Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry


Essays and critical writings on contemporary poetry by Stephen Burt, "the finest critic of his generation" (Lucie Brock-Broido)

Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense provokes readers into the elliptical worlds of Rae Armantrout, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, and other contemporary poets whose complexities make them challenging, original, and, finally, readable. Burt's intelligence and enthusiasm introduce both tentative and longtime poetry readers to the rewards of reading new ...

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Essays and critical writings on contemporary poetry by Stephen Burt, "the finest critic of his generation" (Lucie Brock-Broido)

Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense provokes readers into the elliptical worlds of Rae Armantrout, Paul Muldoon, C. D. Wright, and other contemporary poets whose complexities make them challenging, original, and, finally, readable. Burt's intelligence and enthusiasm introduce both tentative and longtime poetry readers to the rewards of reading new poetry. As Burt writes in the title essay: "The poets I know don't want to be famous people half so much as they want their best poems read; I want to help you find and read them. I write here for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it; for people who enjoy Seamus Heaney or Elizabeth Bishop and want to know what next; for people who enjoy John Ashbery or Anne Carson but aren't sure why; and, especially, for people who read the half-column poems in glossy magazines and ask, 'Is that all there is?'"

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Stephen Burt:

“Burt is one of the leading poet-critics of his own emerging generation, turning out an astonishing amount of terrific reviewbased criticism in places like the TLS and New York Times.” —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly

This collection of 30 essays, many of which began as book reviews, confirms Stephen Burt's reputation as the leading poetry critic of his generation. Informative, matter-of-fact and abounding with an excited spirit more common to film and pop music reviews than to literary criticism, these essays will appeal to the unpracticed reader of contemporary poetry as well as the seasoned reader. The author of two full-length critical studies of poetry and two poetry collections, Burt comes to the poets he considers-including Rea Armantrout, Juan Felipe Herrera, Paul Muldoon and James Merrill-as both a scholar and a practitioner of the art, but he eschews the specialist's jargon as well as the indulgent lyricality that makes some poets' criticism more dazzling than illuminating. He prefers a more methodical, practical approach, carefully mapping a poet's characteristic formal habits, thematic concerns and apparent affinities and influences, asking nuts-and-bolts questions like "Who was [Frank] O'Hara, and how did he learn to write like that?"Burt has an encyclopedist's will to explicate and taxonomize-his branding of the "Elliptical" school of poetry in 1998 (including poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Mark Levine) garnered enormous attention here and abroad. He never quite manages to figure out exactly how O'Hara came to be O'Hara-how could he?-but he always succeeds in providing the reader with a learned, insightful and energizing blueprint for his or her own reading pleasure and surmise. (Apr.)

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Library Journal
Burt (English, Harvard Univ.) has published more than 150 essays and reviews of poetry as well as two books about poetry (e.g., The Forms of Youth) and two books of his own poetry (e.g., Parallel Play). Here, he acknowledges that there are fewer readers of poetry now than in the past and does his best to reverse that trend. With liberal quotations, Burt explains what he likes and why. Whether he is writing about famous poets such as Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams or relative unknowns like James K. Baxter and Mary Leader, it is clear that he has a keen sense of each writer in terms of both substance and style. All of the essays guide the reader to a greater appreciation of the poet under consideration. Burt gains credibility by identifying what doesn't work, and he is successful in helping us learn to tell what does. VERDICT In the author's own words, this book is "for people who want to read more new poetry but somehow never get around to it."—Anthony Pucci, Notre Dame H.S., Elmira, NY
The Barnes & Noble Review

At a time when bad news for poetry is almost always coming over the transom, Stephen Burt is a boon. Poetry, the studies say, is doomed. This invariably leads to rounds of panicky finger pointing: people blame the culture, inaccessible poets, all-too-accessible poets, pedantic critics, poor teachers, and the culture again. It's too bad we all don't just quiet down and actually read some poetry, and perhaps alongside it a fresh, scholarly, likeable, inclusive book of criticism, like the one Burt has produced. In his introduction, Burt claims he's setting out to write a book for people who like "Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney and wonder what's next." Burt then introduces a fine bouquet of poets you may have heard of and ones that probably even poetry connoisseurs haven't.

Burt, who teaches at Harvard, has two books of poetry under his belt and is widely credited with being one of the foremost poet critics of his (30 and 40-something) generation, has a way of spinning the-poet's-career-in-8000-words brand of criticism into a series of delightful narrative confections. He picks poets as varied as Christian-hippie-New Zealand James Baxter; fellow New Zealander sheep-farmer Les Murray; and more mainstream names like Richard Wilbur or James Merrill. An enthusiast whose prime goal is to illuminate, Burt got famous among a certain crowd for writing about something called "The Elliptical School" –- a group of poets Burt himself had thrown together in a semi-controversial act of criticism. Some found the move pretentious, others read it as tongue in cheek. The essays that explain that school according to Burt are here in this book and are fine and good. I side with thetongue-in-cheekers.

Read whole cloth, Burt is far less interested in setting up aesthetic movements than he is by his own desire to explain how he understands his own readerly excitement. Fortunately, his excitement doesn't have pre-set aesthetic agendas. Instead, Burt makes lots of different types of poetry seem like joyful games played with language, whose results can take multiple forms. What's more, he reminds us how much fun it is to engage the play of being deep and broad and inclusive readers of poetry (and other things) ourselves.

--Tess Taylor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555975210
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 627,405
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

STEPHEN BURT is the author of two critical books on poetry as well as two poetry collections, including Parallel Play. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Believer, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He teaches at Harvard University.

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Table of Contents

Preface: In Favor of One's Time ix

I Close Calls with Nonsense: How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry 5

II Where Every Eye's a Guard Rae Armantrout 23

Lightsource, Aperture, Face: C. D. Wright and Photography 41

Dream Sermons Donald Revell 61

The One I Love Needs Sunblock Laura Kasischke 71

How I Got From Dictionary to Here Liz Waldner 79

Undocumentary Juan Felipe Herrera 91

Cool among Shadows and Cellophane August Kleinzahler 95

Believe Your Naysayers Allan Peterson Terrance Hayes 99

Envisioning Pain Mary Leader H. L. Hix 107

Here Is the Door Marked Heaven D. A. Powell 117

My Name Is Henri: Contemporary Poets Discover John Berryman 129

III I Do Not Expect You to Like It James K. Baxter 147

From the Planet Dungog Les Murray 163

Already Knotted In Denise Riley 175

Write Another Party John Tranter 183

Kinesthetic Aesthetics Thom Gunn 199

Early Paul Muldoon 215

Late Paul Muldoon 225

IV Everything Must Go John Ashbery 237

Not Unlike You Richard Wilbur 247

Counting the Days Robert Creeley 255

Becoming Literature James Merrill 267

Marvelous Devising A. R. Ammons 283

Out of Glacial Time Stanley Kunitz 295

Hi, Louise! Frank O'Hara 303

Raking Leaves in New Madrid Lorine Niedecker 317

They Grow Everywhere William Carlos Williams 329

V The Elliptical Poets 345

Without Evidence: Remarks on Reading Contemporary Poetry and on Reading about It 357

Acknowledgments 369

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