In Defence of Minor Poets

Stephen Burt on imaginative sympathy

Photo credit:  Garnett's,  courtesy of Creative Commons 

Photo credit: Garnett's, courtesy of Creative Commons 

I LIKE TOO many poets, and too many poems. That’s what a delightfully negative—and carefully argued—critic concluded in 2013, after reading a lot of my essays: my “comprehensive enthusiasm,” wrote Adam Plunkett in the old, Foer-Wieseltier-edited New Republic, “begins to look like an enthusiasm for comprehensiveness,” and “makes...praise seem cheap.” A blogger for the American Conservative praised Plunkett’s piece under the alarming headline “If You Have Never Hated a Book of Poems You Don’t Love Poetry,” which cheered me up, since there are books I hate (don’t get me started on Frederick Seidel). 

There are also books, and poems, I used to hate that I now regard with equanimity, or even admiration, especially if I’ve had time to consider their influence. Without Laura Riding, there’d be no Empson, and no early Auden; without Amiri Baraka—whose most famous poem urges readers to stab queer Jews like me—several of my favorite living writers wouldn’t have written their strongest poems.

But those examples aren’t what Plunkett had in mind; instead he thought—as I sometimes think—that I’m not asking enough from the poets I like, that I have become complicit with a culture where all must have prizes, that a smarter critic would reserve her attention for major, or at least fewer, present-day poets. Some writers are major—John Milton and Virginia Woolf reward a level of continual scrutiny that’s just not worth applying to most of the poets I like. We hear, with approval, of writers who memorized Paradise Lost (the scholar Douglas Bush used to recite it, quietly, on trains); few contemporary poems merit that kind of attention.

But Paradise Lost isn’t just great; it’s also long—and people who talk about greatness have a sorry history (not over yet) of conflating greatness with goodness, ambition with merit, macho demands on the reader with lasting rewards. Lyric poetry can be read that way (cf. Harold Bloom) but it need not be. Like their old models in songs (and I’ll get back to them) lyric and its related modern genres (the aphoristic poem, the brief memoiristic poem, the poem as portable puzzle) solicit variety. A terrific sonnet seeks the company of other sonnets, by the same author and by other authors—it does not want to be the only sonnet in the world. In liking, and in defending my liking for, poems that strike others as minor, or as unambitious, or as special cases, or as niche work, or as very unlike one another—and in liking a lot of them, rather than picking one champion—I think I’m honoring lyric poems’ request for appropriate company, and honoring that small-scale, traditionally feminized (or feminine), apparently inconsequential or ornamental species of writing, lyric itself. I am also trying to understand, to give (as we say now) props to many styles of being, many ways to live in the world.

A terrific sonnet seeks the company of other sonnets, by the same author and by other authors—it does not want to be the only sonnet in the world.

That doesn’t mean I like everything. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon quipped that 90% of science fiction was crud, but only because 90% of everything was crud. He was defending science fiction, but Sturgeon’s Law applies to poetry too: 90%, or perhaps 97%, seems to me dull, or unaccomplished, or of interest to only a few (myself not among them).

But that leaves 3-10%: and given how many hundreds of millions of human beings think in English, and how many tens of thousands have recently published books of poetry, not just in Toronto, Montreal, New York, and London, but in Fairfax, Va. and Georgetown, Guyana, and Duluth, Minn., that’s a lot of poetry I might like. My best self aspires to read it all. 

That same best self aspires to make our children delicious lunches they will actually eat, answer all email promptly, and get the cats to the vet on time—it doesn’t get everything it wants, but that’s what it wants: to like more poetry. I know there are more authors out there who have written poems I’d like, if not as much as I like Milton or Elizabeth Bishop, then maybe as much as I like Richard Lovelace, or Lord Rochester, or Cesar Vallejo, or Lisa Robertson. Given the vast expansion of literacy and publishing over the past few decades, even if you believe that the number of major, great, worth-endless-scrutiny poets obeys some sort of law of constancy over time—like the first law of thermodynamics or the rule about Slayers in Buffy (“There can be only one”)—you have to believe the number of interesting, worthwhile, rewarding poets has shot up. Why not try to read more of them? (If you’re a Buffy fan, you may also remember the fate of that rule.)

In particular, why not try to read poets far from you in time or space, in experience or disposition? If you’re a critic who comes from privilege, as I do—I’m white, able-bodied, with an expensive education, working at an expensive university—that’s not just an aesthetic but an ethical goal. And it works both ways: if I want people with backgrounds and lives unlike mine—people who must look up proper nouns I take for granted; people whose experience of education, or parenthood, or school, or sports, or illness, or sex, or weather, is unlike mine—to give the poems that I admire a chance, then I have to go out of my way to consider the poems that require me to look things up. I ought to give my imaginative sympathies (as well as at least a few minutes with Google) to topics and tones that are not intuitive, that do not come naturally, to me. A lot of those far-from-me poets are going to seem minor, rather than central, to me, if I like them—just as my poets (Bishop, for example) might seem delightful, but marginal, to others. And if I decide I don’t like them, well, I’ve tried.

