Stephen Burt and the Role of the Poet-Critic

Stephen Burt grew up in Washington, D.C., graduated from Harvard College in 1994, and did graduate work at Oxford and then at Yale. He teaches at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. His first book of literary criticism, Randall Jarrell and His Age, won the Robert Penn Warren-Cleanth Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Criticism in 2002. His book of poems, Popular Music, won the Colorado Prize for 1999. His writing on poets and poetry has appeared in many journals in Britain and America, among them Boston Review, the London Review of Books, Thumbscrew, the TLS, and the Yale Review; his next projects include a book about twentieth century poetry and adolescence; a new book of poems, tentatively called Parallel Play; and an edition of Randall Jarrell’s lectures on W. H. Auden.


1) When did you begin writing criticism? Did you see it as an inevitable task—an obligation—of your poetry? 

If criticism means “essays on works of art, of any kind,” probably around age fifteen, but they were essays about (mostly terrible) rock records. If criticism means, as I suspect it means in this question, “essays about poetry, intended for nonspecialists to read,” I started writing about poetry during my first year of college, in student magazines, and did so throughout my time there. 

I certainly don’t think that writing poetry confers an obligation to write criticism, or to do anything else we’re not obligated to do as human beings anyway. 

2) Why have you maintained such a concentrated interest in Randall Jarrell? Why write poetry and criticism?  

Of all the writers I admire, Jarrell wrote the greatest number of single pieces I wish I had written: that’s true both for his critical essays (“The Obscurity of the Poet,” “Some Lines from Whitman,” the prose about Moore and Williams and Bishop) and for his poems (“The Player Piano,” “Moving,” “Next Day,” “A Ghost”). Some of the reasons for that are so private they don’t belong in a forum like this one, and some of them have to do with the way his poems and his prose reveal a tremendous desire both to listen to the rest of the world—the interpersonal world, the world outside the self—and to get oneself heard in that world. That desire, by the way, makes one link between his poems and his criticism; I talk about other such links in my forthcoming book. 

Auden addressed the difference between poetry and criticism quite starkly in The Dyer’s Hand

It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it. All the poems I have written were written for love; naturally, when I have written one, I try to market it, but the prospect of a market played no role in its writing. 

On the other hand, I have never written a line of criticism except in response to a demand by others for a lecture, an introduction, a review, etc.; though I hope that some love went into their writing, I wrote them because I needed the money. 

Sometimes I write (or rewrite) poems because I want to do so, and sometimes I write (or rewrite) poems because I feel I must. I write criticism for both of those reasons, but also because people I respect, or admire, or want to please, ask me to write it, and, yes, sometimes because I get paid to write it:  I hope none of those latter reasons influence my opinions or my judgments, but they are, for me as for almost all critics, reasons why I write about one poet instead of another one whom I admire equally, or reasons why one essay ends up 4,000 words long and another just 1,500. Jarrell, too, enjoyed writing criticism, but after a while he got upset about the relative rewards of writing criticism (as against writing poetry); that’s one of the subtexts, if not the subjects, of his essay  “The Age of Criticism.” 

3) Eliot believed the poet-critic criticized poetry in order to create it, so that his views were often partial and dogmatic. Allen Tate said that the poet-critic “is not concerned with consistency and system, but merely with as much self-knowledge as he needs to write his own verse.” By comparison, Randall Jarrell’s criticism does not seem so intimately linked to his poetry. The critic in him was an ideal reader, who rarely expounded ideas or clarified the intentions of the poet. The two roles seemed to exist in him separately. 

Do you see your own criticism as that of a poet’s, partial and dogmatic, or an ideal reader’s? Is there a vital connection between your own poetry and prose? 

The roles of poet and critic should remain separable in principle, even if they’re never completely separable in practice. (If they were never separable in principle, then no editor in her right mind would ever ask one poet to review another’s new poetry.) Poet-critics like Tate are denying, or selling short, their own capacity to see the object as it truly is (or at least as it might seem to a distant but curious reader). I agree that Jarrell tried to be an ideal reader; I’d add, though, that sometimes he did expound ideas or clarify intentions, particularly in the essays on Auden and on Lowell. As for my own poetry and my own criticism, they’re certainly the product of the same tastes and background—they may even be parochial in the same way, though of course I hope not.  I’ve certainly written about poets who have influenced my own practice substantially: sometimes the influence on my own verse comes before the critical essay (Merrill, Donne, Muldoon), sometimes it comes afterwards (C. D. Wright, perhaps Kleinzahler or Bunting). I’ve also written long, admiring essays about poets who (as far I know) have not influenced my own verse at all.  I’ve tried to learn from Rae Armantrout but the results, in my own case, have been poems I’ve thrown away, and I’ve never even tried to write like Les Murray. I’m sure some deeper connection exists between my own poems and my criticism (and I’m sure that the poems somehow influence the criticism, rather than just the other way round)—but I’m exactly the wrong person to articulate how that deeper connection might function.  As MacNeice said about his Irish identity: if it exists in my writing, it will make itself known without conscious effort on my part. 

