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Stephen Burt

Without Evidence

(remarks on reading contemporary poetry and on reading about it)

for Michael Scharf


Formalist criticism wants to make itself unnecessary; historicist criticism, to make itself indispensable.

To do a poem justice, explain what makes it unique; to get noticed, explain what makes it typical.

One can demonstrate to skeptics the explicit rules which govern a skill, or a game, but not those which govern an art. Skeptics thus suspect art forms of possessing rules which are trade secrets, or rules which are really table manners (Bourdieu).

Snobbery in the arts is reverse snobbery.

‘A poem is either worth everything, or worth nothing.’ So say Romantics, equating a life with a poem.

Why value the appearance of effort in poetry? Why value apparent (or actual) effortlessness? The first appears to demonstrate the mastery of a craft: the second, to demonstrate that poetry is not a craft at all.

‘I stop somewhere waiting for you’ (Whitman): the poet as teacher, or leader, who promises that we will catch up to him later, and knows that we never will. (Though certain exceptionally confident poets — Ginsberg, for example — would later claim to have done just that.)

Writers in difficult, or ‘innovative,’ modes appear more likely than others to make large claims for the (political or intellectual) importance of their art: to justify greater effort on our part, we may require the promise or hope of a correspondingly greater reward.

Not song vs. speech but song vs. speech vs. writing. (See John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem.) Medieval manuscript poets say, Chaucer to Skelton cared less for the last of those oppositions, perhaps because less alert to it: harder, therefore, for us — who type and cut and paste and duplicate files — to think in terms appropriate to their craft.

The supposed requirement that a poem justify its existence during political or ethical emergencies (and there is always an emergency) is not the same as the demand that poets take action during such emergencies: we could apply the latter demand to carpenters, but not the former to tables or chairs.

Poems, as such, defend the private life.

What if the ways in which we think (or have been taught to think) about lyric poetry do not depend on our tacit acceptance of a liberal individualism, but instead support (provide evidence for) it?

‘Modern critics... have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact’; ‘to understand codes other than your own is likely to make your judgments better.’ William Empson’s formulation, as he seems to have recognized, places the central ethical work of literature largely in prose fiction (and perhaps in the feature film). Modern poetry, unless it rejects Empson’s liberalism entirely, then gets to answer the question: what else can imaginative writing do?

The difference between representing (in poetry) an ethical, political or psychological desideratum and contributing to its achievement.

‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry’ (Yeats). But rhetoric and poetry are not distinct; each of us bears ‘others’ in ourselves, and hears or speaks for them in all our quarrels.

Paratext as poetic material (Kent Johnson). Not ‘How do we get beyond the name of the poet, the name of the press, the context of discovery, to the actual poem?’ but ‘How can we know if and when we have ever done so?’

‘If I am an unknown man, and publish a wonderful book, it will make its way very slowly, or not at all. If I, become a known man, publish that very same book, its praise will echo over both hemispheres... You have to obtain reputation before you can get a fair hearing for that which would justify your reputation... If a man can’t hit upon any other way of attracting attention, let him dance on his head in the middle of the street; after that he may hope to get consideration for his volume of poems.’ George Gissing’s Jasper Milvain will earn our contempt but is he wrong?

‘Fame, the being known, though in itself one of the most dangerous things to man, is nevertheless the true and appointed air, element, and setting of genius and its works’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins). But ‘Publication is the auction/ Of the mind of man’ (Dickinson).

Enter the academy too completely, and the writing of poetry becomes a job. Stay too far outside it financial considerations aside — and you may find yourself (1) without a sense that anyone will read your work, or (2) the captive of a partisan school whose programmatic tastes will damage your work, or (3) surrounded by people who read and praise all, and only, the work of poets they know personally. (But the academy may not prevent those outcomes.)

‘Dead poets don’t do readings.’ Contemporary literary culture, makes it far easier to ‘revive’ a living author with a new book than a dead one, or one who has vanished from all literary ‘scenes.’ Dickinson simply kept going and Hopkins had Bridges; but what about Rosalie Moore?

Nothing so powerfully prompts the completion or even the start of a piece of writing as the writer’s belief that when it is finished, somebody will publish it.


A poem has a form, and changes that form (Bidart). Any poem is therefore ‘the exception that proves the rule.’

Poetry as a second language within any spoken or written (natural) language; a second language containing its own mutually incomprehensible dialects, to be acquired by visiting the place or milieu in which they become the norm.

Love poem and elegy (in the modern sense of ‘mourning poem’) seem central to lyric, as lyric seems central to ‘modern poetry’: why? The lyric project (Allen Grossman explains) makes persons present to one another at the site of reading (which thereby resembles listening). The love poem imagines (or tropes) that project’s success within the diegetic world of the poem reader meets poet as lover meets beloved. ‘Thy firmness makes my circle just/ And makes me end where I begun’ (Donne); ‘The poem/ Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you’ (Ashbery). Elegy, on the other hand, appears to describe the same project’s failure (since the living do not meet the dead): thus W. S. Merwin’s one-line ‘Elegy’: ‘Who would I show it to.’

How much does the art you yourself practice, or make, share with what Sappho made? With what Richard Lovelace made? With what Gertrude Stein made? With what Edward Thomas made? With what these writers thought, or said, they had made?

Certain critics tell us that ‘I’ in 1601 meant something almost entirely unlike what it means now, for us; how could we prove otherwise? The problem of historical reading especially, but not only, for lyric turns out to be the Problem of Other Minds.

Cats are lyric animals: we can never know for sure whether they need us. (Dogs, by contrast, thrive on pursuits and instructions hence on narrative.)

