I began 2017 with the firm intention to educate myself more thoroughly about the world of poetry. Though I didn’t specify it, what I meant at the time was to educate myself about the modern world of poetry. Like most everyone, I suffered through schooling focused on poetry that felt antiquated, from Shakespeare to Donne–poetry that felt too wrapped up in meter and required rhyme to stir or arouse me in any but the most basic, scholastic way.
Modern poetry excites me. And yet I know cuttingly little about it. The names William Carlos Williams and Jorie Graham float at the edge of my understanding–the barest of acquaintances. I want to bring them into the light, and yet, just ordering an anthology of their greatest works feels like a thin way too pursue true understanding. What world, what trends and influences and movements in the realm of poetry were happening at the time that these writers put pen to page? How did they come to write the poems they wrote in the way that they wrote them?
To answer those questions, I’ve found Stephen Burt. Burt is a professor at Harvard and the cynosure of poetry criticism. He has two popular books on modern poetry: Close Calls with Nonsense and The Poem is You. I’ve procured both. Close Calls with Nonsense is a collection of 30 essays on poetry. 27 of these essays are critical reviews and biographies of modern poets and their works. The other three include the introduction, Burt’s essay on Elliptical Poets–a “school” of poetry he coined–and an aphoristic essay on poetry at large to cap off the book.
The introduction deserves particular attention and praise, as it may be the single most edifying section of the book–at least for those new to the poetry world. I’ve read a few reviews of Close Calls with Nonsense and most of them praise the book as a good introduction to poetry for those who are relatively unfamiliar with it. In the best way possible, I have to respectfully disagree. This is a thick tome that delves deep into the world of poetry in a scholarly way. Throughout the book Burt waxes about lyric, romantic poetry (as though the reader is intimately familiar with what this is) and things like poems with “involuted syntax and…rococo associative armatures.” To his credit, he does a good deal of work explaining certain concepts, like confessional poetry, but there is much he assumes the reader already knows. This is not a book for beginners.
Having said that, the introduction to this book and part one–which feels like a second introduction– are a great place to start for an eager beginner. Burt drops heavy analysis for a cogent presentation of modern poetry at large and how to go about reading it. In fact, on page 11 he actually provides a long descriptive list of strategies to use when reading poetry, all of which I found very useful. In addition to that, here are a few gems from these sections:
“People and their inner lives have common features over time and…poets describe them.”
“In saying why this poem works and that poem doesn’t, we draw finally on our sense of what life is like.”
“…the business of critics is not to assign stars, or to pick winners in poet vs. poet contests. It is to say what interests us, what seems trustworthy, inventive, memorable, new; to say, when appropriate, why a work fails; to show how we read, what we choose to reread, and why.”
If we consider that everyone who reads is also a critic, the last quote becomes particularly meaningful.
What follows is a series of essays on specific poets from a broad range of writing styles and time periods, from the verbose to the very abstract to the laconic, and from the early 1900s to the 2000s. Each essay is part book review, part biography, and part praise. It’s clear that these are all poets Burt enjoys reading, though happily he’s not afraid to point out their faults, such as James K. Baxter’s sometimes preachiness or William Carlos William’s fall into the saccharine. Each essay paints a clear, sharp picture of each poet and their work with in-depth analysis of their poetics. He discusses things like diction, line breaks and caesuras, tone, pace and density, in short the nature of how each poet works with language to create their work. As a poet, I found it fascinating. Burt uses incisive language–I constantly found myself looking up words and finding his word choices to be immensely accurate.
The only frustration I found while pouring through this tome–and it is a tome–was that I either wanted to jump ship during a chapter on a poet whose work was obviously not for me–Liz Waldner, for example–or that I wanted to put the book down and begin reading the poet’s work, which happened for me during the very first essay.
Randall Jarrell’s “defense of poetry” is often quoted; Burt himself quotes it in part one. He asserts that “poetry doesn’t need to be defended, it needs to be read.” At its core, Close Call with Nonsense is manual for reading and enjoying poetry, for garnering modern poetry more readers, more critics. Though I am not a new convert, it has expanded my view of modern poetry immeasurably. My reading list has grown considerably since reading this book, a fact which I expect would make Burt quite happy.