Sunday, January 02, 2011

Stephen Burt's "Close Calls with Nonsense"

Over the New Year weekend, spent on the bus and in the Woodstock home of D and T, who kindly took in a pair of holiday orphans, I read Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, in particular, the kind he baptized Elliptical in an earlier article. To that article (included in this collection) he appends a 2004 postscript, in which he defends the notion of such a poetic "school."

I think it is interesting to try to identify the common features of several vital poetic styles, especially if they seem to develop in response to the historical moment, and if they attract emulation by younger poets. But such an identification could have the effect of rendering poets who do not write in such a style even more invisible to the literary public. This is of course a natural consequence of championing any particular school. Burt is a gentle champion. He does not make grand claims with evangelistic fervor for the Elliptical poets but invites the reader to try some rather difficult poets that he himself have enjoyed working out. With me he succeeds most with his essays on Rae Armantrout (a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet) and Liz Waldner. The most useful piece in this section of the book is the essay about the influence of John Berryman on Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Kevin Young, Susan Wheeler and Mary Jo Bang, among others.

Despite Burt's identification with the term he invented, Close Calls actually shows the catholicity of his taste. Not only does he write sensitively of the sadness of John Ashbery, he also enjoys the sociability of James Merrill's formalist verse. He is appreciative of both Robert Creeley's laconic lines and Frank O'Hara's spontaneous chatter. He attends smartly to Thom Gunn's "Kinesthetic Aesthetics" and to A. R. Ammons's "Marvelous Devising." One section of the book is devoted to non-Americans such as James K. Baxter, Les Murray, John Trantor, Denise Riley and Paul Muldoon. The last poet considered in a chapter of his own is William Carlos Williams. He is celebrated here not for his Americanness but for his innovative music.

In every essay Burt is concerned to describe what is singular in his chosen poets, what they should be valued for. And he finds very different values. If the values share anything in common, they are broadly humanistic, generously liberal. They are ethical but non-religious. Throughout he is suspicious of prescriptions, poetic or otherwise. He is interested, instead, in the development of an individual style.

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