Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday 30 December 2011

"Close Calls with Nonsense" by Stephen Burt (Graywolf Press, 2009)

The book comprises reprints of articles and extended reviews (often of Collected works) about young US poets, non-US poets, famous US poets and the Ellipticals. They show people like me new routes into poems without sounding too preachy, pointing out the flaws I might see - e.g.

  • "When Revell's 1990s poems failed, they didn't make sense; when his new poems fail, they make too much sense, or rather avoid sense in overfamiliar ways", p.65
  • "Herrera's worst poems seem disorganised, excessive, frantic; his best seem disheveled, excited, uncommonly free", p.94
  • "all [Les Murray's] books include clumsiness and redundancy, masses of lines it's hard to take seriously", p.166; "over and over (it seems to me) [Les Murray's] Collected Poems places clumsy or merely doctrinaire work right next to some of the best descriptive poetry in the language", p.174

while also showing some strengths I'm not very responsive to. The book is written "especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, "Is that all there is?"" (p.5). It has sections trying to explain the work of some supposedly difficult poets - contemporary US (e.g. Armantrout) but also WC Williams and GB poets (Denise Riley and Muldoon). Burt's associated with the term "Elliptical poets", those who "broke up syntax, but reassembled it; they tried (as had [Jory] Graham) to adapt Language poets' disruptions to traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings), and tried (as Graham did not) to keep their poems short, song-like or visually vivid". He points out that the younger poets belong "to the first generation of American poets who may have grown up without even a vestigial connection to the accentual-syllabic, rhyming English tradition - his inventive lines have this absence at their back" (p.122). In his introduction he points out that one needs to keep an open mind

  • "Some of the most celebrated "difficult" poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half"
  • "In pursuing certain virtues - colorful local effects, personae and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language - the current crop of American poets necessarily give up on others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the 17th and 18th centuries (and in WH Auden and Marianne Moore)",

He writes that "Most of the new North American poets I've liked lately share a surface difficulty: they tease or demand or frustrate; they're hard or impossible to paraphrase; and they try not to tell stories", p.6. The explanations he gives are helpful, as are his tips on p.11-13 for reading such poetry -

  • "look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot"
  • "Enjoy double meanings: don't feel you have to choose between them" - are they related?
  • "Look for self-analyses or for frame-breaking moments"
  • "Ask what kind of nonpoetic speech or text a given line evokes"
  • "Look for patterns you might seek in visual arts .. what sort of person would juxtapose [these phrases] and why?"
  • "gamelike poems focus on artifice (and personality) at the expense of 'sincere' or 'natural' speech. That artifice can carry meaning in itself: often it tries to demonstrate that selves, personalities, egos, are themselves artificial, effects of a social matrix"

His writing style's approachable and reader-friendly (e.g. "if capsule bios irk you, skip six paragraphs down", p.148). He deals with several poetry styles - a chapter about Wilbur follows one on Ashbery. The book ends with some fragments (e.g. "To do a poem justice, explain what makes it unique; to get a poem noticed, explain what makes it typical", p.357). There's no theory, though notions of self and identity construction are mentioned several times. I think more could have been said about this from a psychological perspective because he thinks this influences or explains some of the poetry (e.g. "for Tranter ... we make, from the prop closet and the wardrobe of language and habit, ourselves, whether or not we know that is what we are doing" (p.197)). As usual, Minimalism seems hard to explain, and I sometimes had trouble seeing why less ambiguous/challenging alternative methods weren't used by the poets. For example, on p.331 he quotes from "To a Poor Old Woman" to show "how Williams's line breaks work"

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.

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.

To me, italics would have made the points better (if indeed these were the points). Breaking the line after "good" is rather like putting a dash there - it emphasises "to her", thus making the statement more subjective. He reads it as if "good" is emphasised (because it's at the end of the line, I suppose). About the following

the fields flooded with milk
the herbs shining on the mountain

the strong               salt soil               my dear

you stoop to pinch off eatings

he says it "begins by depicting a place to relax" but to me the first line's an agro-industrial disaster, and the second's strange. Why "strong". Why the white space? What are "eatings"?

But at least Burt has expressed himself clearly; it's possible to agree/disagree rather than merely feel baffled. I'd recommend the book to anyone who feels that the current crop of young poets are unreadable.

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