The chance that my own poems will have real, lasting value often seems to me slight indeed: I hope that the more time-sensitive work involved in showing readers how to enjoy, say, James Merrill or Rae Armantrout is work my prose can accomplish even if my own poetry turns out not to hold those readers’ (or anyone else’s) interest. There are talented poetry critics from the recent past (Blackmur, for example) who fit that description for their own age: it’s not the fate they wished most, but it’s not oblivion.  The English critic and scholar F. W. Bateson said that a poetry critic didn’t have to be any good at writing poetry, but ought to have tried writing it at some point: with Bateson’s claim I agree.

4) What do you think the role of the poet-critic should be? What critics or poet-critics do you consider exemplary in this regard? 

Some of the poetry critics I admire have been poets; others have not. One list might include the Keats of the letters, William Hazlitt, Marianne Moore, William Empson, Randall Jarrell, Donald Davie, and Christopher Ricks. I’ve learned (I hope) much from the writings of Helen Vendler, and later from John Hollander, both of whom I’ve been quite lucky to know as teachers.  Some people whose thoughts and theories about poetry I admire– but who have done less in the way of practical criticism– are Arnold, Pater, Auden, Geoffrey Hartman, Charles Altieri, Allen Grossman, and Lyn Hejinian. Then there are critics of other art forms who have changed the way I think about poetry— a short list of those people might include Virginia Woolf, Scott McCloud, Glenn McDonald, Douglas Wolk and Greil Marcus. 

You’ll notice these people have had widely varying roles. None of them, as a rule, writes as the mouthpiece of one particular doctrine, style or way of writing: all of them try, or tried, to explain what makes works of art, and groups of work, different from one another, and to explain what’s valuable in each. 

Criticism—meaning thought about poems and poetry, about art and why we need or read it—can take place at least as subtly and valuably within poems as it can in expository prose. Think of Stevens, for example: “From this the poem springs: that we live in a place/ That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves/ And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” Or Marianne Moore: “We do not like some things, and the hero/ doesn’t: deviating headstones/ and uncertainty… suffering and not/ saying so…” (“The Hero”) Or, to pick a very recent example, D. A. Powell: “strike the tambourine// because you are a comicstrip version of your earthly self.” All these lines from poems I admire also count as poetry criticism. 

5) What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art? Is there some explanation why the number of mediocre poets has vastly increased? And why has public discourse concerning poetry become so limited and dishonest? 

C. D. Wright has very recently written (she’s partly quoting Williams, by the way): “None of us knows where poetry is going. Everyone who is undertaking to write it now is making their large or small machine out of ordered and scavenged parts.” I’d subscribe to that. 

More poets publish books now than before because the English-speaking world, and the United States in particular, has grown more prosperous: more folks have the leisure time (and educational encouragement) to write poems, and books of poems. The amount of good poetry (or at least poetry I’d enjoy and might recommend) has increased far less dramatically than the amount of poetry, total, because the possibilities of the language at any one moment don’t expand as rapidly as the population of readers (though those possibilities do change over time). I do think the vast expansion of writing programs, publishing ventures, etc. means there’s more total verse worth rereading from, say, 1992, than from, say, 1842, though probably not all that much more, which means that the ratio of good to bad has decreased. That decrease in turn means that some readers of good will with historical interests think poetry is somehow getting worse, which I don’t believe at all. There are aspects of poetry’s “situation” I’d like to see changed, of course, and in some cases I hope I’m helping to change them, but I don’t think the art form is in a bad way. 

Hasn’t public discourse, as such, about anything, always had an element of the “limited and dishonest”? Jarrell wrote in 1947: “When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot [in ‘Little Gidding’] calls ‘fools’ approval’: most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other. Our age is no different.” Nor is ours.  

6) What do you think of the present situation of poetry criticism? Of its current health as an art? 

First of all, I’m not sure it is an art, in the sense that poetry, novel-writing, easel painting, comics and jazz are arts. Poetry criticism, like all criticism, is heteronomous—it answers to something outside itself, namely poetry—in a way that poems, string quartets, and jazz performances don’t. It might be better to call it a craft. 

