back toJacket2

   |    C O N T E N T S    |    H O M E P A G E    |   
J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Stephen Burt

Poetry Criticism - what is it for?

A paper delivered at a conference titled "Poetry Criticism: What is it for?" - speakers Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf, moderated by Susan Wheeler, at Wollman Hall, Cooper Union Engineering Building, 51 Astor Place, New York City, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America

This piece is 1,800 words or about five printed pages long

You can read Kristin Prevallet's response to the conference in this issue of Jacket, and other papers from the panel and some discussion with the audience in Jacket # 12.


We've been asked to talk both about the present state of poetry, and about the role of critics. I'm going to start on the first and move to the second.

Some of the living poets I've been rereading lately - I mean in the past month or so - with great pleasure are Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Thom Gunn, H. L. Hix, Laura Kasischke, August Kleinzahler, Stanley Kunitz, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, Carl Phillips, D.A. Powell, and Adrienne Rich. Can you find common ground among all of them? Perhaps they're, by and large, interested in sex and sexuality? But that doesn't distinguish their recent work from the poetry of the 1970s. Or of the 1670s. It's almost always misleading to characterize the best poets of any era by terms invented to describe the whole era: no good poet is entirely typical of anything. No good critic either.

That said: each literary period does have its characteristic preoccupations, and formal devices that go with them. I've argued elsewhere, and I'd still maintain, that the talented poets of our time-- 'our time' being since about 1980 - are more often, more obviously, more interested in epistemology, and in philosophy of mind and language, than were the poets who came before them; and correspondingly, by and large, less interested in what used to be called 'depth' psychology, in biography and autobiography, in anthropology and myth. We can see this epistemological turn - I'd rather not call it 'postmodern' but you can-- in the work of Ashbery and Jorie Graham: we see it, and them, all over younger poets in magazines.

We can list the formal features which go with this epistemological moment. Ellipsis; apparent semantic incoherence; uncertainly about who or what is speaking; very busy verbal surfaces; repetition, in preference to rhyme; invocations of Dickinson and Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein. Think of how many poems these days consist of numbered, paradoxical or semantically-evasive, propositions laid out in single lines. This is the start of Michael Palmer's poem 'Autobiography':

    All clocks are clouds.

    Parts are great than the whole.

    A philosopher is starving in a rooming house, while it rains outside.

    He regards the self as just another sign.
In Palmer - and in Ashbery, and for that matter in the work of tonight's moderator - you're never sure how the poet regards the self: is it a sign of a special kind, or just another sign, or something more, and what? This kind of uncertainty about the self, and about communication, and about intimacy - can we ever really know one another if there's no such thing as a self? - has to be one of the hallmarks of our era, though we can find earlier parallels.

I'm tempted to say that the projects of dissolving the unitary self, and of bracketing or disabling reference, have gone about as far as they can go - though they've produced quite a lot of good writing. Allen Grossman's Summa Lyrica, which to me is the most important recent work of poetic theory, claims that when we read poems as poems what we are seeking in them is 'the presence of a person.' I think we are indeed imagining a person when we read a poem: we are imagining some psyche that has made this, and asking 'why would you make it that way? what kind of person would say or write, construct or sound like this, and why?' We're doing this even if we consider - as Hopkins did - the poem as a score for our own vocal performance; and we're doing it even when we read a poet who doesn't want to simulate speech (which is what - Marjorie Perloff - I thought your recent concept of 'signature' was getting at).

Louise Gluck has argued that some of our most difficult poets are practicing 'ersatz thought,' trying to take credit for grand philosophical gestures and genre-breaking meta-creations when in fact they've run out of things to say. I didn't like that essay when I first read it, but now I think she has a point. The linguistic turn, the turn towards extreme surface difficulty, in contemporary writing - and not only in self-described 'language writing' - came about in part because third-generation American confessional poetry, poetry about the biographical and affective history of the self, by the mid-1980s had become omnipresent, exhausted, and dull. ('nless it was by Glck herself, or by Frank Bidart.) But now it's disturbing to see how readily computer programs can simulate the farthest-out, least-referential 'innovative writing'; do we really want more poems that wouldn't pass Turing tests?

Going back quickly through Graham and Ashbery for this talk, I was reminded again of how many poems about 'difficulty,' poems full of semantic slipperiness, are really poems about the pathos of uncertain epistemology - about not being able to know and recognize a stable, unique, or axiomatic self, either one's own or somebody else's, and about wanting to be able to do so. Graham asks in a poem on the Civil War-- remembering, I suspect, Whitman's Civil War poems -
        Where is the mark that stays?
  Where is what makes a mark
        that stays?
What's real slides through.
  The body rots. The body won't hold it.
As Graham moves on to 'the next room and the flight simulator' it becomes clear that 'what's real' in her sense is something like a soul. Ashbery's most famous poem, 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,' declared in the early Seventies that 'the soul is not a soul' but a 'visible core': there's something in us but it ain't what we thought it was. He wrote later in 'Litany' that 'portraits'
        have no
    Bearing on the human shape, their humanitarian
    Concerns are foreign to us, who dream
    And know we are not humane, though, as seen
    By others, we are.
Poetry, Ashbery's poetry, wants to show us ourselves as ourselves, not just 'as others see us,' and at the same time poetry knows - Robert Burns knew, and Ashbery knows - that we can only access those selves through language, which comes into being because we can share it with others. 'A soul is not a soul' for the same reason there can be no such thing as a private language: 'Who would I show it to?' (Which is a one-line poem in itself, Merwin's 'Elegy.')

