VIRGINIA KONCHAN Reviews
Close Calls with Nonsense by Stephen Burt
(Graywolf Press, 2009)
Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense is a collection of thirty essays by Burt on contemporary poetry, including a fine introductory essay and ending with his much-discussed essay, “The Elliptical Poets,” first published in Poetry Review in 1998, and reprinted in American Letters & Commentary the following year, as well the aphoristic essay “Without Evidence,” which contains numerous, and often amusing gems, such as “Cats are lyric animals: we can never know for sure whether they need us. (Dogs, by contrast, thrive on pursuits and instructions . . . they are animals suited to narrative.)”
Burt is quite forthright about his selections and his approach to the gestalt of criticism in the preface: “I have tried to show why I like what I like, and why I like some poets and poems more than others.” A critic’s job, Burt says, 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.” Whether one agrees with Burt’s opinions or not, this is a refreshingly sober approach to the discipline of criticism. Burt’s nuanced unpacking of texts is extraordinary, and, while meta-analytical, the work retains its integrity under his scrutiny. Some might argue with his omissions or dismissals in Close Calls, but a posturing of objectivity when many critics, including Burt, have very strong opinions (“observational bias” in social science parlance) can be even more corrosive than any rhetorical posture or setting forth of likes and dislikes.
The inseparability of subjectivity and aesthetic judgment (an ever-finer distinction), is elucidated in Burt’s reading of William Carlos Williams’ poem “To a Poor Old Woman: “They [the plums] taste good to her/ They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her.” As an example of how Burt’s attention to lineation (a poem’s spine) abets appreciation: “They taste good to her (you might not like them); they taste good (not merely adequate); she tastes them, taking them into her body rather than merely contemplating them.”
Randall Jarrell’s remark that poetry doesn’t need to be defended, it needs to be read, jump-starts Burt’s introductory essay Close Calls with Nonsense: How to Read and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry; likewise, if the average reader really believed cash to be analogous to poetry, as Wallace Stevens did (“Poetry is a kind of money”), the quandary of contemporary poetry’s steadily declining readership would be solved.
Burt’s selections are largely of Anglo, Irish and American poets: this book would best be read in conjunction with the anthology New European Poets, which gives space to the exciting contemporary poetry being written today in Eastern as well as Western Europe.
Giving equal space to those poets whose work is deconstructive and those whose work is more elegiac or neo-baroque, Ashbery figures here as the bridge over troubled waters. The introduction to Burt’s essay on Ashbery shows Ashbery to successfully evade any tag of gigantism foisted on him: “The great inventor of a style fluid enough to reflect our uncertain times, a helpless symbol of those times, an incomprehensible hoax, a clear-as-glass poet of loneliness and dejection, the greatest living surrealist, the last Romantic . . . readers and reviews have bestowed on John Ashbery all these labels. Meanwhile Ashbery has gone on writing his poems.”
Among the more revelatory essays (many of which began as reviews) is his essay on C.D. Wright’s collaborations with photographer Deborah Luster. All three of Wright’s book-length poems (Just Whistle: A Valentine; Deepstep Coming Shining; One Big Self) grew out of her work with Luster; this essay—“Lightsource, Aperture, Face: C.D. Wright and Photography” is as richly informative as it is humanitarian, particularly the excerpt on the collaboration of One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. “ . . . for Wright, as for Luster, the photograph need not discipline, nor need it serve bourgeois privilege. In these photographs, prisoners can imagine what it would be like to control their own bodies, to choose what face they show the world.” This haunting essay ends with a reference to Wright’s most recent collection Rising Falling Hovering and her focus on the power of the face: “The literal darkness through which the immigrants must move . . . stand for the ways in which U.S. citizens find it almost impossible to “see,” to acknowledge them, as fully human persons.”
Burt investigates the grammatical subject with just as much probity as he does the poem “itself”—and when gender politics underscores the work of a particular poet in this book, Burt’s analysis is formidable. From Burt’s reading of British poet Denise Riley’s poem “Lyric”: “This ‘it’ behaves like an ‘I,’ that is, it both seeks and escapes definition; Riley’s opening metaphors consider it both as a driven machine (like a motorboat) and as a natural creature who sings like a bird (like Keats’ nightingale). And yet not “I” but “my burden” becomes the “subject” of Riley’s sentence: “lyric” projects a speaker (or a “subject”) able to have (and “hold”) experiences without being able to substantiate (or “hold”) any firm beliefs about what or who does the experiencing.”
Quoting generously from the poet’s actual work, Burt is quick to point out when space (or his preferences on how a poet navigates subject matter) impedes further exposition: “I have also skimped on [Liz] Waldner’s large-scale imitation of source texts—of nineteenth-century botanists, of seventeenth-century essayists, of Greek geometers. I have skimped in describing Waldner’s commitment to theology as a subject, preferring her Christian symbols and allusions when they are vehicles rather than tenors.”
“It’s difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there,” said William Carlos Williams. If held to be true, this is a social, rather than academic, problem; all intelligent attempts at ameliorating this problem should properly be seen as grist for the mill. “Few kinds of writing seem so dated, so clearly wrong, as old book reviews,” Burt says in his introduction; hindsight is, after all, 20-20 (if that), but poets as well as the “average reader,” led more by instinct than erudition, eventually work in concert to decide what will be remembered by posterity.
This book is worth reading for a few singular essays alone: his essays on D.A. Powell, Paul Muldoon (early and late) and A.R. Ammons, among others, are genuine articles of critical scholarship, as exacting as they are passionate. In these essays, among others, Burt’s powers of criticism—the art of, ideally, shedding light on a subject—are bar none.
Close Calls with Nonsense should incite, rather than close down, discussions on the subject (and readership) of contemporary poetry today. Critical texts on contemporary poetry are far too rare, and the heated response to anthological attempts to create an assemblage of voices (however exclusivist), such as American Hybrid, prove only that contemporary poetry needs more, not fewer, texts such as these, without the reactionary fear that critical texts on poetry or contemporary anthologies of poetry are the final word.
Virginia Konchan's poetry and critical writings have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as The New Republic, The Believer, Notre Dame Review, Rain Taxi, and American Poetry Journal. She is also a contributing reviewer for ForeWord Magazine.