Why Poetry Makes Sense: An Interview With Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt and I discussed the instructive and useful nature of poetry: how it's a vehicle for self-expression, a valuable means of understanding the world and a resource that is written for an infinite set of audiences.
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Poetry can be an excellent teacher. It educates readers on places we know well and those we've never been. It honors celebrated people and ordinary ones. Without pretension or over-analysis, poetry teaches the most practical lessons on love, friendship, romance and the loss of all these things.

The trick to appreciating poetry? Seeking out and finding the poetry that really speaks to us, that we find instructive, enriching, useful and perhaps even beautiful. Through a few excellent poetry teachers and writers I've worked with during the past two years, I've discovered there is poetry - a design of words -- to fit any lifestyle, taste and set of beliefs.

At TEDGlobal 2013 in June, I connected with Stephen Burt, who presented a TED Talk at the conference. Burt, an acclaimed poet, critic and Harvard professor, helped describe the variety of genres and subjects connected with poetry. We discussed the instructive and useful nature of poetry: how it's a vehicle for self-expression, a valuable means of understanding the world and a resource that is written for an infinite set of audiences. Burt's expert point of view offers advice for beginning poets on how to build a successful career, acquired tips for readers on how to avoid the trap of picking poems apart for "messages" and gave me more than a few poets to my reading list.

Laura Cococcia: Did you always love poetry? How did you come to the realization that you wanted to become a poetry critic and professor?

Stephen Burt: I loved Yeats and Milton and, um, Matthew Arnold and a lot of rock lyrics, when I was a middle schooler with no social skills: I had this idea that I could relate to the rest of the world and reach other people if I could only get good enough with the music of language. I still have that idea. I don't know if it's true, but it seems intuitively plausible, and I have been professionally, as well as emotionally, rewarded for its pursuit.

LC: Many people who don't often encounter poetry tend to think of it as an art form that is somewhat archaic. Who are some modern and contemporary poets that might make good starting points for exploring poetry?

SB: In no particular order, if you don't read any poetry but you already read realist literary fiction, Laura Kasischke, Louise Gluck, Randall Jarrell, Lucia Perillo, Frank Bidart. Perillo, in particular, is funny, without insulting your intelligence. She's quite smart too. If you don't read any poetry but you already read "theory," philosophy or other demanding nonfiction in the humanities, all of the above plus Rae Armantrout, Jorie Graham, Allan Peterson. If you are interested in sex, ecology, California or GLBT history and politics, D. A. Powell. If you are interested in elaborate patterns, African-American music genres or African-American life, Terrance Hayes.

If you want humor and compression, Armantrout and Kay Ryan. If you have a strong interest in photography and modern visual art, Joseph Massey. If you like travel writing, August Kleinzahler. If you are a parent, especially if you are a dad, Dan Chiasson. If you are a parent, especially if you are a mom, Kasischke. If you are a mom and you like the Beats, Rachel Zucker. If you like elaborate older art (say, the Italian Renaissance, or midcentury couture), Angie Estes. Maybe that's enough for now.

LC: Technology and the Internet are making it easier for people to share and read poems. Do you think we might be able to harness new technologies to foster a love of poetry in a larger portion of American society?

SB: We already are. So many poetry blogs! Some well-trafficked and edited (such as the Best American Poetry blog, Boston Review's blog (for which I write) and Cold Front, the Volta, etc.; and then all these blogs run by students and young people and relative outsiders, idiosyncratic, able in principle to reach who knows how many people. That's just words-on-a-screen technologies. There's also multimedia: audio, video, MOOCs; Al Filreis's modern poetry MOOC out of Penn, much as I disagree with some of its emphases, has introduced modernist and contemporary poetry to quite possibly hundreds of thousands of people who would not have heard of Gertrude Stein or Lorine Niedecker before.

LC: Billy Collins, the former US Poet Laureate, has a fantastic poem called Introduction to Poetry in which he laments his students' intensity in picking apart poems: "all they want to do/ is tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it," he writes. How can we overcome the habit of reading poetry like simile-circling and margin-note-writing high school students?

SB: I teach high school students in summer school and I meet them regularly; they want poems to move them and speak to them. Some of them have been mis-taught to count similes and dutifully name techniques, but more often, and more harmfully, they've been mis-taught to look for "messages," as if all poems proposed solutions to the problems that they embody or describe. I want readers, of any age, to look and to listen. Once they do that we can, as William Empson says, rely on the poem to tell us the way in which it is trying to be good, to tell us what it is trying to do.

LC: What are some of your personal favorite poets and poems? Why do these speak to you?

SB: My critical books are the answer to that question! In the contemporary moment, I'm very excited about a Welsh poet named Robert Minhinnick, who hasn't broken through here yet at all; Lucie Brock-Broido's new book is great, and I'm looking forward to the new Angie Estes. I've been enjoying Deborah Woodard's new book of prose poems organized around retold or deformed fiction and nonfiction, including Hamlet and post-ruin Detroit. As for older poets and poems, Jarrell, "The Player Piano"; Armantrout, "Our Nature" and "Fiction"; Bishop, "Poem (About the size of an old-style dollar bill)"; Niedecker, much of New Goose; Stevens, "Crude Foyer"; Marianne Moore, "The Pangolin," "The Paper Nautilus"; James K. Baxter's late sonnet sequences; epigram-sized poems by Langston Hughes; Song of Myself; Browning, "Andrea del Sarto"; Pope, "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot"; Coleridge's Dejection Ode; I'll stop there.

LC: What advice do you have for young poets and critics trying to start a career in today's publishing and academic climate?

SB: Give yourself deadlines. Try several things in case one fails. Explore; don't sign yourself away to one style or one approach. Read widely. Don't just read contemporary America. If you don't have another language, get one. If you do, translate! Make other languages' poems into your own, and don't worry about accuracy if that is not what you are trying to produce. So many major poets have learned their own technique from rendering Latin or French or Spanish or, these days, Arabic or Kannada.

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