Please note that I am not speaking only about what Americans call affirmative action, or about demographic diversity. This sense that poets peripheral to me, poets who might strike me at first as minor, ought to matter to me anyway, and that I ought to seek them out, speaks to demographic categories (ethnicity, sexuality, location, nation) but also to temperament and disposition: ornamented vs. plain; comic vs. tragic; mystical vs. skeptical; jock vs. geek. Every poem, if it’s any good, and if it has any relation to the traditions we now call “lyric,” attempts to present some kind of person, some way of being a person in a world: shouldn’t we try to like, to imagine how it would feel to like, poems about people who do not much resemble us? and doesn’t that effort involve at least a provisional interest in what we call (what seems to us) minor?

I’ve made that kind of effort—I think—for a while (I’ve been reviewing books for twenty-odd years) but it’s become quite clear to me only recently how much effort I could and should make. I’ve just turned in the final manuscript for The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them: barring disaster, the book will appear this fall. (I got the title from John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.”) A non-U.S. sequel may follow, but this one, for pedagogical, practical, and intellectual reasons, confines itself to one nation, and to poems published since 1980. 

Shouldn’t we try to like, to imagine how it would feel to like, poems about people who do not much resemble us?

Even within that nation, though, and within that nonarbitrary time frame, it became clear to me as I worked through early lists and drafts (I started with fifty, not sixty) how much those lists would change, how much more I’d have to consider, if I were not to submit a book that might as well be called The Poem Is You, But Only If You Are White or Black (Rather than Chinese-American, For Example), Don’t Care Very Much About Performance or Oral Tradition, Aren’t Religious, and Come From the Northeast. I also worried about straight-up conflicts of interest—only three poets of my own approximate age whom I have ever met in person got into the book—and about variety among forms and kinds (aubades, come-ons, puzzles, laments, descriptions, etc.). I did not haul in sixty poems all of which I like equally (as if such things could be quantified), nor did I stack up 60 poems with equal claims (as far as I can tell) to future greatness, or centrality. But I did end up with sixty that work well together: I like them all enough to write an essay about each one, which is to say I like each one a lot. And what vexed me, when I finally hit “send” on that much-revised manuscript, was not what I put in, but what I had to—no, chose to—leave out.

This effort to find and like poets who seem minor isn’t just an attempt at fairness to others (so they will be fair to me), nor just a way to acknowledge that much-abused word, diversity. It’s also a way to acknowledge the minor poet—the non-Milton—in me, or in you. Louis MacNeice wrote (the first line continues the title) an “Elegy for Minor Poets”: 

Who often found their way to pleasant meadows
Or maybe once to a peak, who saw the Promised Land...
Who were too happy or sad, too soon, or too late,
I would praise these in company with the Great;

For if not in the same way, they fingered the same language
According to their lights. For them as for us
Chance was a coryphaeus who could be either
An angel of an ignis fatuus.
Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;
Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.

If you take a Bloomian view, a “Tradition and the Individual Talent”  view, a view in which only great poets matter, then you must say that minor poets (by definition) died insolvent: they bet their lives on the language, and lost. And yet, MacNeice writes, “these debtors preclude our scorn—/ Did we not underwrite them when we were born?” To participate in poetic culture at all, to write or even to read poetry, is to participate in a culture that has to have minor poets, near-misses, cult figures, books that (we may decide) do not quite get there, if we are to have poetry at all.  If we do not “underwrite”—if we do not give credence to minor poets, if we do not test-drive or check out their poems—we end up with no poetry at all, or with a safe, closed Academy whose “order of monuments” (as Eliot put it) recedes into a less and less imitable, less and less vivid, point far away.

MacNeice thought about this problem, if it is a problem, an awful lot, both because he had a First in Classics, and because he was often compared to Auden. I like to keep his answers in mind.

And yet “Elegy for Minor Poets” does not give the answers that matter most. In arguing on ethical and affective grounds, on grounds of fairness to ourselves and others, it ends up advising us (in horse racing terms) to bet on “place” and “show,” to give out trophies liberally. And it still cannot help seeing Parnassus as one mountain to climb, poetry as one kind of race: if you are “great,” or become “great,” you win. “Greatness” could mean becoming major, like Milton, or making poems that seem perfect, like Bishop or Herbert, or as advancing the art, being ahead of one’s time. Any way, it’s a false standard, at least when applied to the present—even Eliot thought so: he wrote in 1935 that all we can do is decide, not what’s great, but what’s “genuine.”

