Stevie Smith, best known for her macabre short poem “Not Waving but Drowning,” could have furnished an alternative title for Stephanie Burt’s guidebook “Don’t Read Poetry.” I’m referring to another Smith poem, “No Categories!” In it, the 20th-century Brit resists “Angels on the wing” who pose as surrogates for her Creator but serve merely as distractions. “Oh no no, you Angels, I say, / No hierarchies I pray,” Smith writes.
Burt, too, is skeptical of hierarchies. Her book all but screams “No categories!” But categories are imperative for a poetry manual, as with any didactic work. And so, a little reluctantly, Burt creates some of her own. Unlike countless guides already in circulation, hers omits perennial subjects such as the poetic line, a brief history of verse, or the resources of rhythm and imagery. Instead, Burt’s chapter headings name six plausible reasons for reading poems. They are: “Feelings,” “Characters,” “Forms,” “Difficulty,” “Wisdom” and “Community.”
The reasons are not mutually exclusive, as Burt takes pains to clarify. Nor are they criteria for judging all poems. Writing about “wisdom,” for example, she declares: “If you insist that poetry has to help people directly, that it has to offer advice or wisdom or a message you can distill for the AP exam, then you have excluded half the poems I like.” In the next paragraph, she jumps the fence: “If you insist that poems should not help people directly, send a message, or offer advice, then you have excluded the other half of the poems I like.” Above all, Burt urges readers not to approach poetry with generalizations about the genre. “We do not play ‘sports,’ but play basketball or skate,” she observes. “And I do not read (or study or write or teach) poetry so much as I read and teach the work of individual poets.” Hence Burt’s title, the shock value of which may recall Ben Lerner’s 2016 book-length essay, “The Hatred of Poetry.” She quotes William Empson approvingly: “you must rely on each particular poem to show you the way in which it is trying to be good.”
That line comes from Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” (1930), a model text of the New Criticism, which dominated the academic study of poetry for a good part of the last century. Burt credits the book with inspiring her own guide. The reference is apt: Throughout her career, much of it as the male poet-critic Stephen Burt, she has brought high-res navigation skills to chart the course a given poem takes. This type of close reading — the sine qua non of the New Critics — was also associated with Randall Jarrell, whose essays Burt republished in the early 2000s.
Despite joyfully explicating the poets and poems he loved, Jarrell could be merciless in his takedowns. (He famously described the poems of a hapless contemporary as having been “written on a typewriter by a typewriter.”) Burt lacks the appetite or, it may be, the aptitude for characterizing poems she actively dislikes. Instead, “Don’t Read Poetry” is an unremitting geyser of praise for the many different ways a poem can engage readers. In quoting particular poets, the book ranges from John Donne to Terrance Hayes, from Emily Dickinson to Angie Estes.
Burt manages such transitions with ease and rapidity. Still, because she tends to cite only one or two stanzas at a time, her comparisons of poets or poems are often superficial. This is a calculated risk on her part: Burt’s target demographic is “people who do not, or do not yet, read nearly as much” as she does. Accordingly, she hopes her window displays will send readers shopping for their favorite poems, to “assemble [their] own usable past,” as if a la carte.
In an era when mass media and technology continue to alter the practice and reception of poetry — witness today’s Instagram poets — she knows most readers will lap up her analogy between “Black Panther” and Harold Bloom’s literary theories, or her description of poems conversing with each other “like Twitter threads that go back thousands of years.” Even so, Burt can sound ingratiating, as when she hastens to assure readers that “poetry” as a concept doesn’t appeal to everyone: “it is not only too uniform but too prestigious, too old, and too white.” She also can sound too apologetic, frequently interrupting herself with qualifiers. “The first half of this chapter will look almost entirely at how poets use rhyme,” she begins, “not (and I want to underline this point with a big red Sharpie) because rhyme is necessary for virtuoso forms, but because . . .” In another sentence, she seems unable to decide even which pronoun to use: “In looking at herself, in finding a form that suits their own feelings, such a poet also describes, and envisions, the attitudes of their potential readers in a kind of double vision.” Elsewhere, as a kind of defense reflex, the word “snarky” is used repeatedly to describe a poet or poem.
In a controversial move last year, Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, poetry editors for the Nation, retracted a poem for the first time in the magazine’s history. Explaining their decision, they cited “disparaging and ableist language” by poet Anders Carlson-Wee. No matter how one feels about the editors’ claim, it is at least categorical. If “Don’t Read Poetry” had hazarded more judgments about specific types of poems — appraising and not merely praising their structural, technical and thematic content — then Burt would have produced a much finer book.
Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews, and works as an arts research director in Washington, D.C.
By Stephanie Burt
Basic. 320 pp. $30