‘I am I because my little dog knows me’ (Stein). Poets who attend to their ‘little dogs,’ and write the same poem over and over; poets who lack little dogs, whom nobody knows.

Style as persona as reason to live. Bob Kane: ‘I was studying metaphysics then, and had delved into meditation, in order to figure out what I could do if Batman ended. This was an especially disturbing problem because I had always felt that Batman and I were one.’

‘The Burden of the Past’ (W. J. Bate). We complain rightly about judges who take, as their prime criterion of value, how well a work reflects or embodies its time. Yet given the variety and the powers of work from other times, given all that previously-existing poems have managed to do, should we expect contemporary work to excel in any other way? Reflecting its time, depicting what’s going on now, being ‘as contemporary as possible’ the one project for which past masters can offer the present-day poet no competition.

New poetry must ‘create the taste by which it is to be admired’ (Wordsworth). But not ex nihilo: to distinguish typical from exceptional examples of a new style or school, we appeal tacitly or explicitly to older, or at least other, ways of reading, which the new ways will later modify.

‘The question of whether the dismantling of all expectation-satisfying devices isn’t in the last analysis the dismantling of the novel’ (Frank Kermode). What expectations does a really good longish ‘experimental’ poem Hejinian’s Happily, say; Mayer’s Midwinter Day set up and then satisfy? Are those expectations different in kind from the expectations set up, and then satisfied, by Don Juan or In Memoriam? Or by Paterson? Or by somebody’s diary?

‘Most short poems of our time belong to well-defined subgenres. But these modern subgenres are so numerous that, being mostly unlabeled, they are unrecognized in the main, and hard to describe’ (Alastair Fowler). Consider, in very recent poetry: the letter or faux-letter poem (beginning, usually, ‘Dear X’ or ‘Dear ‘); the newsy collage; the ‘archaic’ fragment, or homage to Sappho; the list of one-line enumerated items... Does it matter whether other readers will likely identify these subgenres, or know their other members?

An interest in poems, as against an interest in poetry.

The approach to an art (poetry, say) which asks What next? or What now? may prove incompatible with the approach which says, simply, How does this individual piece of language burn or shine? The first is strategic, the second tactical; or, the first is historicist, the second formalist; or, the first is meretricious, the second genuine; or, the first is realistic, the second willfully ignorant. The first approach makes book reviewing easier, since even the dullest work has a context; the second in its rarely-encountered pure state makes reviewing bad or mediocre work all but impossible.

Consider a language of criticism which described only successful effects, only what a poem actually managed to do (rather than what it wanted to do, or what it resembled); in such a language describing bad or mediocre poetry would become impossible about such poems there would simply be nothing to say.

Our habits, informed by older poetry, give us assumptions about how poems (and, for example, how line breaks) cohere, communicate, mean, i.e. how to derive, from them, propositions. Those assumptions allow us not only to enjoy, but to interpret, language which does not consist of propositions, or whose propositions would not cohere outside of poems. ‘Wonderful light/ viridian summers/ deft boys/ no thanks’ (Denise Riley);’On lake water our faces stay./ Even the river does not carry them downstream./ Dreaming is local’ (Allan Peterson); ‘We choose our friends as we choose to leave/ The window open’ (Chris Stroffolino). Such poems use (and use well) our assumptions about propositions and coherence, assumptions derived from older poems which themselves cohere (make continuous prose sense), as Riley’s and Peterson’s and Stroffolino’s do not.

Does such use, or ‘parasitism,’ begin with the High Moderns? With Christopher Smart? Are contemporary uses of this structure ever different in kind from Eliot’s? From Smart’s? From Stein’s? (Did the ‘New Sentence’ at its best simply make punctuation and grammatical closure do the work previously alloted to line breaks?)

‘New Critical’ desiderata compression, polysemy, irony as the end-products of ‘print culture’; poems which foreground those qualities likely end up as far as possible from the requirements (formulae, low information density, narrative component, audience interaction) which typify oral poetries. If changes in taste since about 1955 have moved most of us farther from those onetime desiderata, what have they therefore moved us towards? Is it more ‘oral’? Or more visual? Or more ‘interactive’?

By the way, who are ‘we’?

Works Cited

Ashbery: ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ (Shadow Train), in Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1986): 283.

Bate: The Burden of the Past and the English Poet

Bidart: ‘Borges and I,’ in Desire (New York: FSG, 1997): 9.

Donne: ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’

Empson: ‘Tom Jones’ (1958); Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, ed. Sheridan Baker (New York: Norton, 1995): 719.

Fowler: Kinds of Literature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982): 114.

Gissing: New Grub Street (1891) (New York: Modern Library, 1926): 411.

Hopkins: letter to Robert Bridges, Oct. 13, 1886.

Kane: Bob Kane with Tom Andrac, Batman and Me (1989), quoted in Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked (London: Continuum, 2000): 179.

Keats: letter to John Taylor, Feb. 27 1818.

Kermode: ‘The English Novel, circa 1907,’ in Pieces of My Mind (New York: FSG, 2003): 70

Riley: ‘Not What You Think,’ in Selected Poems (Cambridge: Reality Street, 2000). I print the whole poem.

Peterson: ‘Mood Music,’ in Anonymous Or (Fort Montgomery: Defined Providence, 2001).

Stein: ‘Identity A Poem’

Stroffolino: ‘Song You Can’t Shake Out,’ in Stealer’s Wheel (West Stockbridge, Mass.: Hard Press, 1999).

Wordsworth: preface to Lyrical Ballads

Yeats: ‘Anima Hominis’

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