Monday, July 20, 2009

Stephen Burt - Close Calls with Nonsense

Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry concludes with a fun little pastiche of ideas called “Without Evidence.” I really like little general fragments about poetry. What follows are some of my favorite of his fragments, and some of the things they got me to thinking. (His are in quotes, mine italics.)

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

And often those skeptics are other poets, who should know better.

“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.”

That seems to be an older configuration, one that had more to do with the poetry wars of the 80s than it does now. I think, anyway (I’m not sure though), that most of the poets Burt would consider difficult or innovative don’t make such grand claims?

“What if the ways in which we can think . . . about lyric poetry do not depend on our tacit acceptance of a liberal individualism . . . , but instead support . . . it?”

Nice. The whole instance vs. occurrence configuration. I’m already a fan! And then, with that, here’s a fun question for each of us, all the time:

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

Which causes me to wonder: how much does the art that you yourself practice, or make, share with what the great poets not yet born will make? With what these writers will think, or say, they have made?

“. . . . Reflecting our own time, depicting what’s going on now, being ‘absolutely modern,’ is one project for which past masters offer the present-day poet no competition.”

I disagree with this assertion, to an extent, as the poets from the past are always giggling and pointing. They think we’re cute with our “newness.” It’s a terrible thing to awaken one day finding Wallace Stevens at your bedroom window, giggling and pointing at you.

“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.”

This is the problem our age is in right now, I feel. Poetry is being written (and has been written) that resists classroom taxonomy. It can’t be taught the way we were taught to teach literature. So what do we do? Mostly, we ignore it. Talking about a lot of new poetry now, is not available to nearly anyone who currently teaches poetry in High School or college. And we’re not doing much to educate those going into education. I think this is a new problem. New Criticism allowed us a very straight-forward “system” of reading. Something a teacher could verify. The sorts of performances that a lot of new poetry seems to call for from a reader is fundamentally different. Am I overstating this?

“Consider a language of criticism that 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, since about such poems there would just be nothing to say.”

Well, for one person. It seems that one’s conception of success is not universal. As I look around, I’m continually befuddled by why some people like bad poetry so much. And I’m sure many others feel the same way. And if we were to share lists of names, they’d be incompatible. We will always have this with us.

“By the way, who are ‘we’?”

Seriously! And here’s another homework question for us:

“Must a poet, nowadays, entertain an unsustainable notion of poetry’s importance (to the poet herself, to a community, to the future, to somebody else) in order to put in the time to develop the craft that will make other people, later on, want to bother to reread her poems?”

I don’t think so. I think most poets write and think in what I would call “thrall” where such questions are immaterial. But there must be times where one questions? A crisis of faith moment? This question is far from me. I don’t have access to it. Can someone help me?

“On the one hand, the insistence that poets need to acquire some hard-to-acquire knowledge, and to learn, by practicing, their art . . . here we find a professionalism . . . .” On the other hand, the insistence that poetry is that which cannot be pinned down, that which cannot be reduced to technique . . . here we find a kind of amateurism . . . .” Thus the pressure on poets—once we can no longer see ourselves as apprentices, nor as students—to be amateur and professional at once: to be both, in each poem, with each word.”

That’s a nice way to end, calling us to the page with a dual intelligence. Now for the tricky part:


At 7/20/2009 6:26 AM, Blogger Heather June said...

"Poetry is being written (and has been written) that resists classroom taxonomy. It can’t be taught the way we were taught to teach literature. So what do we do?"

Indeed. I'd love to hear what kinds of strategies teachers have come up with for teaching the New Poetry both as literature and from the perspective of craft/creative writing. This is something I'm struggling with.

At 7/20/2009 6:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, me too. The best poetry in this mode, I think, doesn't want struggle so much as a sort of "experiencing" . . . and the ways we're taught to read is much more struggle-oriented (Find the allusion for five bonus points!).

Burt's opening chapter, "Close Calls with Nonsense: How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry" is a good place to start. I'm going to run it past the lit people in my department when school starts back up in late August. Will it work? Probably not, at least in their/ our teaching. But it might help in their own reading. I think that's the first step?

At 7/20/2009 7:37 AM, Blogger knott said...

i always read your comments with interest, even if i don't understand or agree with them—

by the way, i noticed your list link to my blog is to my old defunct one—

my current blog is:


At 7/20/2009 11:23 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Link fixed.

Yeah, I'm not all that sure of what I'm saying sometimes myself.

I have a real difficulty with certainty-- sometimes everything feels reductive to me, which is probably why I like the poetry I like-- it fits my disposition.

At 7/20/2009 11:43 AM, Blogger knott said...

thanks for renewing the link——if i can figure out how to do it i'll reciprocate (the technical aspects of blogging are often beyond me)—

i do appreciate getting to read the poems you post——

it's hard for me to keep up with the newer poetry (and i'm not even sure that poets my age should try very hard to do so, for that matter),

so checking your blog for them (as well as your think-pieces)

is always worthwhile——


At 7/22/2009 10:46 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Isn't 'Post-avant poetry" an oxymoron?

At 7/22/2009 11:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I think that name was supposed to be a placeholder for some later name? I know Reginald Shepherd liked using it. I don't think Burt's much for it, as he already had the "Elliptical" name out there.

Names come and go . . . already I see "Post-Avant" fading.

At 7/26/2009 9:35 PM, Blogger Ashley said...

I'm reading and mulling this over since my brushes with theory have been overshadowed by my day job for far too long.
I am, however, going to comment on your statement: "It’s a terrible thing to awaken one day finding Wallace Stevens at your bedroom window, giggling and pointing at you."

If Wallace Stevens were at my bedroom window, giggling and pointing at me, I would tell him to go to hell and call ADT first thing in the morning. While nothing is "new", I agree that newness is very much in the mode of delivery and the ability to deliver art, for whatever audience, in a way that causes the recipient to jar themselves out of their automatic thinking about the world. Mode of delivery can do that with the same words. (Yoda's speech patterns for example in StarWars. While not poetry, try speaking it sometime and see how people consider the most mundane words.)

At 7/27/2009 4:49 AM, Blogger Ross Brighton said...

"am I overstating this?" No.
Have you read Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary by Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr?

I read it a while ago, and remember it being quite good.

Anyone interested in teaching contemporary poetry should also check out What is Poetry: Conversations with the American avant garde by Daniel Kane.

Gary- Post-Avant is, etymologically, an oxymoron. I for one don't particularly like the term, but there is a good post on it here:

At 7/27/2009 11:30 AM, Blogger Michael Theune said...

Thanks for drawing attention to "Without Evidence," which might be my favorite part of Burt's book, as well.

What I like about it is how it weaves into itself its own doubts--very different from some of the headlong criticism that occurs at times elsewhere in the book...

For example, in "Close Calls...," an essay that argues for more attention to be paid to a particular kind of poetry (Elliptical) but then, at the beginning of its final paragraph, states that 90% of anything written is no good... This essay admirably expresses its doubts, but it fails to do anything critically creative with them...

At 7/27/2009 11:47 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


The police? I guess I'd call a medium, thinking about it.


90%... mostly, I'd say that's a little high for poetry that I'm disposed to like, and low for poetry I'm disposed not to like, which is also an undisclosed aspect of most essays on aesthetics.


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