Ellipses and Trust: Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense

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Close Calls with Nonsense  by Stephen Burt  Softcover, $19.00 Graywolf Press 2009

Close Calls with Nonsense
by Stephen Burt
Softcover, $19.00
Graywolf Press, 2009

In the preface to this collection of essays and reviews, Stephen Burt describes the “business of critics”: it is “not to assign stars, or to pick winners in poet vs. poet contests. It is to say what interests us, what seems trustworthy, inventive, memorable, new; to say, when appropriate, why a work fails; to show how we read, what we choose to reread, and why.”

When I read this programmatic credo, my eye caught not on the (fairly unexceptional, though eloquent) enumeration of the duties of the critic, but on the quality of trustworthiness that Burt implies marks good poetry—or poetry, at any rate, that the critic ought to be identifying for the reader. Trustworthiness seems to me to be more of a critical virtue than a poetic one; while some good poetry may ask for the reader’s trust, the good critic requires it. And while some great poetry even defies the possibility of trust, no great critic does so. From where, then, does Burt draw this ideal of trustworthiness in poetry?

The cheap and ready answer is that Burt, like most poet-critics, imagines the distinction between poetry and criticism as fairly permeable: the virtues, aims, and occasionally the rhetorics of one form travel with minor impediments to the other. But even if that is true, it doesn’t do very much to answer what trustworthiness means to Burt. The answer to that underlying question, or what seem to be two not entirely compatible answers, both anchor the collection and bisect it.

The bisection can be seen even in the table of contents. The collection begins with a preface that is subtitled “In Favor of One’s Time,” followed by five sections: the first consisting of a single essay on “How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, New Poetry;” the second containing mostly reviews of poets Burt has identified as Elliptical poets; the third and fourth composed of more substantial essays on the collected or selected works of more famous poets, miscellaneous acknowledged masters of twentieth or twenty-first century poetry—Muldoon, Ashbery, Creeley, Merrill, O’Hara, Williams, et al.; and the last comprising the famous essay in which Burt introduced the concept of Elliptical poetry itself, as well as a free-style collection of pithy observations about poetry and criticism. In the essay “The Elliptical Poets,” Burt describes the loosely-defined school:

Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisionally in identities (in one—or in at least one—“I” per poem), but they suspect the I’s [sic] they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how a little can go a long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don’t believe in, or seek, a judicious tone.

The preface and the first, second, and fifth sections are fairly unified in tone, purpose, and subject: they are instructive, introductory, and (in a very benign sense) promotional—they are written to get you to trust the idea that you can read and enjoy poetry being written today by poets of whom you may have never heard. This unity, however, makes his essays on well-established poets seem like literal interruptions—out of place, detachable, and even not terribly important. They stand out rather obviously as what they probably are: a way of assuring the casual reader of poetry that they aren’t going to be completely lost in this collection of essays, that they are not entering wholly unfamiliar territory. The unified project, which is grounded in this concept Burt has introduced of “Elliptical poetry,” feels very much as if it wants to and could stand on its own. These introductory / promotional essays are genuinely exciting, especially to a reader who is encountering the poetry, if not the names of these poets (Rae Armantrout, C. D. Wright, Laura Kasischke, and others) for the first time.

Yet we cannot and certainly should not just have done with these essays on the masters and suggest that sections three and four be skipped. While some of the essays on established masters are not terribly inspired, and seem more like Burt is proving that he can write about the poet rather than that he wants to, a number of the essays are quite good, particularly those on Thom Gunn and A. R. Ammons. A few of the essays in section four are introductions to poets not terribly well-known in the United States—James K. Baxter, Les Murray, Denise Riley and John Tranter—and these are exceptional. Strangely, it seems Burt is most comfortable when he assumes the least knowledge on the part of the audience; he is most at home in a purely didactic role. I speculate that this is due to the (acknowledged) influence of Harvard colleague Helen Vendler’s criticism; the difference being that Vendler is comfortably didactic about any and all poets, not just the little-known ones.

Still, the presence of these sections does create problems that go deeper than the collection’s organization. It is not just that the essays on well-established poets seem to interrupt a unified and fairly pointed project; but their presence requires a very different way of reading criticism, even, I think, a very different way of engaging with poetry. And while this is a collection of miscellaneous reviews, the pretense it raises of a more unified theme—trusting, reading and enjoying new poetry—begs the question of whether the difference isn’t too great between an essay on the collected or selected works of a well-established (and in many cases dead) poet and an essay on a poet still very much in formation, unknown to the readers of “glossy magazines.” Aren’t these quite separate ways of engaging with poetry going to pull the reader in different directions? Aren’t they asking for very different kinds of trust?

