Popular Music

Popular Music

by Stephen Burt

Winner of the 1999 Colorado Prize for Poetry  See more details below


Winner of the 1999 Colorado Prize for Poetry

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The innocent grandeur of Randall Jarrell, the longing ekphrastic gazes of James Merrill and the tough romanticism of Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma are fused, in this debut, with the brooding poses and sexualized self-doubt of 1980s indie-pop--and the result is a sort of brilliant "take back the night" raid on what is often called academic poetry. A doctoral student at Yale who has written for the TLS and PW, among other journals, Burt has produced a near-bildungsroman, selected by Jorie Graham for the press. Beginning with a loathing of the poet's developing body--which "migrates to dirt, corners, bread/ shoulders and arid homework: appanage, aptitude"--the poems continue through education and travel, ending on the "delight, green need/ and weird vivacious luck" of love. Precociously detached enough to write lines like "Tall sonorous pot vendors pace; lobster-brisk men on stoops hawk their used libraries in stacks" when revisiting novelist Elizabeth Smart's haunts, the poet also applies himself to "the reedy tone/ ...the charm-bracelet chimes from [the] secondhand pink/ 12 string" of Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame; to "Astronomy" and Ireland's vanished Clonmacnoise monastic community; and to "St. Cecilia at a Reed Organ, by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco." His good-natured control of the high-low ironies in doing so drive the book. At times, Burt's descriptive power threatens to overwhelm the poems, and those that center on travel or works of art sometimes fail to get past their occasions. But his taut mastery of free verse, his willingness to spatter ideas as he makes his way through the world, and his consistent emotional probing make this book wonderfully unlike anything operating in similar registers. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Center for Literary Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.20(d)

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Chapter One


Inglorious, militant,
it overtook our bright
new porch. My father said its stalks

rose "faster than the eye":
like the body I hated then, and hate.
We had to yank
the screen door off its frame and throw it away.

That year, in my favorite novel,
the astronauts had trouble
with a single-minded planet whose nerves were great trees;

it had watched Earth
grow up, and had stored up thoughts
the length of continents,
which, naturally, it took forever to say.

    Day-Lilies at Night

Sent to bed without supper
and half-undressed, they fear

success. They are Celia
nearing the end of As You Like It;

each one a planetarium
about to close for good, a buckling dome
in which stars rise, bleached stains.

(I'll put myself in poor and mean attire
and with a kind of umber smirch my face—)

Tongue-tied at dawn, we stay up till
the constellations part; my petals curl

into a coat I shiver in, brown lace—
The sun rides at us through thin
trees, so strong

I fall for him, for Oliver. I have
been made into something unable to live on my own.

    For Elizabeth Smart

The crow isCorvidae, the king of her guests. It's the first
warm Sunday in Washington Square. Squirrels canter and
camp on a pollam of dirt, shag pebbles, a brick in the sun,
bold grass—

no sooner can we come out to them than they will scatter.
The lean ones follow their future mates up things, selecting
like experts the twigs that can take their weight. The other
squirrels are starting to save: one props herself on two feet,
belly out, extolling her glossy nut, sad prize. Acorns can germinate

Tall sonorous pot vendors pace; lobster-brisk men on stoops
hawk their used libraries in stacks—all do a swift business. A
ruddy scarf rasps in a seesaw hinge. Two men hold hands for
the first time; wind gathers white daytime litter like moths,
like eager bats, from the lady next to me, who sketches the
boils on trees with an ashen disinterest.

I know what she's doing. She wants to be somebody else.


for Andrew Osborn

Like the unsubtle edges of some lives,
these spreading, unfamiliar trees touch one
another stiff, unready for the season,
their still unfolding leaves as slim as knives,

and reticent. Last winter stole our names
for unfinished things; when ice stunted every yard,
we might have called them still-to-be-delivered,
fractional promises. We might have blamed

our distance on the weather. Now, too warm
for wool, too cold to force old snow away,
the air considers whether it will storm;
each new tree's bark is pockmarked, like a boy's

unlucky skin he will outgrow. Our youth
betrays us, never comfortable; some depth
of awkwardness repels us in these roots,
these risen shallows April's mud refutes.

