Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry
by Stephen Burt
Reviewed by Stephen Sossaman
On February 25, 2010, Stephen Burt was one of two poets at a Fordham University reading in its Poets Out Loud series. He read several of his own poems with an urgent, restless intensity, which seemed fitting for an energetic poet and reviewer who has published almost a hundred reviews in fifteen years. No one could possibly keep up with all of the new poets, presses and movements, but Stephen Burt is trying.
His latest collection of essays and reviews, Close Calls with Nonsense, will introduce more readers to several lesser known poets, such as Laura Kasischke, Liz Waldner, Juan Felipe Herrera, New Zealand's James K. Baxter, D. A. Powell, Allen Peterson, Terence Hayes, Donald Revell, August Kleinzahler, and H. L. Hix. Burt also critiques several poets whose work he sees as partly coming from John Berryman (Mary Jo Bang, Mark Levine, Susan Wheeler, Kevin Young, and Lucie Brock-Broido).
At the Fordham reading, Burt pointed out that Paul Muldoon was in the back of the room. Two of the best essays in Close Calls with Nonsense ("Paul Muldoon, Early" and "Paul Muldoon, Late") are astute admirations of the various stages and styles of Muldoon's work, although one suspects that Burt's desire to be publicly supportive of poets in general would have kicked in even if he were not a careful reader and legitimate admirer of Muldoon. Anyone tempted to dismiss Muldoon as a mere show-off would do well to read Burt's two essays that convincingly instantiate his assertion that Muldoon is "one of the best poets alive" (p. 224).
Burt's acknowledged purpose as a critic is to build poetry readership for contemporary lyric poetry by offering some general advice on reading disparate works, by alerting us to worthwhile new voices, and by praising more poets than most of us are able to read. He writes almost exclusively about American poets. All of his essays explore poetry that he has been glad to read, he says, and come from "an interest in poems, as against an interest in poetry." His reviews are thoughtful and well-informed, but perhaps even more useful to poets are his overview of the development of contemporary poetry; his advice for reading poets whose work seems ambiguous, cryptic, fragmented, or inconclusive; and his provocative concluding section ("Without Evidence") of gnomic observations about poetry. One example is "To do a poem justice, explain what makes it unique; to get a poem noticed, explain what makes it typical."
While he concentrates on the laudable, Burt is not oblivious to common problems of contemporary poetry. Without naming names, he singles out "technical failure, amusia, useless dissonance, clashing figures of speech, semantic redundancy, and other problems of the sort that get hashed out in creative writing classrooms." He salts his positive reviews with an occasional sotto voce warning, although these are usually phrased as weaknesses in the reader rather than in the poems, or as weaknesses that are really strengths of a sort. What might appear to be problems in the poetry sometimes turn out to be problems in the reader. Towards the end of a perceptive, positive and obviously well informed essay on the poems of Rae Armantrout, for example, Burt suggests that her poetry "is not for everyone: it's usually dissonant; almost never mellifluous, unambiguous, or strongly narrative…" He notes that parts can seem opaque, that "it can be hard to know" why some poems are arranged as they are. Mary Leader's poems "can sound amateurish in both the good and bad senses of that word."
Elsewhere Burt delivers a modest criticism of John Ashbery, a poet he admires and often alludes to, characteristically sandwiching the criticism between two compliments. "No modern poetry half so original" as Ashbery's recent work "incorporates half so many cliches." He finds five cliches in seven lines, but excuses them as reminders that we inherit and bequeath both good and bad language.
In his essay on Armantrout, as in others, Burt is skilled at exegesis and even better at fitting the poet into the typology of American poetry, alerting readers to his identification of the most decisive influences on the poet being discussed. Burt sometimes dares to go even further, actually ranking multiple influences. Armantrout's work, he says, comes out of W. C. Williams, Dickinson, Oppen, Niedecker, Creeley, and Levertov, "in that order."
A professor of English at Harvard, Burt uses his academic training and his breadth of reading well. He never reviews poets in vacuo, letting us know instead which other poets have similar sensibilities and styles, and who is the poetic heir of whom, a useful way for us to know which poets we are likely to find to our taste and which ones might expand our range. Influence is notoriously difficult to isolate in a meaningful way, but Burt is alert to echoes and shadows.
While he emphasizes new poets, one strength of this book is his revaluation of poets already in the canon, including James Merrill, Lorine Niedecker, Richard Wilbur, Frank O'Hara, Thom Gunn, Robert Creeley, A.R. Ammons, Stanley Kunitz, and Les Murray. Burt's essays blend biography and analysis well. Aside from his intense interest in who has influenced whom, Burt writes about poets for a popular rather than an academic audience.
The other poet at the Fordham event, Eamon Grennan, complimented Burt for his poems' being jumpy, for their unanticipated zig zag movements. The essays in Close Calls with Nonsense, which takes its name from his blog, show a more traditional structure, conversational ease, and linear development than the poems he read.
Stephen Burt looks for occasions to praise momentary revelations of "what it is like to be a particular person" (p. xi), because he says his essays are like social introductions, meant to make new friends. Unlike William Logan, whose reviews are alert first to failures, Burt reads poems to find their successes. In one blog entry not reprinted in Close Calls with Nonsense, he pauses to ask "What else should be praised?" and then answers the question. Both approaches are healthy for poetry. Because Burt starts afresh with each poem itself rather than with established principles, Close Calls with Nonsense contains myriad observations about craft and technique that should prove illuminating and useful for poets as poets, not just as readers.
Stephen Sossaman is Emeritus Professor at Westfield State College in Massachusetts. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Humanities Review, and other journals. He is also the author of Writing Your First Play (Pearson, 2001).
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.