What of that craft? I think it’s in decent shape. I think the Web has helped: it’s far easier than it used to be for a beginning critic to practice the craft of criticism, writing for an imagined audience of fairly sophisticated nonspecialists, and to get feedback from readers whom he doesn’t know personally. A hypothetical 17-year-old in Thief River Falls—as long as she had decent bandwidth (a serious qualification)—could learn a lot about poetry, past and present, how to read it and how to write about it, just from reading (say) the University of Toronto’s Representative Poetry website, Cary Nelson’s Modern American Poets site, the Contemporary Poetry Review itself, and Jacket magazine. I’m not sure this makes up for the reduced (compared to 30 or 50 years ago) coverage of poetry in mainstream journalistic venues, but those venues are starting to try harder, too (the Washington Post Book World in particular, whatever you think of their individual selections): and once our Thief River Falls kid decides that she wants to write about what she reads, she’s more likely to find a place to start. 

7) Do you see any necessary connection between the health of poetry and the health of its criticism? Are great ages of poetry necessarily great ages of poetry criticism? 

“Necessary,” no; “necessarily,” no. The health of both practices depends (in unequal measure) on the presence of appropriately and exceptionally gifted writers who have something new to say and do; on the material conditions available; and on that evasive, unavoidable construct called the spirit of the age. In Anglophone literary history so far, the most enduringly influential criticism seems to take place just after the most powerful and influential poetry gets written: major poets arrive and shake everything up, and then the critics turn up shortly afterwards with generalizations, and prescriptions, and diagnoses. Thus Dryden follows Milton, Johnson follows the Scriblerians and the pre-Romantics (as we now call them), Hazlitt follows Wordsworth (though Keats follows Hazlitt) and Arnold follows them all. The same rough pattern, perhaps, repeats itself in this century, especially if you count later Eliot and later Auden as reactions against (and covert explanations of) their earlier and more influential selves. 

The overwhelming majority of critics I admire are trying to answer certain familiar evaluative questions: Is this any good? Do I like it? Why? Is it anything really new? Why?  Many if not most of those critics, though, also try to answer other questions, which have more to do with The Age:  What just happened? Will it matter? Why? Do the new writers I like have something in common? If so, what? If this account makes critics look more like hard-news journalists than is usual, that’s because it emphasizes their news-bringing function; good critics always serve other functions, too, but that function depends more than the others do on the spirit of the age. 

8) If one considers, as a body of writing, the poetry criticism written in the first half of the 20th century to that written in the second half, then clearly there has been a marked deterioration. What caused it?  

Has there? Clearly the best criticism from 1914-1950 beats a representative or random sample of criticism from 1951-2000, but just as clearly that’s an unfair test. And unless we are exceptionally diligent literary historians, that’s the kind of test we get when we compare our sense of some other literary period with our own. John Gross, in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, concluded that “out of respect for Eliot critics still find it hard to admit just how disappointing The Criterion actually was.” Partisan Review was a wonderful magazine in the 1940s and 50s, but so is Raritan today, and for almost all the same reasons. It’s much, much harder to compare the present in general with the past as such—easier and more fruitful to compare individual figures, ideas, and works of art with one another.

9) Is there some way to account for the fact that the vast majority of American poet-critics have been, and continue to be, politically conservative? From the New Critics to the New Formalists, many of the important poet-critics have been denounced for their political allegiances as much as their aesthetic ideas.     

Sometime in the 1940s Jarrell tried to write an essay on a similar question: he called it “The Reactionary Intellectual” and unfortunately never finished it. He was trying to explain what had gone right, and what had gone wrong, with a discrete group of High Modernist writers, from Eliot to Wyndham Lewis to Allen Tate; he wasn’t trying to explain how “the vast majority” of poet-critics come by any political position at all—I’m not sure anyone could. 

There are good psychological and taste-based—if not intellectual—connections between some critics’ right-wing political views and the same critics’ aesthetic insights and interests. I can think of three such connections broad enough to interest you (and the General Reader): 

(1) Good critics need (as good poets probably don’t) a conscious, sustained respect for the past, and a willingness to identify with the people who lived there: in Eliot, or Pound, or C. S. Lewis, or Hugh Kenner, that respect proves inseparable from a revulsion against some aspects of the present. 

(2) Some of the poet-critics of the Twenties grew up in the shadow of Eliot, and imitated his political positions (in some cases becoming more Anglo-Catholic than the Pope). The last time I looked in any sustained way at the Fugitive and Agrarian movement of the Twenties, I noticed how the most reliable readers in it—I’m thinking of Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom—abandoned the right-wing politics by the mid-1930s. Ransom’s journey is especially interesting: having adopted back-to-the-land, anti-metropolitan views, he devoted himself to research in economics for a couple of years in the early 1930s, finally deciding that his initial Agrarian program simply wouldn’t work, and that his time would be better spent on literary criticism and theory—as I think it was. 

