Wheeler, for example) could easily be claimed by the language poets for their consistent use of non-sense and verbal surfaces. What characteristic(s) do you think make ellipticals different from the language poets (or language writers as I see them called now)?

Self-identified language writers don't claim Graham or Wheeler for their group, though, do they? A, if not the, major difference here is that Graham always and Wheeler usually seem to limn or adumbrate one person's subjectivity, in poems whose beginnings and ends correspond to the boundaries of an identity, and whose phrases evoke personal emotions, without trying to undermine or attack those emotions' apparently personal source. By contrast, the folks who get called language writers mostly don't want, and say they don't want, poems which explore the vicissitudes of a particular personality for exploration's sake. Instead they often want, or say they want, to deflect attention from the self a poem supposedly represents, onto the social forces and networks which make up that self, and which (it is often claimed) language writing sets out to demystify, transform or expose. The poets I like who emerged from language writing—and I'm thinking especially of Rae Armantrout—do, of course, have individual personalities which come through in their writing, but the writing is constantly asking you not to interpret a poem as mere representation of personality—we are asked to see the poem instead as an investigation of transpersonal cultural forces, or as some sort of deconstructive wrench thrown into preexisting concepts. Often such poems depend very heavily on the lyrical or subjective poems they refuse to be: you can see this in the parodies of "mainstream" lyric language writers used to produce. Compare Armantrout's 1985 parody of William Stafford ("Traveling Through the Yard") to Levine's 1992 parody of "Dover Beach": the first is designed to tear down a mystified, bourgeois idea of the self (as a sympathetic reader might have said at the time); the second, though it incorporates social critique, sets the poet up as a Byronic personality, one we can come to know.

They are not actually claimed by language writers, or self-identify that way, but from the reader’s point of view there are many similarities in the look, feel, and effect of such poems. Do you think the reader of a poem needs to know the philosophy/aesthetic beliefs of the poet in order to understand, enjoy, and/or appreciate the poem?

No, but sometimes it helps: the harder it is to make sense of the poem initially, the more likely it is that some background will help. It's important to realize that you do know, un- or semi-consciously, the philosophy and aesthetic beliefs which underpin the poems you already enjoy, and the poems you like the first time you see them. In order to tell, for example, good 1960s confessional lyric from bad, or an especially well-made section of Tennyson's "In Memoriam" from a relatively ordinary one, you have to have some idea and some level of sympathy for what a confessional poem, or a Victorian meditative poem about grief and memory, is trying to do. So this question about aesthetic beliefs isn't confined to new, or difficult, or annoying poetry, though very difficult poems (and their supporters) are more likely to make that question visible.

I should add that some poems and some poets strike me as bad because I find their aesthetic programs dull or not worth carrying out; others strike me as bad or disappointing even though I like the kind of poem, the aesthetic project, the poem tries to be. These are two different ways of rejecting a poem, and necessitate different kinds of explanations, when one is asked to explain one's dislike.

Other Ellipticals (Rector, Brock-Broido—starting with The Master Letters, Levine, Volkmann, April Bernard, Forrest Gander, for example) while readily sacrificing sense to the power of the lyric, still manage to produce coherent work, even when the work resists interpretation. Someone like Rae Armantrout, for example, is extremely coded but somehow is not 'incoherent'. How do you review or critique work that seems to you incoherent? Do you assume that enough diligence and time spent will yield coherence? If not, do you attribute this lack to yourself or to the poem? Or is lack of coherence not an issue for you? If not, why not?

Armantrout's poetry and Mark Levine's (for example) excite me for some of the same reasons, but I wouldn't count Armantrout as Elliptical: she quite clearly emerged from the language writing community in the Bay Area in the 1970s, and her work even now bears the marks of those origins— it's far more self-skeptical, willfully abstract, always gesturing away from the speaking 'I' toward the discourses of which it may be composed. She really believes her voice is a social artifact, and strives to break it apart. Someone like Levine, on the other hand, suspects that he's socially constructed, preprogrammed, etc., but doesn't write on the confirmed belief that he is. On the other hand, of course, Armantrout gives that self-skeptical attitude durable shapes which reflect a personality—that's why her poems work, for me, so well.

That doesn't speak to your question about incoherence, which I ought to answer. I don't enjoy works that don't make sense to me, or 'cohere,' at all: I often enjoy teasing, slippery, difficult works, and I reread them until I (a) have a better sense of how they work and what they do, or else (b) decide there's not as much beneath those complex surfaces as I had thought. I can never know with complete certainty (nor can you) whether I've dismissed as incoherent a poem which, looked at more closely, would have disclosed some valuable secrets; the same is true of difficult works in any other art. One tries them out, considers them, and moves on.

I believe that I know when something is incoherent. And I have no trouble dismissing incoherent poems. Dipping practically anywhere into the last issue of Fence, for example, I can easily find such a poem. Here’s the first stanza of “Three Meals” by Brian Engel:

    A large nose can do nothing for itself;
    lifts a hand to distract the dog, remove
    a little devil from burning our back.
    If you would please stop coughing and recall
    the watered leaf where you sat and watched nice
    legs, as if the wind slid black fingers
    off one building’s side

                                         To somewhere else.

I am already fairly certain this poem in its entirety will not make sense, but scan it anyway to be sure. Also, though I like the last line in this stanza (“..as if the wind..”) I see that, in general, particular lines will not redeem its lack of overall coherence with a moment-to-moment interest. Therefore, I won’t spend any time with it. Only a few others in the same issue, such as Martha Rhodes’ “A Progression” can stretch coherence without breaking it, and I find that of definite interest.

Steve, how do you decide what’s worth trying out, or not?

Alas, there can be no general rule for such things. I think you've shown how you decide in describing your own reading process: I'm not sure my decision procedure differs much from yours, though its results can.

To put it another way, do you think a series of unconnected lines, if they're interesting enough, constitute a worthwhile, successful, poem?

No, because if they work as a poem—as one poem, rather than as a handful of neat lines—then someone has succeeded in connecting them. Of course, the successful connector may be the reader, more or rather than the writer: these questions get to the larger, older question of where poems exist, on paper or in the reader's head, and the answer in some ways is always the head. Stanley Fish and several other academic critics in the 1970s made entire careers from these questions, which are so general (and so bound up with minutiae of cognitive psychology and philosophy) that they don't often help us read particular poems.

Yes, the issue of a connector is hovering around many of these poetic discussions (including ours). To be helpful to readers of particular poems, perhaps the reader should take a purely pragmatic point of view: that a series of lines should seem “connectable” to a majority of reasonably well-read readers to qualify as more than a “handful of neat lines”? For example, browsing through an issue of the Boston Review, I came across this:


After the double party
for the poorly loved

when the gleam in the hound's eye
fell like glass rain on the south

lawn of the countergarden, when
the image of false flags sank

in the mirrored plaques,
when the mirrored plaques

had been passed in, they took
your days and gave them back,

before you unsnapped first
the crenellated shoulder wings

then the fumbling then the little
ankle wings and sent them back

to the wing patrol, in the box,

in the metal box, in the genital
mouth of the rose (the open forms

of the state left so
undone that you were stranded

on the nonimperial coast having
a boat unnamed for you)

you were free, you were
having a bout of meaning

There are three more sections to this poem (“Air of Mercury” by Brenda Hillman), but they do not add anything to my understanding of the poem, which is nil. The poem as a whole neither changes, in the sense of exhibiting any dramatic tension, nor coheres. Nor do the individual lines seem especially interesting. How do you decide whether or not such a poem succeeds?

