- “Listening for Something”:A Response to Stephen Burt
No, American poetry isn’t a thing, but the American poem must be: this is the conclusion of Stephen Burt’s essay, which ultimately returns to the consolatory power of the individual poem as a stay against conceptions of poetry “as process, a way to participate in some individual or collective project that has still not reached its end” (277). The longing for the poem as a special thing, something that “a sophomore first encountering Whitman, Dickinson, and Piatt” can “pick up and scrutinize and memorize and care about,” or, perhaps, “something to read before an operation” (as Burt cites from Alissa Valles) drives this essay, which winnows the field down to the object in order to preserve it from models of process (298).
This downshift in scale magnifies the individual poem, which Burt deems capable of standing up to the onslaught of process by the force of its bounded completion. The question of American poetry as a category, a thing, falls away over the course of the essay—the only intimation of Burt’s own view of this possibility comes in an aside, when he suggests that American poetry may have been “a thing until 1950 or 1960” (275). To ask whether a field is a thing, as Burt notes in his opening via John Oliver, “implies that the thing in question has become useless, harmful, or obsolete” (271). Burt hastens to add that he is not talking about the individual poem here, and yet the essay finally wants to protect the individual poem from harmful approaches —waves of process—to appeal to the usefulness of the poem that we can pick, collect, and know.
The most useful poems, then, are not those inconclusive projects whose oft-stated democratic claims also make them susceptible to far less savory forms of destabilizing capture; instead, they are the poems we can hold in the mind, alone. The essay is at pains to state that these approaches are two sides of one coin (against more [End Page 304] confrontational proponents of process that would eradicate the poem-as-thing), and it is in this suggested dual understanding of the poem that I find a critical purchase for my own sense of reading American poetry. In thinking through the play of thing and process, I found myself returning to two exhibits Burt cites as evidence of the necessity of the separable, collectible, complete poem: Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World” and Marianne Moore’s curatorial acts.
In Burt’s eloquent turn to Rich’s “poem as a gift for a refugee with nothing else to read . . .. The poem as a thing she can carry seems to support her, to let her stand slightly apart from the processes of history, even when she, and it, remain subject to them” (282). Yet this momentary detachment from history is difficult to square with the expanse of “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” whose evocations of “wreckage, dreck, and waste” are not only directed at the isolated readers—including the refugee—so hauntingly portrayed in its closing dedications, but critically stage an ongoing conversation with the ghosts of recovered and irrecoverable poems (214). Detached and anthologized, “XIII (Dedications)” may read like a gift, but the 12 preceding sections show us poetry’s vulnerability to the history that it also reveals:
Driving the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridgeno monument’s in sight but fogprowling Angel Island muffling Alcatrazpoems in Cantonese inscribed on fogno icon lifts a lamp herehistory’s breath blotting the airover Gold Mountain a transferof patterns like the transfer of African appliquéto rural Alabama voices alive in legends, cursestongue-lashings poems on a weary wall(221–22)
In thus intertwining the blotting power of history with a living transfer in human patterns of expression, Rich registers how the poetic artifact is plunged in history—to its detriment but also as its means of transport, both in the sense of the movement from voice to voice and a transcendent value. “An Atlas of the Difficult World” listens, too, for those poems that may never...