The Art of the Review IV: Stephen Burt


Parul Sehgal–PWxyz, April 8th, 2011

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re extremely lucky to have Stephen Burt with us. Considered to be the leading poetry critic of his generation, Burt writes about poets and poems with more subtlety, shrewdness, and heart than just about anyone (he’s also a bit better-acquainted with the X-Men than you’d expect).

He’s a prolific reviewer, a professor of English at Harvard, the author of two poetry collections (Popular Music and Parallel Play) and critical studies including The Art of the Sonnet and the sublime Close Calls with Nonsense, an introduction to reading new poetry. Oh, and he’s also at work on four new books. Excellent.

Burt talks to us about how books are like people, why criticism is like making chairs, and how to review even the dullest book.

What drew you to criticism?

I’m tempted to say that criticism itself drew me, in the sense that a comic book artist draws the character in the comic book: that I am its invented creature. Resisting the temptation, I’ll say that I grew up indulged, heard and overheard by parents and teachers as I opined on the relative merits of X-Men storylines, for example, or prog-rock albums, and I gradually discovered that other people—even people I had never met!–might read my opinions if I researched them and wrote them down in the right ways. By that time they were opinions about other art works and other art forms, most often and most happily about poetry, although I still have opinions about the X-Men, if asked.

Another answer: in my teens I read Randall Jarrell and William Empson and Hugh Kenner and (by that time I was enrolled in her courses) Helen Vendler. Even before my teens, if I remember rightly, I was reading popular science explainers and language mavens and other explainers of complicated things in clarified, non-esoteric language. I was storing up models, without knowing why.

I have been fortunate enough to be taken up by congenial editors early. Not all critics, not all reviewers, get that.

I read a wonderful interview you did where you said the following: “Reviewing, like all other literary criticism, like the making of chairs, like the making of film scores, is an applied art: it’s heteronomous, serving ends outside itself, and should not let its own artfulness detract from those functions.” What function do your reviews serve? And how do you know–can you know?–if you’ve succeeded?
Time to quote Auden! “What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned he can do me one or more of the following services: 1. Introduce me to authors or works. 2. Convince me that I had undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures. 4. Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it. 5. Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making.’ 6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” (This and much else from the essay “Reading,” at the front of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand.)

Reviewers can do all those things. I hope that I have done them, now and again.

Reviews can also clear space for the appreciation of neglected, undervalued or misunderstood art by dispelling bad arguments about art, or by trying to clear worse art out of the way when it seems to be obstructing the view of better art. (Sometimes the better art and the worse art are by the same artist.)

As for how you know when you have succeeded, W. S. Merwin recalls in a poem that he once asked John Berryman whether and how he knew his poems were good, and Berryman replied “You can’t you can never be sure/ you die without knowing.” You can’t quite know what you have done inside a reader’s mind.

On the other hand, reviews can get books more attention—and that’s something you can know. If I review Jane Doe’s second book, and then her third book gets more attention than her second (more reviews, more people reading it, even more copies sold), perhaps at the margin I had something to do with that. Reviewing is like writing poetry in some ways (it’s an art) but it’s also like making chairs (see above) and it is in a third set of ways like voting: an individual contribution to a necessarily collective effort.

How do you sidestep the peril that is reviewspeak (oh, all those “luminous,” “lyrical” “tours de force!”)–and formulaic review structures?

Most reviews of imaginative literature (nonfiction books with arguments are another matter) should function like other kinds of aesthetic criticism: they should describe this book, or this poet, and no other, saying what if anything sets it apart.  Reviewspeak may say nothing, as with those all-purpose adjectives “generous,” “lucid,” “courageous,” “luminous,” now emptied of content, like thrice-steeped teabags. Sometimes, though, reviewspeak just describes a very large class of poems, or of books, while pretending that it says what makes a book unique. I hope I avoid reviewspeak by trying to make claims that apply only to this book, and by trying not to say what’s already been said. (To do that, fortunately or unfortunately, reviewers need to keep on reading other reviews.)

Do you have a set of criteria that you hold all poems to–or do you think each poem demands/invents its own set of criteria?

“You must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good” (William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity).

On the other hand, “books are like people, and make the same demands on us to understand and like them” (Auden, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents). I want poems that instruct or delight, that do something new, that either compel, or invite, me to pay attention; when a poem seems to go on forever, to whisper inaudibly for a very long time or to shout without respite or to imitate somebody else in every particular or to tout banalities, I turn away for the same set of reasons that I would turn away when a person did so—though, as with a person, there might be good reason to overcome initial distaste.

I’m curious about the influence your critical work has on your own poetry (and vice versa). Does your background in reviewing make you more self-conscious as a poet? Does being a poet make you more empathetic to the writer whose work you’re reviewing?

To the first question, I don’t think so, but I can’t know: how self-conscious would I be if I didn’t write book reviews? Who would I even be if I didn’t write book reviews?

I do think that I encounter “minor” or new or not-very-famous poets, current and otherwise, more often because I write so many book reviews, and that I’ve picked up from some of these poets some tricks I’ve used in my own work. The first poem in Parallel Play, for example, “Bluebells,” probably owes something to Monterey Cypress, by the Scottish writer Lachlan Mackinnon, which I was reading because I was reviewing his later collection The Jupiter Collisions at the time. Mackinnon, in turn, owes something to Paul Muldoon, about whom I’ve written over and over again.  Another poem in there probably owes something to Ice, Mouth, Song by Rachel Contreni Flynn.

To the second question: probably, but again, I can’t know. I try not to go in for the kind of showy or caustic attacks for which some other reviewers are widely known: those other reviews tend to be poets too.

