Reading New Poetry: Close Calls with Nonsense by Stephen Burt

Close Calls with Nonsense

Close Calls with Nonsense
BY Stephen Burt
(Graywolf Press, 2009)

From the Publisher:

“… Close Calls with Nonsense provokes readers into the elliptical worlds of Rae Armantrout, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, and other contemporary poets whose complexities make them challenging, original, and, finally, readable. Burt’s intelligence and enthusiasm introduce both tentative and longtime poetry readers to the rewards of reading new poetry. As Burt writes in the title essay: ‘The poets I know don’t want to be famous people half so much as they want their best poems read; I want to help you find and read them. I write here for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it; for people who enjoy Seamus Heaney or Elizabeth Bishop and want to know what next; for people who enjoy John Ashbery or Anne Carson but aren’t sure why; and, especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, ‘Is that all there is?’”

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.”

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