You've enunciated criteria I'll endorse, even if I'm not sure I'd apply them as you have. A poem which lacks dramatic (or any other) sort of coherence, and one whose individual lines lack special interest, can't possibly be (for me) a poem which succeeds. The question then becomes: how much am I willing to "read into" the poem? how much am I willing to give a poet, or poem, the benefit of the doubt? how much narrative or argumentative or intellective work am I willing to perform in order to make some lines which sound good seem to fit together? What would be my test of whether an interpretation I've ventured succeeds, or fits? And, once again, there can be no good general answer. Given a fairly difficult (or, better, "disjunctive") poem D, readers who like D accuse the readers who don't like D of intellectual laziness, or of an incapacity to appreciate new (perhaps nondramatic or non-lyrical) forms. And readers who dislike D accuse readers who like it of showing off, of projecting clothes onto naked emperors, of discovering within D only what they brought to it from outside. Such debates can only be resolved with reference to individual poems: does the interpretive effort you're asked to make, in a given case, bring you something worth having, some aesthetic (or other) reward? On the evidence available to you (if you haven't yet made that effort), do you think it might?

A reader—let's call her R1—who loved Hillman's lines and wanted them to cohere might claim, for example, that they described, quite movingly, a dejected, middle-aged speaker's solitude. There's been a "double party" in honor of an acquaintance— perhaps two acquaintances, a married couple; their marriage is in trouble, or their friends don't really care for them (they're "poorly loved"). The party has ended; the speaker stands outdoors, alone (compare Melville's "After the Pleasure Party"). She's contemplating her past, and the people she's known ("they took/ your days and gave them back"); she's standing on the patio, where the shiny flagstones remind her both of mirrors and of commemorative plaques. We are perhaps in a garden with roses and little statues: the roses make her think of sex, as roses will, while the statues remind her of angels on Renaissance sculptures (with "crenellated shoulder wings"). The whole scene with its retrospective, elegiac mood reminds her of childhood, when she put together and took apart toys: perhaps she can take apart and reassemble her life here, too. The rain, and the solitude, and her marginal status, then make her think of the sea. Is she, perhaps, as unloved or unhappy as the "poorly loved" couple whose party she has attended? Would she like to escape—to her past, to some other life, like (say) Viola in Twelfth Night, who ends up on a "nonimperial coast"? Is she truly "free" when she is social, or only when (as now) she is alone?

Another reader, R2, might tell you that Hillman's poem (or this section of it) invited such lyrical, personal, retrospective interpretations in order to resist them: poets and readers are "free," R2 might insist, only when "a bout of meaning" liberates them from any particular narrative or situation in which a life must be understood. To try to place the speaker somewhere, at sometime, is the sort of "imperial" gesture Hillman, with her "boat unnamed," now wants her poetics to get us away from: we should move with the poem toward some non-place of non-discursive, non-local meaning, where no "false flags" place us here rather than there. The hints of location (the party, the garden, the angels) are themselves "false flags" for us to reject. If I liked those lines an awful lot, which I don't, I would reread them until I felt fairly sure that one of those interpretations (either R1's or R2's or some other reading) explained how the poem worked, and what it could do—or until I stopped liking the poem, perhaps because I decided it didn't make sense after all, could not confirm or deny any sort of reading (even one as generous as R2). In practice, the question of how and how well a difficult poem solicits me—how and when a poem invites me to reread—is often a matter of sound. If the poem sounds good, if the local deployments of language interest me, I'll look for meaning and structure, person and sense; if not, not.

Since we're talking about how to talk about ambiguities, and about what critics can do with bad poems, may I conclude by quoting Empson? This is from the introduction to Seven Types of Ambiguity: Empson is explaining why almost all his examples come from poems he admires: he writes that "you might say that… as much is to be learnt from saying why bad poems are bad. This would be true if the field were of a known size; if you knew the ways in which a poem might be good, there would be a chance of seeing why it had failed. But in fact you must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good; if it fails you cannot know its object; and it would be trivial to explain why it had failed at something it was not trying to achieve. Of course, it may succeed in doing something that you understand and hate, and you may then explain your hatred; but all you can explain about the poem is its success. And even then, you can only have understood the poem by a stirring of the imagination, by something like an enjoyment of it from which you afterwards revolt in your own mind. It is more self-centred, therefore, and so less reliable, to write about the poems you have thought bad than about the poems you have thought good." Thanks again for the chance to do this interview: I very much enjoyed your detailed questions.

Steve, thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights with Perihelion.

See Steve on the Web for a complete list of publications and links to many of Stephen Burt's articles online.