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 po–biz, 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?]