(3) Right now most American poets’ political views are either liberal or far-left; when they write poems about politics those views come out in the poems. If part of the job description for poetry critics involves pointing out nonsense, inconsistencies, or silliness in contemporary poetry, and most of the nonsense, inconsistency or silliness in contemporary political poetry favors the left, then poetry critics who call nonsense nonsense will sound right-wing even if they’re not (or, even, shift their own political views to the right in reaction against that nonsense). Donald Davie’s shifting positions about politics and poetry end up too complicated to summarize here, but his work provides an example of that effect—he liked to invoke Tory traditions and conservative populism, but what he really hated was cant. 

That said, it doesn’t seem to me true that “the vast majority of American poet-critics have been…politically conservative.” Many honorable critics insist that they have, as critics, no politics at all, and that’s a position that deserves respect (one William Logan took when the Contemporary Poetry Review interviewed him); those critics’ enemies call their work right-wing, but that’s a different set of arguments. As for poet-critics who label themselves right-wing, and who think those views relevant to their criticism, I can think of Eliot, Allen Tate, Peter Viereck, and some (not all) of the self-described New Formalists—not a clear majority by any means. 

10) What do you think of the yoking of politics to poetry, which is such a fixture of recent American poetry? 

Politics make a distinct and important field of human endeavor; poetry makes another. It’s unfortunate when people confuse poetry (or any other art form) with arguments about who should be in office or what the government ought to do. Those arguments and their participants, however, can be and have been valid subjects for poetry. In the same way, carpentry and medicine are valid subjects for poetry, but you wouldn’t write a sonnet in order to plane a table or treat your bronchitis. 

Our tendency to judge poets and poems by what side of a controversy they take, or by their efficacy in moving an audience towards one or another side, makes the most depressing feature of the discussion of poetry now, especially inside the academy; that baleful tide may, though, have started receding—and it was far worse in the 1930s. Several recent, diligent books and essays explain, at painstaking length and without sarcasm, that elaborate verse in traditional forms isn’t necessarily right-wing (see, for example, James Longenbach on Richard Wilbur, or M. K. Blasing’s writing on James Merrill). It’s too bad these arguments need to be spelled out, but they do, and I’m glad they have been. 

11) Much has been made in recent years of the proliferation of creative writing programs in the United States. Do you think this academicization has had a beneficial or baleful effect on poetry? 

Surely both. Beneficial: several thousand (mostly young) people each year get paid or subsidized (mostly not much, but better than nothing) to read and write poetry: that’s how this country subsidizes that particular art. Some of those several thousand people will end up writing poems I’ll be glad I read, and some of those poems would not have existed without the time and encouragement graduate programs in poetry-writing provide. Baleful (1): those several thousand graduate students are reading, mostly, contemporary poetry, and thinking, mostly, about work by one another; so the MFA culture can encourage trendiness, insularity, and a destructive inattention to all but the most recent past. Baleful (2): the people who work in those programs are necessarily judged by how much they publish. Ideally they’d be judged by how good their best few works were, but that’s not normally feasible in academia, especially when the review committee for a poet might consist of one medieval historian, one Fielding scholar, and one expert on the history of television. So poets who have college jobs and want to keep them are encouraged to publish too much, and too soon.  

12) What do you think of the vast subsidized system of grants, prizes, and awards that poets currently compete for?  

This question reminds me of the famous exchange between Margaret Fuller and Emerson: she declared (I’m told), “I accept the universe,” to which Emerson said “She’d better.” If poets are really altering their work on a regular basis to compete for grants, yuck. I’m not sure how often that happens, though. As for systems of favoritism, mutual back-scratching, and the like, has there ever been a society without those faults? I’m in favor of arts subsidies, in principle, and I don’t think any system of arts subsidies can ever be administered on a perfectly fair (much less an “objective” basis): given a choice between a world where terrible poets win some of the grants, and a world without grants for poets to win, I’d rather (perhaps in self-interest?) live in the first. 

13) It seems that the institutional patronage networks have, in some sense, co-opted poetry—or, at least, poetry criticism. A system designed to sustain and recognize artists has, in many ways, been perverted into its opposite. For example, with so many first book awards, aren’t all of them consequently diminished? Hasn’t the whole system, from the Pulitzer to the smallest press award, become ridiculous?         

