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Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry Paperback – March 31, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This collection of 30 essays, many of which began as book reviews, confirms Stephen Burt's reputation as the leading poetry critic of his generation. Informative, matter-of-fact and abounding with an excited spirit more common to film and pop music reviews than to literary criticism, these essays will appeal to the unpracticed reader of contemporary poetry as well as the seasoned reader. The author of two full-length critical studies of poetry and two poetry collections, Burt comes to the poets he considers—including Rea Armantrout, Juan Felipe Herrera, Paul Muldoon and James Merrill—as both a scholar and a practitioner of the art, but he eschews the specialist's jargon as well as the indulgent lyricality that makes some poets' criticism more dazzling than illuminating. He prefers a more methodical, practical approach, carefully mapping a poet's characteristic formal habits, thematic concerns and apparent affinities and influences, asking nuts-and-bolts questions like Who was [Frank] O'Hara, and how did he learn to write like that?Burt has an encyclopedist's will to explicate and taxonomize—his branding of the Elliptical school of poetry in 1998 (including poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Mark Levine) garnered enormous attention here and abroad. He never quite manages to figure out exactly how O'Hara came to be O'Hara—how could he?—but he always succeeds in providing the reader with a learned, insightful and energizing blueprint for his or her own reading pleasure and surmise. (Apr.)
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Burt is one of the leading poet-critics of his own emerging generation, turning out an astonishing amount of terrific reviewbased criticism in places like the TLS and New York Times. (Publishers Weekly)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; Original edition (March 31, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555975216
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555975210
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #487,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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 writing has appeared in the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Believer, the Boston Review, and as part of the Songs from Scratch experiment at Minnesota Public Radio.

I am a 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 46 people found the following review helpful By RJ on July 30, 2010
Format: Paperback
Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry aims to do more than merely collect his 21st century book reviews. Instead, Burt hopes his book will do two things: teach frustrated readers of new poetry what to look for in the "not-so-good poetry of the present" (xii) and create a brand name for a hodge-podge of turn-of-the-new-century poets who share certain "tactics, strategies, and attitudes" (345). Like J. D. Scott, who in 1954 herded up Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis, and Elizabeth Jennings into a gang of anti-romantics called "The Movement," and like M. L. Rosenthal, who in 1959 christened Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton "Confessional Poets," so Stephen Burt now wishes to bequeath to us the "Elliptical Poets."

Sadly, Burt is not reviewing books in as auspicious a time as either Scott or Rosenthal. While Burt includes some quite useful critical essays on and career-assessing remembrances of older, established poets such as Les Murray, Thom Gunn, Paul Muldoon, Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, and Frank O'Hara, the argument that frames Burt's book is his ethnography of the poets he has dubbed Elliptical. Unlike the Confessional poets, or the poets of The Movement, or even the Moderns, who sought to break away from the restrictions and excesses of what had come before, these Elliptical poets, always-already freed from the tyrannical Pharaoh who forced the enslaved to make autobiographical-lyrical bricks to code, now wander willy-nilly through the postmodern, cafeteria-style desert like bad mannered mendicants, taking a little bit from this faddish literary theory, a little bit from that mental-disorder diagnosis of the month in order to make amorphous lumps of useless matter.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By JRed on August 19, 2010
Format: Paperback
Stephen Burt's book showcases the talent of one of the most wide-ranging, knowledgeable, and sympathetic poetry critics of his generation. While the poetries of America and Britain are scarcely on speaking terms these days, Burt is one of the few critics who is at ease with writing from both sides of the Atlantic, a breadth of sympathy, which is also perceptible in the links which he forges between high and low culture(s). While 'Close Calls with Nonsense' makes the case, amongst other things, for writing which is usually perceived as difficult and inaccessible (the so-called 'Elliptical Poets'), Burt pursues his argument in a manner which is always as rational as it is accessible. Amongst his many virtues - intelligence, authority, commitment, humour, balance - perhaps his greatest quality is an affectionate enthusiasm. Nobody loves poetry more, and nobody is a more authentic heir to the writings of Randall Jarrell.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful By rachelt on August 23, 2010
Format: Paperback
Anyone who reads contemporary poetry will learn something useful from this book. If you are a new reader of poetry, Stephen Burt will help you figure out techniques for approaching difficult writers. If you've read some of the major figures and want to find more, this book will give you leads on new poets to read. If you're already familiar with many of the poets here, this book will help you explain what it is that makes you happy or angry or excited about their work. And if you're a poet, you'll probably put it down wanting to write -- whether to imitate or make up something new is up to you.
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