Stephen Burt’s World of Poetry

Resolved in this New Year: read, and listen closely, to more poetry.

This week, we’re starting with one of our favorite local poets, Stephen (or Steph) Burt.

Burt, beyond his formal role as professor of English at Harvard University, is a naturally omnivorous reader, listener, and watcher with eclectic taste from high culture to low.

His most recent book, The Poem is You: 60 contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them serves as a critical guide to this wild and wooly world of contemporary verse. Starting in the overlooked world of early 80s poetry, Burt’s sharp eyes and ears are a guide through this vast and varied landscape into our present moment. As he explained in our conversation, the book serves “an introduction not to one community and not even to one thing called contemporary American poetry that has one set of rules and one style and one sort of monument, but rather an introduction to several different overlapping kinds of practice and kinds of pleasure that come from poetry.”

This multiplicity of forms, in poems as well as in movies, TV, music, and even people, may be at the heart of Burt’s worldview. His main concern is that you shouldn’t learn to like every line in the modern canon, but that you should find and cherish the words that strike you:

“There are so many different ways of writing American poetry and so many different lines of descent — from Shakespeare, from Whitman, from Dickinson, from Longfellow and, if you like, from adjacent artforms from the Last Poets, from Willa Cather, if you like – that there’s just a lot out there, a lot that you might like if you have the right entrée to it.”

So for novice readers and seasoned poets and critics alike, let this conversation serve as its own entrée to something new: whether it comes from Joseph Massey or Angie Estes or Agha Shahid Ali. As our tour guide or DJ, Steph Burt samples a variety of poems that we hope will strike a chord with you.

So listen, please and enjoy.

Related Content