At the beginning of his preface, Burt likens the essays that follow to instructions for “unassembled furniture”—like an Ikea bookshelf or desk. But as anyone who has put together one of those before knows, even if it seems simple, it helps the more you’re familiar with what the finished product will look like. Criticism about poetry that has been lauded, cited, and read many times over creates its own kind of trustworthiness—one founded on familiarity, typicality, and recognizability. Having seen what it looks like when someone (you or a critic or a professor) has drawn a reading out of a difficult Ashbery or an O’Hara poem—at the very least, having seen someone struggle with one before—there is an ease to following the instructions again, an assurance that you’ll be able to put together something that resembles what you’ve seen before. Thus, the bookcase will stand, even if it wobbles.

The type of trust Burt hopes to elicit on behalf of his Ellipticals, on behalf of new poetry, is different: even knowing you’ve got all the parts for a bookcase in your hands, you must trust the instructions rather than what you’ve seen before. Frequently, the intermediate steps may look wrong or unlikely to coalesce. The larger structure isn’t so quick to emerge, and the work of the small screws and nails is rarely evident until the end.

To quit this metaphor, the distinction between these two modes or forms of trust can be summed up in the difference between what a reader feels when she can locate a poem within a larger framework—of literary history, of the author’s biography, of social/intellectual capital—and what a reader feels when she can locate herself in a poem. Or, in similar words, Burt writes, “To do a poem justice, explain what makes it unique; to get a poem noticed, explain what makes it typical.”

Burt is obviously right to want to get certain poems noticed, but this sort of thing can quite easily go too far. In both his essays on well-established poets and on lesser-known ones, the reader is told quite often that a poet has a “wholly recognizable style;” that “you’re not reading [so-and-so] if you don’t come across passages like this one…” Burt identifies “trademarks,” “signature grammatical moves,” leitmotifs, habits, and “key words” which the poet uses frequently; he directs “future anthologists” and “denizens of the twenty-second century” to specific poems that he feels should be preserved as either the poet’s best or most typical. Occasionally, these hints seem more like test-prep crib-sheets to cram with — as if the reader will be facing a double-column matching exam:

  • C. D. Wright              A. Proper Nouns

  • Paul Muldoon            B. Photography

  • D. A. Powell              C. parent/mother/mommy

  • Rae Armantrout        D. hyperclosure

It is certainly not that Burt’s attempts to fix certain poetic traits in the reader’s mind are anything less than genuine: Burt wants to help give the reader a sense that she is in control, and these highlighter-ready ideas are one of the quickest measures to pass on that sense from the critic to the reader. Yet I can’t help but think, in the case of a new poet whose work I am more familiar with, that the test-preppy elements of Burt’s review of D. A. Powell’s Cocktails—a great, very appreciative and insightful review covering all three of Powell’s books up to that point—did very little to help me think my way through Powell’s latest volume, Chronic. Although Chronic didn’t depart, formally speaking, very greatly from those three books Burt reviewed, his “instructions” told me not that much about how to incorporate the new rivets and bolts that Powell introduced. There was a structure already, and ultimately I had to trust myself that I could pull it apart and fit the new pieces in, and everything would come back together. Take, for instance, a passage like,

She is the poet of the prom in the past, the cocktail party next week, and the nursing home in the future, the poet of strollers in driveways and the “Credit Card in My Hand” (the title of a poem from her 2002 collection, Dance and Disappear). She is the poet of walking out of a walk-in closet certain that the wrong choice will ruin your evening (see “Black Dress,” Lilies Without); the poet of realizing that you hired the wrong babysitter, of realizing that you were once the wrong babysitter; of teens who tell their mothers “You ruined my life,” of the mothers who hear them; of the life that you have to revisit, decades later, in order to know whether it was ruined at all.

