Friday, March 20, 2020

Teaching Us to Read: Stephanie Burt and the Slow Climb toward Poetic Literacy

review by Anthony Fife

Don’t Read Poetry — The white words on the pale violet cover caught my eye.  I crossed the library, toward the New Release shelf, to take a closer look.

The title sounded familiar or was at least reminiscent of things I read the past few years.  I recalled Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, and erstwhile Ohio poet laureate Dave Lucas’s blog Poetry for People who Hate Poetry.  Provocative titles, all, and part of an obnoxious, yet somehow alluring trend.

Having passed the circulation desk and now close enough to see the quizzical subtitle, I resolved that the hardback volume was maybe worth a read.

Stephanie Burt’s Don’t Read Poetry: A Book about How to Read Poems, tells us that, while poetry is often off-putting and maybe even frightening to potential readers, an individual poem is an accessible snapshot that even those who “just don’t get poetry” can enjoy.  The book is strange, then, in that it is geared for those who simply don’t want to read it—in other words, those who need it most. 

Burt, who declined to be interviewed for this publication, has flooded her book with relatability.  For example, “Feelings,” “Characters,” and “Wisdom” title three of her chapters, labels that could just as easily be replaced with the more familiar poetic terms Lyric, Personae, and Didactic.  Likewise, popular references abound throughout the book, including Hufflepuffs, Black Panther and Alton Brown.  In short, the author has crafted a book that attempts to be accessible to those with little to no knowledge of the art form.

The greatest stride toward poetic accessibility, however, is Burt’s ethos that, A) we’ve allowed wrong-headed teachers to take us away from the study of individual poems; and, B) no two poems can be approached in the same way. 

“I am here to say,” Burt writes, “that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong” (7).  Burt, an academic herself, does not reject the academy and its place in literary discourse, but she does understand how the popular appreciation of the form has suffered at the hands of those who prescribe meaning or mode without letting readers decide for themselves.  Burt writes:

I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing.  Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them.  That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music.  There are other kinds of music and other ways to listen to music out there, and if you look and listen and ask the right people, you can probably find one that works for you.
            So: don’t read poetry.  Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds.  Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems. (7-8)

Therein lies the crux of the entire project; therein lies the way that even a novice can approach not poetry, but any poem.  Method aside, it helps to have a teacher with an infectious love of the subject.

The author’s dominant mood, not just in Don’t Read Poetry, but in many of her works, is enthusiasm.  The most appealing part of Burt’s work, in fact, is without question her willingness to praise that which she truly appreciates.  In his review of Don’t Read Poetry, Sunil Iyengar calls it “an unremitting geyser of praise for the many different ways a poem can engage readers.” 

Burt herself, in the preface to her book Close Calls with Nonsense, fully owns her own gratitude for the poets and works she loves: “[A]ll the poets I praise here have added something to the resources of the language, have made forms in words for experiences and attitudes not given effective shape in English before” (xiv). 

A healthy dose of negative criticism is certainly in her wheelhouse, but Burt would much rather share what she loves and tell why than tear down, however justly, what she doesn’t.  It is, after all, the critic’s code. “[T]he business of critics is not to assign stars, or to pick winners in poet contests,” writes Bert.  “It is to say what interests us, what seems trustworthy, inventive, memorable, new” (Close Calls xiii).  The poet/critic whose primary function is to praise and share, taking Burt as an example, should not be averse to seeking out work anywhere.

In The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, Burt namechecks the Flarfists, the Black Took Collective, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and the Gurlesque poets, among many other groups many of us have never heard of, and broaches the concept of “the implicit gender of a poet’s voice, embracing identity as, if not the driving force in a poem or poet, at least something that we must understand if we hope to attain a deep understanding of the individual poem or poet’s oeuvre.  Identity is often a dominant force in many of Burt’s works.  This is an important feature in and of itself, but Burt takes accessibility a step further by showing how identity and experience, while different, are often two sides to the same coin.

Veteran, Latin@, Carny, Cellist, Chinese American, Sous-Chef: all the individual pieces that make a poet who they are, thereby shaping their poem, are also what make us a unique, potentially successful reader, and maybe even lover, of poetry.  But, as we recognize and maybe even come to terms with our multitude of identities, we must understand, too, that each (worthwhile) poem is equally unique and is therefore deserving of an individualized, intimate reading.

Works Cited

Burt, Stephen.  Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry.  Graywolf Press, 2009.

---.  The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them. The Belknap Press of Harvard U P, 2016.

Burt, Stephanie.  Don’t Read Poetry: A Book about How to Read Poems.  Basic Books, 2019.
Iyengar, Sunil.  Don’t Read Poetry Is a Literary Manual for the Instagram Era.”  The Washington Post, The Washington Post, 30 May 2019,  Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.