Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Stephen Burt, _Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry_

THERE ARE PUNCHIER and more provocative reviewers of contemporary poetry out there, but I'm now 56, and I'have learned the hard way that the punchy and provocative typically has a very early sell-by date. So Stephen Burt is my favorite reviewer of contemporary poetry. He's gracious, he's smart, he's open-minded, and when he says something is worth reading, it almost invariably is. He's not above trying to launch a bandwagon (see "The Elliptical Poets"), but he doesn't puff poets for being oin the right side of some movement, nor trash them for being on the wrong side. I'm glad he's out there.

This handy volume from Graytwolf collects about thirty of the reviews and articles Burt has published since the mid-1990s, some on general topics in poetry, most reviews of particular poets. Quite a few I had read before, but they are worth re-reading, if only to confirm that they are really as good as I thought they were the first time around. Burt may not be infallible -- not quite sure what he sees August Kleinzahler, for instance (speaking of poetry reviewers, sub-category punchy and provocative) -- but he's to contemporary poetry what the late John Hammond was to contemporary music: a guy who knows the real thing when he encounters it.

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