Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: What Stephen Burt Has Been, Will Be, or Perhaps Should Not Be Reading

By Craig Morgan Teicher

Stephen Burt (see bio below) recently told us about his summer reading:

I’m one of those people who read ten to fifteen books, not “at once,” which would require the eyes of Argus, but over the same days and weeks, and I have no compunction about setting a book aside and never returning to it (or else returning it straightaway to the library) if the first fifty pages (fiction), the first ten poems (poetry), or the first chapter (literary criticism) fail to get in gear. I’m told that people committed, primarily, to the novel don’t and can’t read this way. I’m not sure how they do read.

POETRY: Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents is the best thing I’ve seen this week and this month, though I’m not sure how it stacks up against the rest of the year: it’s also so raw and insistent, so embarrassing at times, so slice-of-life with an unprofessional knife, that I can imagine myself hating it next week. I can also imagine myself recommending it, not to all my friends, but to all my friends who have young children, since almost every poem and every page and every phrase has something to do with the exasperations and the emotional overloads of motherhood. (Not parenthood, but motherhood: which means there are parts of it I just don’t understand, and other parts that start and end with women’s reproductive biology.) “My son Moses looks up at me all pink-/ cheeked and sweet, sweet, sweet-faced and I know:// by evening I can feel his fever across the room. Nighttime he is nuclear, radiant,/ a febrile jewel admitting a strange honeyed smell. Saturday. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday./ There is no more writing. We are smothered together. No more school.” And more—and no more school—for four more pages: it’s the kind of writing you have to stop editing yourself in certain cerebral ways in order to do at all, and when you’ve done with it you may have no idea whether it’s “good” in any conventional or unconventional sense— the kind of paradox endemic to much talk about recent poetry, the kind of paradox critics (like me, for better or worse) are here to point out.

That book’s so new I might write about it elsewhere, which probably means I should shut up about it here. Some books that come to mind from early this year, books I liked a great deal but haven’t written on yet and might not get the chance: Rae Armantrout’s latest (a good place to start with this major poet, btw); Patty Seyburn; Alison Benis White.

FICTION. Summer’s supposed to be when I get to read more of it. Not this year, though I was delighted by Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection. Is it a detective story? A dream? Kafka-lite? An insolid billowing, neither water nor air? It’s one of those short novels where the setting takes over, and the action consists in discovering details, not about the placeholder nebbish reader-surrogate of a main character, but about the world—half dreamt, in an uncommonly literal sense—into which we accompany that poor guy.

I’ve also, finally, read Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Beautiful sentences, and no more grim than it need be, but plotted within, or beyond, an inch of its life: was she attacking herself for having written science fiction, or her readers, for having enjoyed it?

NONFICTION. For me that term means, every so often, books about urban planning or women’s basketball; most of the time, though, it means literary criticism, of a more or less academic sort. I’ve now read and liked most of an academic and (but) fascinating monograph on the role of voice and sound technology in modern poetry, Lesley Wheeler’s Voicing American Poetry. The first chapter asks why the modern poet most affected by radio and sound recording was not avant-gardiste (despite Futurist and other enthusiasm for new tech) but, instead, Edna St. Vincent Millay; the last chapter notices that the “poetry reading,” poet in front of mic with glass of water, is just as much a social event and a performance and a speech genre of sorts as the slam or the jazz-and-beret event, and then asks how the “poetry reading came to be. It’s not aesthetic criticism, exactly—it doesn’t, primarily, try to see inside each poem; rather, it sees around and about them, and it’s worth a look.

The lit-crit book I most look forward to reading, but haven’t yet opened (it just came in the mail) is Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Reading Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Given Spacks’s stature within the academy, I had better not be the only one.

LITMAGS. The longer I work as a practicing, more-or-less professional critic (a term I can’t avoid, but can’t use without wincing: “practice” as against theory? “practice” in the sense of “piano practice”), and the longer I work within the academy, the more my to-do and to-read lists seem dominated by books I did not, all by myself, decide to put there: work I’m asked to review and agree to review, all the books a given publisher or contest or agency sends, and so on.

Overall, I don’t mind: in fact, these sorts of obligations generate serendipity (books and authors I would never have encountered otherwise) as often as they generate frustration. However, the more I am asked to evaluate and evaluate and evaluate the books I read, the more I cherish the chance to see poems, fiction, essays in places that do not demand quite the same sort of public evaluation: between the pages of literary magazines.

This week I’m enjoying issue #24 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, the staplebound journal for nonrealist fiction (fantasy, sf, so-called “slipstream”) run in part by Jedediah Berry (see above); within it, I’m in love with the leadoff short story, by one Alexander Lamb.

Literally in another weight class, there’s the latest Ninth Letter, the semiannual journal out of the Univ of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign: this one goes nuts for design, with pullout inserts, cut-out-and-fold-it inserts, bookmarks that come with the mag, a poster, and other bells and whistles that make it as much a somewhat showoffy design experiment as a place to encounter words used well. The preface says that this issue reacts to the impending demise of print—it’s like the big kaboom at the end of the fireworks show, where everything gets used, because in a few minutes we’ll have to go home. I’ll remember the crazy design, but I’ll remember, more happily and for longer periods, the best pieces of writing: Nicholas Delbanco’s essay on late style in music and painting, J. Nicholas Geist’s superb essay (or is it a short story in deep cover?) about his life in video games, Andre Perry’s intentionally unsexy story about sex, expectations and race, and poems by Angie Estes: “Rome itself/ is a get seen, an east/ seeing, singe tease,/ and Juno a geese saint/ whose flock of geese barking/ in the night saved Rome.”

From Stephen Burt’s biography: “I write books about poetry, essays on other people’s poems, books of my own poems, and shorter pieces about poems, poets, poetry, comics, science-fiction writers, political controversies, obscure pop groups, and the WNBA. My published books are:  Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf, Spring 2009), The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2007), Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf, 2006), Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (editor with Hannah Brooks-Motl, Columbia University Press, 2005), Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002), and Popular Music: Poems (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999). I am an Associate Professor of English at Harvard University. Prior to joining the faculty at Harvard, I spent several years at Macalester College, first as an Assistant Professor, then as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of English. I received my Ph.D. in English from Yale University in 2000, my A.B. from Harvard in 1994.” He maintains a lively blog on poetry, Close Calls with Nonsense.