Stephen Burt’s “incoherent self:” doesn’t realize he’s a New Critic

WIKIPEDIA: Elliptical Poetry or ellipticism is a literary-critical term introduced by critic Stephen Burt in a 1998 essay in Boston Review on Susan Wheeler, and expanded upon in an eponymous essay in American Letters & Commentary.

Uh…no.   Robert Penn Warren, (with whom we trust Professor Burt is familiar) in an essay published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, “Pure and Impure Poetry,”  (Spring 1943 issue) writes:

“In a recent book, The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has discussed the question of pure poetry.  He distinguishes another type of pure poetry, in addition to the types already mentioned.  He calls it the “Elliptical,” and would include in it symbolist and metaphysical poetry (old and new) and some work by poets Collins, Blake, and Browning.”

In pobiz, new is the new stupid

The last century of American Letters has witnessed ‘the new’ as the last refuge of the scoundrel poet.  If one doesn’t know anything, trumpet ‘the new’ as much as possible, and with a few pals, equally bereft, on one’s side, anything is possible.

Not only is Burt guilty of outright theft, but the “Elliptical” of Robert Penn Warren’s essay is scientific (no irony intended) compared to Burt’s razzle-dazzle new-speak. 

Burt, unable to cook anything, merely makes a mess in the kitchen, throwing in every ingredient he can find.   Here is Burt in his infamous 1998 essay:

“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.”

Note professor Burt’s lack of rigor, vaguely wrapping himself around the new:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbo gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.”  —Burt

Is it the speaking or the selves which have their coherence undermined, and why do they have an undermined coherence?   Let Mr. Burt answer at once, since he obviously knows.  And how can one undermine something before it exists?  If one is not skilled enough, in a poem, to produce a coherent speaking self (is it so easy?) how do we know it has been undermined?  Anyone can point to a sociological theory which mourns the vanished self, but the poem is not a theory, unfortunately for Burt’s elliptical poets.

“Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction.  —Burt

Has Burt never read the Roman poets?  They did this constantly.  Come to think of it, the majority of poets, ancient to present, alternate between low and high diction.

“…they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”

It’s comforting to know the poets don’t “resemble television”…

Burt’s murky, gizmo-rhetoric would have been laughed out of the pages of the Kenyon Review, when Ransom was editor, and the New Critics were contribuing articles.

In contrast to the gee-whiz rhetoric of Stephen Burt, we have the acumen of Robert Penn Warren:

“Poe would kick out the ideas because the ideas hurt the poetry, and Mr. [Max] Eastman would kick out the ideas because the poetry hurts the ideas.”

The concept is actually interchangeable—Poe also thought, like Eastman, that “poetry hurts the ideas.”  Poe was explicit on this point.  At least with Penn Warren, however, there is a concept.  Burt is babble.  He has no point.  But my point here is not to agree with Penn Warren, but to expose Burt’s blatant theft.

Robert Penn Warren from his 1943 essay again:

“Then Elliptical Poetry is not, as Mr. Pottle say it is, a pure poetry at all if we regard intention; the elliptical poet is elliptical for purposes of inclusion, not exlusion.”

This is no quibble over a word, either.  In his 1943 essay, Penn Warren’s definition of elliptical poetry is exactly the same as Burt’s 1998 review.  Here is Penn Warren:

“Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.  At least, most of them do not want to be too pure.  The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end.  Are we then to conclude that, because neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great, these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure?  No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary.  They are not even as pure as they might be in an imperfect world.  They mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, cliches, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradiction, cleverness, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.” 

And Penn Warren, again:

“Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure?  I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.”

Burt posits a return of a “person” who “speaks the poem” while  simultaneously using  “gizmos, developed over the last few decades,” of “Stein’s heirs” and “language writers:” Burt blindly stumbles back over the same ground to the New Critics, who were, as we see with Robert Penn Warren’s 70-year-old-essay, already allowing the widest possible field to the “speaking” of a “poem.”

 It’s time for Philosophy and History to kick New-Speak off its throne.

[Are we “going after Burt” or just giving Pottle and Penn Warren credit where credit is due?]


  1. Noochness said,

    December 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Well, for sheer chutzpah
    To Burt gotta hand it—
    That’s why Gleason was Smokey
    And Burt he was Bandit.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 19, 2010 at 2:36 am

    That Wiki page really ought to be changed…

    Burt Reynolds in ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ LOL good one, nooch…

    Stephen Burt…. the bandit… LOL

  3. Noochness said,

    December 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    After Callimachus

    by Stephen Burt

    Cover me quietly, stone.
    I wrote verse. I meant little in life,
    blamed few and injured none;
    I tried to get along.
    My writings kept me warm.
    If I with my featherlight pen
    confused prestige with worth,
    praised evil, or ever wronged
    the few who wanted a fight,
    allow me, generous earth,
    to do no further harm—
    let me atone in my sleep;
    I with my good will,
    so lightly and often given,
    who rest with nothing to keep,
    and nothing to offer heaven.

  4. Noochness said,

    December 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Dulles Access Road

    by Stephen Burt

    Seen from the paid-for
    taxicab on the way
    to the paid-for flight,

    this is our preparation for
    the world, which insists
    on employment, which insists,

    if you want adults
    to take you seriously,
    that you have to make somebody

    pay. We are untrained
    to manage even the pace
    at which we live. Slow down at the last red light,

    its monochrome certainty ordinary
    for it, but never for us,
    though it swings on wires nearly within human reach;

    behind it, as they do
    almost every day at this hour,
    impregnable metal containers dissolve in the sky.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 21, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      I’ve got nothing personal against Burt; I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, a great father, etc

      If it hadn’t been for Burt’s article in the Boston Globe on Foetry.com years ago, Monday Love/Thomas Brady might not even exist. Now there’s a thought…

      I owe Burt my very existence.

      But his Wiki page says

      “Stephen Burt is a literary critic who teaches at Harvard University. He received tenure there in 2010. He is best known for coining the term “elliptical poetry” in a 1998 essay in Boston Review magazine. In 2009, a subsequent essay proposed “The New Thing” as the contemporary movement in American poetry.”

      This is sad, less so for Burt, who is just toiling away to make a name for himself, than for po-biz. One of our best known critics is “best known for coining the term ‘elliptical poetry'” —a complete falsehood??

      What does this say about the state of our Letters?

  5. Marcus Bales said,

    December 21, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I know you all are going on about elliptical POETRY, but some things are just so cool you have to find a way to insert them into even the most unusual conversations. So here’s a way to take a normally elliptical bagel and cut it so it is a mobius strip to maximize cream cheese spreadability:



    • Noochness said,

      December 22, 2010 at 12:30 am

      That settles it, I’m a philistine
      (Which to many has long been known),
      ‘Cause I’d much rather eat an elliptical bagel
      Than read an elliptical poem.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    December 21, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    “You don’t need to actually write on the bagel to cut it properly”

    I’m going to ponder this one for awhile…

  7. December 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    […] I found myself confounded by the catty teaser surrounding the next link of note. Silliman writes of this blog post: “In its never-ending fight against poetry, Scarriet goes after Stephen Burt.” The […]

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