Stephen Burt: Doesn’t look great in a jacket. Prefers wearing a blouse.
We were amused to read the recent piece on Stephen Burt in the New York Times with the large color photo of Burt, the cross-dresser, sitting at an outdoor table in Harvard Square. A cross-dresser? Really? I had no idea.
I was also a little puzzled by the Times’ claim that Burt is a “king-maker;” how do these rumors get started?
Helen Vendler, who Burt is slated to replace, is not really a “king-maker.” Vendler gave some help to Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, and Burt, himself, but she’s mostly invested herself in Wallace Stevens. The shadow of High Modernism is a very big shadow.
In the Times article, only one poet was mentioned who Burt had “made,” and she was an obscure one.
I had to laugh at the explanation of how she was “made,” when the Times writer intoned re: an award committee: “Burt was one of the jurors”—as if this had never happened before!
I also chuckled when it was pointed out that Burt was “a science fiction fan” and a member of “Facebook”—as if these were meaningful and unusual things.
Chief, perhaps, to Burt’s claim to fame, and dutifully cited by the Times, are a couple of definitional coinages of Burt’s: “Elliptical Poetry” and “The New Thing.”
There’s a problem with these, however.
Burt’s definitions of “Elliptical Poetry” and the poetry of “The New Thing” are rambling, narrowly topical, and lack epigrammatic focus. Both definitions do little more than throw around names. Take a half a cup of Gertrude Stein and add one tablespoon of John Ashbery…
Even worse for Burt: “Elliptical Poetry,” with a more coherent definition, was actually a term invented by Frederick Pottle and discussed by Robert Penn Warren’s “Pure and Impure Poetry,” a lecture at Princeton and later published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review. (Wikipedia on Elliptical Poetry needs to be fixed.)
Here is Burt’s (twisted) definition of Elliptical Poetry:
Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-’postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.
This is all very vague: “try to manifest,” ”verbal gizmos,” “post-avant-gardist,” “low and high diction,” “almost-stories,” and “television.”
Perhaps the point is to be vague—after all , we’ve come a long way since critics of poetry fretted over “learning versus pleasure” and ”prose versus poetry” and “ideas versus music.”
But is it a “long way” if you’ve run off the dock into the utterly obscure? Should critics be vague? For instance, what does Burt mean by “coherent speaking selves?” Is he talking about a dramatic speaker, like the narrator in Poe’s “Raven?” Or the speaker in “The Red Wheel Barrow?” Or the speakers in “The Waste Land?” Or the narrator of ”Howl?”
Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” is post-modern, but it also has clarity and historic reach. It’s possible to be topical without being attenuated, to allow Sidney’s Defense to discover things in Eliot’s Sacred Wood. “Post-avant-gardist verbal gizmos” are not everything.
Burt gets published everywhere, but we haven’t figured out yet whether this is a good thing. His Boston Globe piece on the Foetry website steered me in that direction many years ago, so I guess that was good.
Unlike Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, Burt is a poet, and his poetry is similar to his criticism: meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse:
OVER CONNECTICUT: EMINENT DOMAIN
Inland, the antique milemarkers spread
themselves out into twentieth-century lanes,
jammed up this afternoon, though built for speed—
sun-harmed, old news, old toys, they bury the lead
of Prudence Crandall’s schoolroom heritage,
her kettle of cider, her wishes traced by hand.
We miss her now. We parcel out her land.
Town halls fade into greenery like spies.
New London’s keeping Groton in its sights;
its drawbridge swings, a military career.
New Haven is old scores and old concrete,
old freeways where the Great Migration stalled;
the Sound turns agate, band by frozen band.
By Haddam, there are only Linens-n-Things
and other things, great mounds, whole civilizations
still glowing in faint spits along Route Nine…
I miss the Great Society with its sense
that we could redraw maps that ailed us, gone
in a mist of real estate and demonstrations,
three or four angry years before I was born.
One is obliged to be impressed by poetry like this, but in one’s heart one is only slightly moved.
Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Times article, writes:
Burt has few critics — or few critics who, given his influence, will be quoted. An exception is Steve Evans, who teaches at the University of Maine and says that Burt is often late to the party, putting his seal of approval on poets, like Armantrout, who have been important for years. But the more common critique is that Burt is too positive. And while Burt does write negative reviews, he writes so much, and so many of his reviews are songs of praise, that he can seem like a relentless, passionate booster — a fanboy.
The fanboy is, by his nature, an imperfect evangelist. I find Burt’s lucid, insightful explications of poems energizing: they make you want to discover more of that poet’s work. But there is something unnerving about his voracious enthusiasm. It’s the feeling you got hanging out with the kid who had every bootleg by his 100 favorite bands, or with the sci-fi junkie, or the film buff. They are obsessives, completists, and they overwhelm.
Burt is finally curatorial, not imaginative or original; he’s not an inventor. He makes lists, but not insights. When the Times revealed his predilection for dressing as a woman, I couldn’t help but recall these combative words by Leonardo Da Vinci as they might pertain to Stephen Burt, the cross-dressing, fan-boy of Letters:
They will say that since I do not have literary learning I cannot possibly express the things I wish to treat, but they do not grasp that my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness. Though I may not know, like them, how to cite from the authors, I will cite something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters. These very people go about inflated and pompous, clothed and adorned not with their own labours but with those of others. If they disparage me as an inventor, how much more they, who never invented anything but are trumpeters and reciters of the works of others, are open to criticism. Moreover those men who are inventors are interpreters of nature, and when those men are compared to the reciters and turmpeters of the works of others, they should be judged and appraised in relation to each other in no other way than the object in front of a mirror may be judged to surpass its reflection, for the former is actually something and the other nothing. People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.