November 29, 2019KR Reviews

On Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt

New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019. 320 pages. $28.00.

“I started to write this book,” Stephanie Burt writes in the introduction to her new book of prose, Don’t Read Poetry, “because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing.” Students may love that thing, or not, she says, and conclude that poetry is or isn’t for them, which is like “hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music.” In other words, don’t read poetry, read poems. The book explores six emphases—feelings, characters, forms, difficulty, wisdom, community—that you can have in mind while you read, discussing poems by Elizabeth Arnold, Terrance Hayes, Craig Santos Perez, Diane Seuss, and others in a fast-paced, chattily didactic style.

Burt’s insistence that poetry isn’t just “one thing” is refreshing, since a lot of talk about poetry leaves out most of poetry. It may be particularly useful for readers (and writers) who wish to be both responsive to the current moment and open to the literature we’ll need in the decades ahead. Those works may look very different from the ones that seem most significant today, and they may relate to the past in ways we couldn’t predict. Relevance, thus, isn’t just about responding to contemporary names and debates but being up for where the conversation goes next; teachers of creative writing, in particular, should try to help students engage with the present in ways that will be useful when the present shifts. This is tricky, in 2019, because critiques of canonicity can blur into critiques of continuity; historical or formalist readings can be met with suspicion because of everything they leave out despite what they uniquely identify. Burt is an apt guide for this moment, because her criticism has often included both historical sweep and skepticism about history’s conventional distinctions.

In 2015, when she began writing the book, Burt says, “the dominant conversations around American poetry had begun to shift from sometimes abstract arguments about language, meaning, and sense toward questions about race and audience, about how to hear new voices and performance traditions, and about structural social problems that poems alone could never solve.” While poetry can’t end political atrocities, she says, “its effect on people—and not just on me—are real.” Her defense of poetry is both remarkably traditional and applicable to today: “The reasons we have for reading and rereading one or another poem—for its shared feelings, for its sense of other people’s humanity, for its demonstration of what human beings can make and do—are, at least some of the time, the same reasons we pay attention to real other people, alone or in groups.” She suggests that “you can adopt, or adapt” poems from other contexts to help in your life.

This is an argument about use: reading John Donne can be useful, even if your biographical and historical circumstances differ from his. It may relate to appropriation in its older, more Marxist sense, pertaining to the creation of subculture, rather than to mainstream exploitation. “You do not have everything in common with Catullus,” Burt writes, and yet his poems “are verbal models for the feelings they represent, and some of those feelings appear to have survived.” That “appear to” is important. Burt doesn’t say feelings are experienced the same way across time or that feelings are identical to their verbal models, but that poems offer apparitions we can measure ourselves by. You can see this view in Burt’s discussion of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896) across several collections. In Close Calls with Nonsense (2009), Burt says that Housman’s poem, in which a lonely speaker imagines that a Roman soldier also felt lonely, “does not simply reflect assumptions about the endurance of feelings, and of symbols for them: its resonance for us (as long as we find it resonant) constitutes evidence for the claim it makes, insusceptible to mathematical proof, but made more plausible each time we hear an old song.” That’s circular, logically, but the point is that poems and feelings circulate in us, so that, as Burt wrote in From There (2016), “the most basic units of feeling are independent of history, but [one] can only come to that conclusion . . . because Housman’s Shropshire lad and his Roman soldier have been standing in and contemplating the same place.” That place, of course, is the poem itself, or Housman’s imagination. So, this independence from history is not transcendent or eternal, and it’s not ingrained by thoughtless repetition, but is linked to the historical circumstances of a body (or text) in space. In the current collection, Burt returns to Housman’s poem, suggesting more overtly that identification across time requires imagining from a particular position, rather than obliterating one’s experience into an impersonal, timeless miasma. “The reading of poetry, like the reading of anything, takes place in history,” Burt writes; “we are who we are before we come to the poem, and we belong, or want to belong, to communities that exist when we are not reading.”

And can the text itself be a community? Are “verbal models” so dependent on usage and interpretation that they don’t connect to genuine feeling but to generic conventions for representing feeling? In light of these questions, Don’t Read Poetry’s chapter on “Difficulty” is particularly important. In previous books, Burt sometimes positioned “difficult” poets as notable because of their relation to other traditions, praising Jennifer Moxley’s “Wordsworthian” moments, for instance, or how the “Language poets’ disruptions” inspired poets who had less programmatic aims. These views sometimes construed a general reader or “mainstream” of US poetry that, despite Burt’s ecumenical instincts, left out a lot of US poetry. In the current collection, Burt’s discussion of “difficulty”—while applying, I’d say, to all reading—offers accessible consideration of poems by Rae Armantrout, Cody-Rose Clevidence, Lyn Hejinian, Fred Moten, John Yau, and others. This consideration also takes place in history: “You can find that kind of shockingly open (or hard-to-process or forever-confusing) text in many periods; you can even find it in classical antiquity,” Burt writes. But despite her clear explanations, Burt acknowledges the limits of interpretation: “Certain transgender poets, such as kari edwards and Cody-Rose Clevidence, come very close to defining transgender poetry in this way, as something that cisgender people can never understand,” and so, I take it, we can witness and listen to and consider one “contemplating the same space” without sharing the contemplation exactly; we’re together in those limits. Even those who find some of Burt’s statements about exploratory poetics “oversimplified, sometimes inaccurate, and unfair,” a risk she acknowledges in Close Calls, may find the new book useful in an introductory setting. Like Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry, which shares Burt’s emphasis on categories to consider while reading, the book’s clarity would make it an easy one to supplement with texts from other perspectives.

This is because, at heart, Burt often seems to be a formalist critic. If she seeks to “read and teach individual poets,” she does so while attending to the “history of ways to arrange words that are not limited by those words’ meanings.” In her discussion of difficulty, she says “if we disaggregate some of the kinds [of difficulty], we will become able to talk about more poems.” There’s that emphasis on use, again, and Don’t Read Poetry is a useful work of disaggregation. This utility meets Burt’s thinking about history, advancing a distinction she describes, in Close Calls, between “historicist” readings, concerned with what a poem offers, and “formalist” readings, which ask how an “individual piece of language burn[s] or shine[s].” We ask formalist questions, the new book implies, from historical positions, so how we answer them is already historical, whether or not we consider history explicitly. “We complain rightly about judges who take, as their prime criterion of value, how well a work reflects or embodies its time,” she observes in Close Calls. “Yet given the variety and the powers of work from other times, given all that previously existing poems have managed to do, should we expect contemporary work to excel in any other way?” Don’t Read Poetry suggests that this reflection and embodiment happen while we read and—usefully—after we stop. It’s in us, as much as it’s in the poem. And if you don’t see yourself in the poems you’ve read? If identification feels impossible? Burt is quick to note the ways in which any method of reading will “fail and fall short unless it acknowledges other ways to read and listen and be.” This is more than the rhetoric of diversity; it doesn’t just suggest that we can read in multiple ways but that any way of reading needs to understand divergent approaches and their limitations. Imagining that precise multiplicity may be a chief outcome of reading poetry. Don’t Read Poetry shows what that imagining can look like and why it can matter.