The best reason to seek more poetry, to seek poems that seem—to you—quirky or minor, to examine and recommend and cherish writers who do just one thing very well, or a few things ably or imperfectly, or something only slightly new, has little to do with ethics and social injustice, less to do with charity to ourselves, and nothing at all to do with one mountain, one horserace. In fact, it is because poetry is no horserace, no single competition, no attempt at a single kind of mastery, that it can matter so much and so well to so many people (many of whom agree that Dickinson, say, is great). MacNeice’s own anthology piece “Sunday Morning” gives better advice: it begins with piano practice (“Down the road someone is practicing scales”: will she become great?) and ends by admiring ordinary days, with their potentially ample sensoria, their “drunkenness of things being various.” MacNeice (who called himself an Aristotelian) loved daily life for its potential and actual variety, for the way that it held out so much more than one kind of pleasure, so much more than one kind of goal.

Poetry does that, too. If we read poems for the same moral truth, all the time, or the same kind of experience, sooner or later we may stop reading poems, or else we will devote ourselves to just one poet or one poem—we become Wallace Stevens’s scholars of one candle, or else his lunatics of one idea. But if we read poems for many ways of being, many styles and many kinds of experience that cannot all be had by the same person in the same time and place, we may still decide that 97% of poetry is crap, but we will have—since it’s 2013—a great territory, far more than we can explore fully and fairly, in the other 3%.

Poetry is no horserace, no single competition, no attempt at a single kind of mastery.

Reading poetry for pleasure and wisdom—and, therefore, being a poetry critic—isn’t like figuring out who won a race: it’s a lot more like listening to music. And here, too, what I have been saying makes more sense with short poems, and with “lyric,” than with other kinds. Though they can and do impart wisdom—they can make us morally better, or more generous, or more trustworthy—most good poems are much less like sacred texts, much less like practical advice from friends, than they are like music.

If you listen primarily to composed or “classical,” music, you probably think of certain pieces as great, and you probably have some sense as to why those pieces—Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time, or Beethoven’s late quartets, or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion—are often performed, often analyzed. You have probably had the experience of listening to some such pieces over and over, in differing versions, weighing conductors’ interpretive decisions, and seeing the major work unfold. But you likely listen to other things, too. There are times when you just don’t want a symphony: times when you want to check out a string quartet you’ve never heard before, or a rarely heard piece by a favorite composer, times when you prefer something unfamiliar to something you’re already certain is great.

And if you listen primarily, or exclusively, to music that uses pop forms—from Honor Role to Hamilton—then you probably know where I’m going: only the dullest classic rock fans want the same classics over and over, and only the Grammy Awards committee seeks, as its goal, the one best pop song of the year. I don’t mean just that listening to pop rewards novelty, nor that pop songs are unusually fungible, compared to other art: it doesn’t, necessarily, and they aren’t, necessarily, and I can name ten pop albums that strike me as inexhaustible (starting with Unisex, by Blueboy).

But I don’t want to listen to them all the time. As much as I like my favorite songs, and my favorite string quartets, I want music that surprises me, music that brings me some new timbre or texture, some new hook or some new piece of wordplay, something that I could not have expected based on my prior experience of all the other songs I’ve heard before: it doesn’t have to be entirely new (indeed it can’t be: all songs draw on previous songs), and it doesn’t have to be a potential number one hit (Blueboy never came close) and it doesn’t have to be politically or culturally important (whatever that means) and it can include mistakes—but it has to be at least a little bit new.

If I look only for classics, for masterpieces, for greatness, I’m going to miss most of what’s new. And though kinds and modes of contemporary poetry do not map neatly onto musical genres (not even for rap) I’d say what I said about music, a sentence back, about poetry, too: if I look only for greatness, for what’s likely to “change the conversation” or last a hundred years or demonstrate mastery or advance the whole art, I’m going to miss a lot of what’s pleasing, enlightening, beautiful, now.

Randall Jarrell, writing eighty years ago, warned us against the errors of earlier eras, when “most of the poets were bad, most of the critics were bad, and they loved each other.” He also defended his negative reviews on the grounds that “liking what is bad is only the other side of disliking what is good.” I like more poets than Jarrell liked, and with less certainty, in part because there are so many more poets to like or dislike, and because I live in a different age. But I’m still happy to take him as a model, not least because he also offered critics this kind of advice: “remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery, the telescope through which the children see the stars.” Not all the stars shine equally; not all the stars are visible all the time (there are some you can’t see from the Northern Hemisphere), and not all are equally important to young astronomers’ sense of the sky. But they are there; they are numerous, too. A critic could do a lot worse than find a few more.

STEPHEN BURT is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009) and other books, along with many essays and reviews in The New York Times, Slate, and elsewhere.

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