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.)

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