So I think we're near the end of the period where poets can get mileage out of dissolving the self into bits of language and culture: the great work is to see how it can be dissolved, and then to start to put it together afterwards.

One way to do that is to talk about bodies, and bodily feeling-- the athletic, or the erotic. Another is through grief and elegy. Someone to watch in both those fields is D.A. Powell, whose poems can be absolutely explicit commemorations of friends he names - often they're friends who have died with AIDS - but which are also put together out of all sorts of cultural detritus, kitschy hymns, portmanteau words, Zapf Dingbats. 'the thickness of victor decreased: blanket --> sheet --> floss. until no material would do.... we waited for his release and he was released: yellow and radiant mariposa. don't let us mend.' He's not a subtle poet, but he's a good one.

You can also reconstruct the self by thinking more generally about friendship, companionship. Ashbery's recent poems are often about that, even if they're deliciously conflicted about it: 'See, he's a very good friend for you, you know that.' 'Each noted with pleasure that the other had aged,/realising as well that new scenery would have to be sent for... and that, yes, it would be worth waiting for.' Those are lines from poems he published last month in the London Review. And then a third way back to the self might be through ethics, responsibility, solidarity. Among older poets Adrienne Rich is the key to that: I'm not sure who has followed that lead - yet.

Now we've been asked to talk about the role of the critic, and the nature of our criticism. I'm not sure there's a good general answer to this. I write about poems, for readers: how I write about them depends on the poems and the readers. Sometimes those readers are other so-called experts (who are also teachers), sometimes they're beginners (in or outside a classroom), sometimes they define themselves as poets, sometimes they define themselves as 'informed readers.' I hope we've got all four sorts here tonight. When I write an academic article on Donne, I'm trying to change the way academics read Donne. (Which might then affect their teaching.) When I review a relatively accessible poet for, say, the TLS, I'm trying to help 'informed readers' enjoy what I enjoy there - which also means saying what I find unsatisfactory. And if I'm reviewing, say, Ashbery for the same organ, I may spend a lot of time simply on exegesis, trying to show British readers that he does make sense. Which can be surprisingly difficult.

Of course what I write depends as well on my general feelings and beliefs about what kinds of things poems are, some of which - in the case of contemporary writing - I think I've just stated. **A taste for difficult, or 'avant-garde,' poetry, over the last thirty years, has tended to accompany an exalted notion of the role of criticism. If your favorite twentieth-century poets are Pound and Hart Crane, you might want more, or value more highly, interpretive and evaluative criticism than if your favorites are Langston Hughes and Larkin. But there are very good critics of Larkin's poetry: critics who have helped me, at least, see farther and more clearly into his poems.

Poetry criticism might be defined as all the kinds of writing whose immediate effect is to help people read poems - poems that help us, as Samuel Johnson put it, 'better to enjoy life or else better to endure it.' Though the poems become part of life, as well - 'part of the res itself and not about it' (Stevens). Valid tasks for criticism can include line-by-line exegeses; general introductions to formal and intellectual tools; explanations of how poems interact with other parts of culture; refutations of common fallacies or bad arguments; and even jokes. As Randall Jarrell had it, 'The best critic who ever lived could not prove that the Iliad is better than "Trees": the critic can only state his belief persuasively, and hope that the reader of the poem will agree - but persuasively covers everything from a sneer to statistics.'

Behind all these tasks - justifying them - is an assumption that we finally do have, at least from moment to moment, something like a self, or a soul, or a consciousness that remembers and emotes: and that it wants to encounter other selves, which it can do in a special, aesthetically-rewarding way through poetry; and which it may have some difficulty in doing, so that more-or-less specialized interpretive work can help. Sometimes that work will be useful, or interesting, but hardly necessary. Done badly, of course, it can scare readers away.

Stephen Burt's first book of poems, Popular Music, is published by the Center for Literary Publishing and the University Press of Colorado. He is a graduate student at Yale, where he is completing a study of Randall Jarrell. He lives in northern Manhattan.
You can read three poems by Stephen Burt in Jacket # 10.


J A C K E T  # 11 
Contents page 
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog |
 Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice
-- Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose  | about Jacket |
This material is copyright © Stephen Burt and Jacket magazine 2000
The URL address of this page is