Hasn’t it always been a bit ridiculous? This question leads me back to Jarrell’s, and Eliot’s, comment about “fools’ approval.” Look not at the magazines known for picking winners, but at early twentieth century magazines aimed at a larger reading public—at the Saturday Review, or a Thirties Harper’s, rather than Partisan—and you’ll see praise for mediocre to terrible poets whose names you may not even recognize. Poetry (Chicago) in its great years depended for much of its income on reprint fees for Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”  One difference between the 1990s and, say, the 1920s is, as you note, the wider array of small presses (though note how many literary monuments had their first printings in somebody’s basement, from Lyrical Ballads to Spring and All to Briggflatts). Another difference is that the prestige, high-visibility poetry books in the 1950s and 60s came mostly from trade houses in New York where they had been selected by trade-house editors. A high-visibility first book these days has, more likely than not, won somebody’s contest: a famous poet picked it out of a pile of finalists chosen by screeners. Is that a better system than the older, trade-press-dominated way? I don’t know. Both have their built-in mechanisms for insider trading and unfairness, and their built-in checks against those mechanisms’ use. 

14) Are there any books of poetry published in the last few years that you would particularly recommend to readers? 

The most important books of poetry from the last five years or so, to me, would have to be Rae Armantrout’s selected, Veil; James Merrill’s Collected Poems; Paul Muldoon’s Poems 1968-1998; and C. D. Wright’s selected, Steal Away. The recent Kunitz and Niedecker collecteds represent narrower but still significant achievements. The best narrative poem of recent years is Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, by a lot. I’ve especially admired recent single volumes by Anne Carson, Hix, Kleinzahler, Kasischke, Thylias Moss…. 

15) Which other contemporary poets do you read with pleasure? 

An impromptu, incomplete list might include Rich, Ashbery, Wilbur, Gluck, Heaney, Bidart, Brock-Broido, large portions (not all) of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Tranter, and—if I may name two deceased poets with no U.S. reputation at all—the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who died in 1972, and now A. K. Ramanujan, whose work I’m glad to see covered elsewhere in the Contemporary Poetry Review.

 16) Which contemporary critics?

I’ve already mentioned a few (Vendler, Hollander, Ricks, Longenbach). Of other critics now towards the middle of their careers, I’d include David Bromwich and Langdon Hammer (both of whom I’ve known as teachers, too), along with Mary Kinzie, Bob Perelman, and, in Britain, Peter McDonald. A wonderful, readable book of poetry criticism about the seventeenth-century—not academic in any bad sense at all—is Gerald Hammond’s Fleeting Things. Peter Scupham is an English poet who ought to be known in America but isn’t; his essays in PN Review are superb and convincing. A list of writers from my own generation would depend too much on chance and personal acquaintance, though there are several whose work I always read. 

17) Can poets regain the common readers they once had? Will poetry ever exert itself again in American culture as it did a century ago? Does criticism have a role to play in this?

In order: not quite; certainly not; I’m not sure. Plenty of people read some poetry; they read it at weddings, for example. Millions of young “common readers” are reading Jewel, or were two years ago. Or they’re reading each other’s poetry, in webrings and such non-“professional” forums. Why don’t those poets (or most of them) read Yeats or Donne, or at least O’Hara or Bishop? American culture once gave young readers almost unconscious access to the basic formal tools with which people like me read and discuss complicated, or elusive, or older, poetry. Families once read poems aloud; newspapers ran poems (bad poems, mostly) all the time. Middle-class young people now acquire such interpretive skills unconsciously with regard to rock or rap music, and with regard to realist prose fiction. Poetry-reading skills, however, now have to be learned in school, and elementary, middle- and high-school teachers don’t often give those skills lots of time and attention. (Or else they do it badly, making poetry look like an empty scholastic exercise.) Serious poets may gain a wider audience, but it won’t be through decisions those poets make about what they write; it will be through the efforts of teachers, principals, radio programmers, newspaper editors, and suchlike arbiters (a few of whom may, coincidentally, be good or bad poets themselves).

“A century ago” it was 1903: can you name an American poem from that year? I’d like an America where more people can read and appreciate serious poetry (just as sculptors and violinists presumably want an America where more people care for Brancusi or Paganini). Yet a poem’s value for an individual reader, as an aesthetic object or a record of a “man speaking to men,” has no necessary correlation with its influence on American culture in any broader sense.

I want to conclude by thanking you, and the Contemporary Poetry Review, for the chance to dilate about such matters as these: I’m afraid I even enjoyed it—though if I have anything distinctive at all to contribute to these debates, I hope it shows up in what I say about individual poets and their poems.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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