"The 7:57 Express to Grand Central Will Now Arrive
at 7:55"

    Where the Hudson comes into its own at Ardsley
Pier, the Hudson

    Line's sleek tracks correct themselves on stilts:
its mugwump, sulky trees

    wave dollar bills, intransigent, profuse,
like parents' additive demands:

    what do you think
do you think I'm made of

we think to drown in obligations

    we once suckled and enjoyed—
replacing the sweet, complacent boredom of children

    with our resentful, garlicky fatigue.
Air scours the nearer banks;

    their miniature ripples
learn to quarrel, turn and multiply.

    And windless shrubs,
too low to be shaken, wear their humility

the lucky,

    to whom nothing has happened,
and already flaunting their buds, their cut teeth.

    Boy Learning Hebrew

Over blessings I beat on the napkins with knives; next Shabbat
I would be aperture, would be explain, would be the reasons
for, correcting everything.

I slept on the couch, under cords and concave slats: nothing
so concentrates the mind. Our three cats had to be kept from
101st St.; indoor, they peered and skittered past our legs in
quick ripples, meant to rise.

                           I think they dreamed of meat. Mine
were of oars: Ys pulled into Vs, sped flows, the wall map's
sharpened Manhattan sliding south of itself into standing
brakes of weeds under New Jersey. Aposiopesis, apostate. I
would wake over cartage noises, the sky an embarrassed pink
through iterated blinds, cigar-smells, barred clouds.

The superstitious child migrates to dirt, corners, bread shoulders,
and arid homework: appanage, aptitude. Saying alien,
orient, mortal, squinting at consonants, I was their reader,
their blasphemer. I had already learned

to ask for another body, and get only words.


The roses' bodies flaunt their thousand
Eyes, empty, supported, as if
In diapers. Their rife
Fertility grows up against them, bound,
And chafing at the knee-high garden walls.

Their ants are as eager to touch, to show affections
As the collected family dinner companions'
Animated, indoor
Ring: the mothers stand
To watch each other pour
Clear soup from sweating pitchers into bowls.

The ocean called, once, Middle-of-the-Earth
Now bangs and bangs against the middle distance—
Somebody hanging up a phone.
And the ghost of Plath,
Whom I had hated for so long,

Holds her cool scissors
Up to my ear, insisting
That I should whisper back her anger, taunt
Them with a shame-
Ful song, beginning
Now: this isn't what I'll ever want.


Having been measurement
and medium, and never the thing meant;

having been hotheaded in youth
but easily coaxed, or tickled, till short of breath;

able to weep undetectably for years
and be thought solid; having been stained his and hers

through an acid process; having been chilled and sealed
with maplewood varnish and Naptha

or silvered and then photographed for before and after,
nothing active is in it to be revealed.

I am made of sand. My friends
confide in me, knowing I have no hands.

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What People are saying about this

Forrest Gander
In poems that are personal in their distrust of constructions of gendered self, dazzling in their speed of association, and masterful in their orchestration of an insistently ebullient music, Stephen Burt pulls the cork from a new century. Burt's spicy, heuristic mix of high-literary and sub-pop culture requires a new reader. My dear, it is you.
— Forrest Gander, author of Science & Steepleflower
Jorie Graham
In this beautiful debut volume, Stephen Burt, in poetic actions that range with unusual ease from prose to sonnets and free verse, explores the sensation of selfhood as it presents itself, in all its fractured parts, for re-formation. His speaker moves from the longing to 'be someone else'-to rid himself of every version of his own shadow-through a multitude of sensations covered by the notion of 'blasphemy' of soul, where words themselves are a source of anxiety, to slow accommodation (especially powerfully rendered as a capacity for dream and the knowledge dream-logic allows) with the Kafkaesque free-form guilt of personhood. Passionate and deeply accomplished, this is most truly elegant and honest work.
— Jorie Graham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974--1994

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Meet the Author

Stephen Burt grew up in Washington, D.C., and is a graduate student at Yale University. He reviews poetry regularly for the Boston Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. His poems have appeared in Colorado Review, the PN Review, AGNI, and other journals. He lives in New York City.

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