- Just the Thing?Stephen Burt on American Poetry
Stephen Burt is widely known as a poet and a critic whose monitoring of the contemporary poetry scene has generated many brief but always highly focused reviews. His aim is attractively low-key, making up for what he eschews as polemic with an engaging style that wears its learning lightly. These reviews are not primarily judgment calls; they are, as Burt puts it, “like introductions . . . meant to bring poems and poets together with people who might become, as it were, their friends (‘hermeneutic friends,’ in Allen Grossman’s phrase)” (Close Calls xii). The format of a collection like Close Calls with Nonsense (2009) enjoys a certain latitude of evaluation, and when assembled in one compendious volume the choices Burt makes tend to speak for themselves. There’s a generosity of attention in his work that’s motivated in part by his keen interest in what poems can actually do. And they do, of course, very different things that he proves adept at grasping as both local figures and as clues to a poet’s larger orientation. How might we compare, for example, Denise Riley and Thom Gunn? Well, with Riley we have “the unease of continual, and politically alert, self-analysis,” while Gunn “loves to demonstrate ecstasies, appetites, mergings, in other people, or even in animals” (179, 206). These descriptions are some 30 pages apart in Close Calls, but they stick in the reader’s mind, provoking an itch to compare that is partly assuaged by the pleasure to be had from the sheer diversity of the poetries Burt explores.
That, perhaps, is the fun of it—but tuning in as a reviewer is one thing, and co-editing an elephantine Cambridge History is very much another. The gains to be had here are of a very different order, certainly much smaller than the easy bruising that reviewers can mete out (see, for example, Joseph Epstein’s crabby account of this volume’s predecessor, The Cambridge History of American Fiction).1 It’s half in Burt’s mind, I think, as it is in mine, to suspect [End Page 295] that the grandiose purview of these volumes spells at once their value and their limitation, partly because as he notes in his essay on editing the History, “American Poetry” is simply not a single object about which one can write. Editors of such books too often, though understandably, protect themselves from the vertiginous multiplicity of their materials by invoking familiar chronological and conceptual grids. These can shake down a little too easily—“Forms of Modernism, 1900–1950,” for example—though attempts to design different categories can also raise the reviewer’s hackles.2 No one, perhaps, is ever truly happy with such volumes, largely because their matter strains so impossibly against their form. We want their encyclopedic range at the same time as we enjoy protesting the local decisions they make.
Burt is wise to all this and in his essay he registers its ironies by taking an introductory cue from TV critic John Oliver’s witty interrogations of American cultural fetishes: are the symbolic objects and myths of everyday life, Oliver asks—Columbus Day, Ayn Rand, Sports Illustrated—“Still a Thing?” To ask this question in the first place implies, of course, not just that such totemic referents and occasions are obsolete but that we continue to celebrate them merely by conditioned reflex and faute de mieux. Is this also the case with American poetry? That certainly looks a bit more straightforwardly like a “thing” since we can at least still study it in an academic course, though once the class is under way the “thing” will likely come apart in our hands, dissolving into a mess of chronologies, styles, ethnic identities, and so forth. Whether or not it’s still a thing in Oliver’s sense of continuing to provide a compelling cultural reference point is another question, though the 1300 pages of this new Cambridge History of American Poetry indicate that someone must think it is. But it’s not just that American poetry proves a less than unified “thing” for all its emphatic naming; Burt...