I’m reading–and relishing–your book Close Calls with Nonsense. One thing I find remarkable is the impulse in poetry criticism to taxonomize poets, to group them as part of a school or movement based on their preoccupations, their linguistic proclivities, even whom they’ve studied under (you describe this beautifully in your “Sheepish Introduction” and you’ve even coined a name for new group of modern poets, the Ellipticals). In reviews of prose, however, if there’s any sort of categorization according to form, it’s extremely ginger (with the notable exception of James Wood on “Hysterical Realism”). Reviewers note “trends” not “schools,” and typically treat books (and their authors) as sui generis. What are some of the advantages or limitations to poetry criticism’s affinity for classification?

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

Sure. It’s easiest to admit to errors of fact: I used to think “gantry” meant only the scaffolding given to a space rocket on a launch pad, until I reviewed a book by John Peck that used “gantry” in its other, terrestrial meaning, and he wrote me a polite letter saying I’d gotten it wrong. It’s harder but more enlightening to consider the books about which I no longer believe what I thought I believed when, one or ten or whatever number of years ago, I reviewed them.

I’m probably less tolerant now than I used to be of deliberately vatic, anti-referential language, with lots of white space and capital letters galore. I’m also less tolerant of poets whose works are almost exact copies of some other poet, with different subjects: Manchester as opposed to Chicago, to make up an example, done up in the same kind of tone and the same kind of line. I want the new, or the old made new, and if I can’t have the new I want sense, and I am aware, as a reader and as a critic and as a writer, of my own limited time. (On that topic, more here).

What, if any, are the critics’ responsibilities?

Say only what you believe. Be aware of your reader; don’t talk down to her, and don’t yearn for love from him. Keep in mind what he or she knows already, admires already, might believe already; those baselines will differ in different venues (the readers of the NYTBR aren’t the same as the readers for N+1, who aren’t the same as the readers for Rain Taxi). Keep your eye on the work, which in poetry reviewing means the poems; do not tell me about the poet’s life or the book cover (mysteriously, beginning reviewers often describe book covers at length) unless those things become important in the poems.

Remember that even the dullest book was written by somebody who meant well, who wanted it to stand up, though (alas) it falls down; if you are going to say that it falls down, and there are circumstances under which you ought to say so, you should, try to say so without malice, and without glee.

David Bromwich, in a short new essay that very few people are likely to see (I think it’s in a small press festschrift for Harold Bloom) says that to write criticism that deserves the name of criticism you have to be able to have the experience of unwilling revision: to say, and I’m afraid that I can only paraphrase, “I can’t say this, because the work of art says that.”

What critics–past or present–are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

Hazlitt, Arnold, Pater, Woolf, Empson, Jarrell, Kenner, Davie, Barthes, Vendler, Ricks—not all reviewers, exactly, but all people who wrote, or who write, essays for non-specialist readers about works of art.  From more or less my own generation of critics and reviewers, Maureen McLane, Ange Mlinko, Dan Chiasson, Alex Ross, Douglas Wolk… I could go on.

Do the critics you do enjoy share any specific qualities? More broadly, what are the characteristics of a good critic–or at least the kind of critic that matters to you?

Their prose gives pleasure, and their readers matter, but the work of art comes first.

When you’re reading a poem and you feel a twinge of pleasure or displeasure, are you likely to accept it or interrogate it? How much do you trust yourself/your tastes?

Accept! but also interrogate. I try to be sensitive—perhaps too sensitive; perhaps I bend over backwards—to my own temperament, to my tastes outside art. I’m not especially interested in hunting or farming, for example, nor in extreme conditions of wild solitude, nor in self-abasement before a religious orthodoxy, nor in revolutionary-Utopian left political theory, and so when I’m asked to write about, or decide that I ought to write about, poets who care very much about those things (Les Murray, Franz Wright, Joshua Clover) I try very hard to be fair, to respond to the invention or lack of invention in language, to the depth or the lack of depth in the thought the poems hold. I think I’ve written favorable reviews of all three of those poets—I’m sure I admire some of their work—though perhaps only one of the three, when asked, would agree.

Can you tell me anything about your forthcoming book?

I’m at work (maybe “work” deserves scare quotes here) on four books now: one’s about modern-ish poets, regions and places, from Stevens and Williams to C. D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, Donald Revell; one’s a short guide to William Carlos Williams. Neither of those will be finished any time soon.

There’s a book of poetry that’s just been accepted by Graywolf for 2013, calledBelmont, after our actual suburb in Massachusetts, after the generic suburban name (that beautiful high point in life, that peak of adulthood), and after the fictional retreat-town-suburb in The Merchant of Venice.  I’ve put all the poems about our sons (Nathan is five, Cooper turns one next week) in the last half of the book, and all the poems about obscure rock bands, odd sexual tastes, superheroes, and transcontinental travel near the front. Some of them rhyme.

Finally, there’s going to be a sort of sequel to The Art of the Sonnet, another book of short essays on individual poems, introducing, explaining or liking them: The Poem Is You will collect 50 contemporary poems, with an essay on each. I’ve just signed the contract for that one; it’s due in 2014. I’ve got a very rough (and therefore confidential) table of contents, and a couple of essays in draft, and high hopes.

Any advice for up-and-coming reviewers? What do you want to see more of? What do you think the culture of criticism (is there even such a thing?) needs more of?

See above under “responsibilities.” Find work that you like and explain why you like it, in ways that will make readers glad that they listened. Their time is valuable. So is yours.

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