The Poem is You by Stephen Burt

The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them BY Stephen Burt. Belknap Press. . $28.
The cover of The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them

Imagine a road trip across the United States with a voracious friend who eats, sleeps, and breathes music, listening to an endless supply of mixtapes and local radio stations devoted to everything from honky-tonk to underground hip hop, from post-punk to electronica, from teen pop to alt-folk. In the middle of the night, driving, say, through the cornfields of Iowa, or over winding mountain passes in the Rockies, after each song, your friend delivers impassioned impromptu mini-essays locating the lyrics and rhythms in the context of the last thirty-five years of American music. This is what it’s like to read Stephen Burt’s anthology The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them; his main subject here might be poetry, but he approaches a stunning variety of verse with the obsessiveness and knowledge of a scholar and a fan.

Burt is an ideal guide for this trip through contemporary American poetry. A respected poet and critic, Burt tunes into selections from many different stations on the poetry dial. He is equally at home riffing on how kari edwards’s “aggressive experiments in visual text” reflect and refract her public self-identification as transgender and dyselexic, or how W. S. Merwin’s more recent work embodies the sadness and silences of life in the Anthropocene.

Since this is an anthology of only sixty poems, surely some readers will criticize Burt’s choices, which, as he wrings his hands over in the introduction, reflect his own tastes and predilections, but the choice to include such a wide-ranging selection of relatively few poems allows for a combination of breadth and depth that is rarely, if ever, found in a book like this. Burt isn’t arguing that these poems are definitively the most important ones of the past four decades, rather, he takes a more focused approach: He explains each entry’s place in the history of recent poetry and examines how it arose out of contemporary American life.

Burt’s close readings are sharp and illuminating, both for the poems he includes that readers might have read and loved previously, and for those they might have missed, actively avoided, or found impenetrable. For example, I have loved Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World since the mid-’90s, but only after reading Burt did I notice that in “Dedications” Rich arranges “her list of imagined readers in approximate order of decreasing privilege.” For a poem like Stanley Kunitz’s “Halley’s Comet,” which Burt admits “does not require analysis,” he still points out the subtle shifts in syntax and verb tense that fuse the present with the past and show us how we are all still, in some ways, five years old, “staring up at the sky, looking for something to see before the world ends.”

The Poem is You required me to freely admit my own blind spots as a reader of contemporary poetry. For example, I’ve never been able to crack what Burt calls the “terse, harsh style” of Rae Armantrout. But Burt’s writing on her poem “Our Nature” helped me move past this bias. He articulates how Armantrout’s work both grew out of, and moved past, the Bay Area avant-garde of the 1970s, and how this poem in particular hints at the ambivalence of ambition and of loyalty to a group. I’m not proud that the long and longer lines of Bernadette Mayer’s “On Sleep” make me want to take a nap, but Burt reminds me of her humble, dedicated approach to “change the language,” and how this poem is one long stay against worry and fear—one long attempt to accept strangeness and openness. It’s hard not to respect the poem on those terms.

That is, perhaps, the great gift that Burt shares with us in this book. Though his own writing is unmistakably his own—characterized by accessibility and a wild intelligence—he takes each poem on its own terms and reveals its universe by using the poet’s own words. The death of poetry has been proclaimed time and time again. But the sixty universes that Burt uncovers in these poems show us how alive poetry is, and how it needs to be read and appreciated for all its weirdness and cacophonous music. It matters how, exactly, poems “let us imagine someone else’s interior life,” and how they “make language strange.” It’s doubtful that the reader will love every poem or every one of the short essays, but that is not the point. Whether you dip in and out of this book over months or read it all in a matter of days, it will help you pay better attention to the nuances, difficulties, identities, and music in American poetry.

Though it’s not the central project of The Poem is You, Burt also helps readers understand the landscape of American poetry over the last four decades. He touches on many of the various groups, movements, and styles between the two poles of the “anti-prose-sense avant-garde” and the “lyrical or voice-based tradition.” In his essay on Michael Palmer’s “Letters to Zanzotto: Letter 3,” Burt quotes Jacques Derrida’s saying “Il n’y a pas dehors-texte,” which he translates as “‘there is no outside-text,’ no context-free, absolute, and reliable way to interpret: ‘what we say’ has to emerge from ‘what we’ve said.’” Using these sixty poems as touchstones, Burt shows us a great deal of what American poetry has said over the last few decades.

Like your friend’s impassioned discourses on music as you speed down a highway, what comes through here is Stephen Burt’s sheer, voracious love of contemporary poetry, and it’s infectious. This book is a series of doors that all lead back to the poems themselves, and it will likely be used in classrooms across America. At least I hope so. The Poem is You will send readers to (or back to) Claudia Rankine’s recent work, which resists and complicates the notion of what poetry can be while examining the violence embedded in our attitudes and assumptions about race. It will point readers to Brenda Shaughnessy’s brilliantly heartbreaking look at what it means to be a mother who needs to imagine another world where her son, injured at childbirth, can be seen for the whole and beautiful boy he is. It will introduce readers to forgotten or less well-known poets like Tato Laviera, Gabby Bess, or Brandon Som. It will direct readers down the many byways, cobblestone alleys, and superhighways of American poetry, and our ears will be better tuned after such a trip.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is the author of Death of a Ventriloquist (University of North Texas Press, 2012), and his poems have appeared recently in FIELD, jubilat, and The Literary Review.