Burt is here seeking more to encompass the poet (who is Laura Kasischke), to outstretch her, to show the reader that he’s gotten all of her in his grasp. This sort of criticism, which is very common not only in regards to poetry, but also to novels and music, finds the critic proving that he can not only keep up with the poet in her eclecticism, that he too can say “I contain multitudes,” but that he can also sweep up those stochastic, swirling multitudes into a tidy pile; not so much defining the poet as confining her, enclosing her like a tornado in a bottle. The problem with this type of criticism is precisely that the subjects often acquire new multitudes, stretch further than the critic’s span, break out of the bottle, and the reader is rather on her own. Burt’s tendencies to confine his subjects further by means of the crib-sheet notes only exacerbates this more general tendency.

Fortunately, Burt’s essays also provide the reader with the seeds of that self-trust, which has little to do with signature moves or “trademarks,” little to do with the typical or the recognizable, and little to do with “instructions.” Instead of confining the poet within a list of her quirks and quiddities, Burt digs at essences, at what is most important, most germinal:

It is [Mary Jo] Bang’s insistence on the artifice that enables a love affair—on the self as something consciously, even lavishly, constructed for others’ temporary consumption—that links her view of the self most securely to Berryman’s, her story to the stories the Dream Songs tell… In its set of signs for inconsistency, for the self’s failure to hold together as one thing, Bang’s verse offers her own version of the “I am an X, I am a Y” device we saw in [Mark] Levine and others: “She would be a blue new, the terrain of now, / a nice never waiting, one destined / for pleasure in that place.”

The difference between criticism that defines and criticism that confines can certainly be overstated, and I absolutely do not mean to imply that Burt should aim his critical talents only at essences. So many of the poets he writes about are scattershot and require a minimal degree of tidying up in order to begin to make some sense out of their errant interests. Yet criticism that confines merely gives the reader a sense of trust in being able to recognize or approximate a poet’s body of work, not to understand it or absorb it into themselves.

In his double review of Allan Peterson and Terrance Hays, Burt drops what may be my favorite description of “difficult” poetry: “One way to make things interesting is to make them difficult—not impenetrable, but resistant to our first guesses.” Perhaps it is just that this reminds me, for some vague reason, of Robert Duncan’s “place of first permission,” from “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” perhaps because of the word “first,” but also, I think, because Duncan’s meadow is how I have often thought of “difficult” poetry:

a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought…

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

At any rate, “resistant to our first guesses” is an incredible way of describing the type of poetry that requires and rewards self-trust, the confidence to make second and third guesses. Burt’s formulation itself implies the availability of this confidence, and implies that the role of the critic is someone who principally assists the reader in forming those second and third guesses.

Burt is very aware of the difference between this confidence and the simple assurance of the crib-sheet, and acknowledges it implicitly by revising not so much the meaning as the style of his essay on Elliptical poetry. Compare the following passage from Burt’s new introduction to new poetry, which he acknowledges is a “broader, more careful introduction to the contemporary poets I liked” to the confining list of traits or “family resemblances” excerpted above:

look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot. Enjoy double meanings: don’t feel you must choose between them. Ask what the disparate elements have in common: Do they stand for one another, or for the same thing? Are they opposites, irreconcilable alternatives? Or do they fit together to describe a world? Look for self-analyses or for frame-breaking moments, when the poem stops to tell you what it describes… Use your own frustration, or the poem’s apparent obliquity, as a tool: many of these poems include attacks on the assumptions or pretenses that make ordinary conversational language, and newspaper prose, so smooth.

This is also definitional, like the earlier crib-sheet list of characteristics, but it is also a way of representing a certain field (or meadow) which isn’t entirely within the critic’s grasp, a place within each poem to which we are permitted to return until our second guesses provoke the poem to disclose itself more fully.

In the end, it is Burt’s skill in drawing out second guesses in just the space of a few pages that makes essays like those on Armantrout or Liz Waldner, or the spectacular one on the debts many new poets owe to John Berryman, both exciting and, simply, educational — but most importantly, it makes them empowering. It is not so much that I feel that I know what to recognize in these poets or what is recognizable about them, what makes them tick and how to listen, but that I feel confident sliding from first guesses to second. It is not a matter of repeating instructions or reconstructing a proven structure, but of finding a place within the poem to which I can return until it speaks more fully to me. Burt does offer this experience to the reader on many occasions, and when he does, the essays really fly.

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About Daniel Pritchard

Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame. His poetry, translations, and criticism can also be found at Harvard Review online, Slush Pile Magazine, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Little Star, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere.